Story and photos by Lars Åkerson, contributor
On the upper flood plain of Muddy Creek on the coldest day of early spring, a small crew in hats and winter coats is turning soil. Over the past month, equipped with shovels and mattocks, they’ve built nearly a half-acre of hilled beds, already shading green with a multispecies cover crop of rye and clover. A regional Mexican playlist drifts light on the wind and its rhythm slides into the step and sway of the multinational and multilingual team. Pausing from her work, Irma, who prefers to use only her first name for her safety, is animated by the New Community Project Climate Farm’s vision for the 6-acre parcel: an agricultural research center for carbon farming methods suitable to their home in Rockingham County.
Carbon farming is a family of agricultural practices aimed at sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide while also meeting other land-use goals. The annual-perennial plot at the farm, slated to cover a full acre including herb beds and rows of dwarf trees planted according to the sun’s transit and coppiced for compostable material, will be one of a half dozen similar methods Irma’s team hopes to enact in the hamlet of Mount Clinton.
“We might be starting small, but we hope it motivates others to do some of these things, too,” Irma said.
Irma is one of five part-time employees of the Climate Farm, which broke ground in March with a four-year funding commitment from the New Community Project. Building on conversations that began in the second half of last year, several Mount Clinton landowners have also leant land to the effort.
Gloria Diener, who moved to the village with her husband in 1978, has been in awe watching the vision take shape. She says the project has already added to the “sense of community and collaboration” at the rural crossroads.
Looking to the near ridge, which the farm team will contour with fruit and nut trees using multistrata agroforestry methods when the weather cools next fall, Irma thinks of the storms to come. The climate farm team is setting their sights on carbon drawdown because they know the urgency of climate change requires more than carbon neutrality. Scientific consensus indicates excess greenhouse gases – the bellwether carbon dioxide is currently 50% higher than pre-industrial levels – have started the clock on a decisive decade in human history. Though destabilized ecological systems are already producing a cataclysm of super storms and epochal droughts that displace and dispossess millions, with drastic, concerted effort the planet may remain habitable for humans.
Scientists and activists alike say meeting the moment requires rethinking everything, but that restorative agricultural practices like carbon farming can have a significant effect at both personal and collective levels. Irma, who has been coordinating urban farming and sustainable living initiatives with New Community Project for eight years, reflected on their local efforts.
“This project gives you hope that you can make a difference to heal the climate,” she said.
Food production and distribution accounts for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, putting it alongside electricity generation, transportation, and general industry atop the list of contributing sources. Yale lecturer and carbon farming expert Eric Toensmeier says that while the approach, even if universally adopted, won’t avert “catastrophic climate change,” it is a key tool for addressing the crisis.
“Carbon farming offers a pathway out of destruction and a route to hope. Along the way it can help address food security, injustice, environmental degradation, and some of the core problems with the global food system,” according to Toensmeier.
Beneath the hillside food forest, the carbon farmers plan to graze a mixed herd of sheep and goats. According to Project Drawdown, a thinktank that researches and promotes strategies to lower atmospheric greenhouse gas levels, this method of silvopasture grazing captures five to ten times the carbon per acre compared to open pasture. Able to roam and feed on open woodland, the ruminants emit less methane while increasing meat and dairy yields. Their foraging in turn enhances perennial grasses’ carbon capture capacity by encouraging robust root growth. The canopy of trees, themselves more effective carbon sinks than any other known technology or organism, provide the added benefit of seasonal fruit and nut harvests. The intercropping practice has an ancient legacy; the thinktank estimates there are more than 1.2 billion acres of active silvopasture worldwide.
Tom Benevento, Harrisonburg site director for New Community Project and member of the climate farm coordinating team, is excited by the potential he sees in the intersectional project. In addition to his outreach to local landholders, Benevento has invited JMU researchers to partner with the initiative.
“The Shenandoah Valley is a vibrant agricultural area,” he said. “And we have such a rich culture in Harrisonburg with so many recent immigrants and refugees.”
Benevento hopes the climate farm becomes a place where more recent arrivals, many of them displaced by climate-related social instability, can teach long-time residents techniques practiced by the Indigenous and agricultural communities of their birth.
Leaving the group and walking toward the storage shed a neighbor has offered for farm use, Benevento points to an acre of donated bottomland along Muddy Creek.
“This is where we’re going to invite other recent immigrants who want to farm this land to join us,” he said.
The team already has commitments from Guatemalan, Eritrean, and Congolese groups interested in plots of the large-scale community garden on the farm.
Each family or community unit will be able to tend a substantial section as they wish while using organic methods, planting cover crops, and highlighting their agricultural traditions in resonance with carbon farming.
“A lot of these folks have been doing this for a long time,” Benevento said. “We’re so glad to be able to make this land available to them.”
Abraham Tesfamariam, another member of the farm staff, says his parents were small farmers in Eritrea. The country has suffered decades of war, exacerbated by prolonged drought, which together have forced many people to risk crossing the Sahara and Mediterranean in search of refuge.
“When I came to this country, I was really depressed,” he recalled. “But working outdoors, I breathe better. I feel better. It gives me relief.”
When he arrived in the United States, Tesfamariam found solace gardening in a friend’s yard, then in a local community garden. When his family moved into their own house two years ago, he turned the whole yard into gardens despite his kids’ protests. His enthusiasm gained him a reputation in his neighborhood, so in January, Benevento knocked on the Tesfamariams’ door to invite Abraham onto the climate farm planning team. The father of four didn’t have to think twice. He loved the vision, too.
“I said right away, yeah I’m interested. This is urgent.”
He was able to cut his hours as a driver with Harrisonburg Public Transit to take on the new part-time work.
Tesfamariam wishes more people had home gardens. When he sees houses with grassy yards and only a few flower beds, “I feel like it’s a waste,” he said. “Gardening can help you feel happy at the same time that it helps you feed your family.”
Last year, he grew enough produce in his yard to share with friends and family, and even put some up for winter.
The coordinators envision a similar vibe at the climate farm. Thanks to the backing of New Community Project, the team can focus on establishing itself as a research station and demonstration site without the pressure of having to sell to market. Harvests from the site will allow the organization to extend its existing produce program for households with students in the public schools as well as its pop-up produce stands at low-income housing sites in the area. Benevento said supply at the stands typically runs out in minutes, and he anticipates the extra produce will go just as quick. The combination of community needs and the group’s philanthropic aims are motivating this initial tack.
“We don’t want to compete with other farmers in terms of prices,” Benevento said.
Once established, the climate farm hopes to hold seasonal festivals onsite, where visitors and volunteers alike will be able to see carbon farming in practice and share in its bounty. This would be in addition to a regular flow of student groups and interested agriculturists. The team has already lined up summer interns from Eastern Mennonite University and Wells College who will stay in a farmhouse onsite. Three James Madison University students are also conducting their capstone project at the farm.
The JMU group, led by professors Jennifer Coffman and Wayne Teel, is monitoring soil and water quality onsite with a goal of proposing standard indices of carbon sequestration. In addition to reducing atmospheric carbon, higher soil carbon levels facilitate many of soil’s essential ecosystem services including water absorption, air exchange, and nutrient cycling.
The JMU team is also helping the farm design a stream restoration plan that will include a riparian buffer of perennial, fruit-bearing plants to improve the health of Muddy Creek. Many Virginia streams go unprotected, yet their banks can be great carbon sinks, Benevento said. By planting a 35-food buffer with pawpaws, false indigo, grafted persimmons, medicinal plants, and other biomass producers, they hope to “build a showcase” – and cultivate relationships with other landholders to extend protections beyond the boundaries of the farm.
Eric Bendfeldt, a community viability specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, is encouraged by New Community Project’s latest initiative and foresees many opportunities for collaboration.
“Peer-to-peer learning and educational exchanges are really important,” he said. The extension specialist senses genuine interest among local farmers in learning from other farms’ efforts. Given the carbon farming research center’s location in Mount Clinton, “it’s an ideal situation.”
Citing popular educators Paulo Freire and Miles Horton, Bendfeldt likens his work to setting the table for conversation.
“There’s so much we can learn from other cultures. Not only as far as land, soil, and ecological management, but I think also in terms of the deeper social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of a conservation ethic.”
Bundled against the wind and 7,000 miles from the Horn of Africa, Tesfamariam’s mind went to the streamside garden he inherited from his brother when he was young. Intermittent, destructive storms were common and he felt fortunate to have easy access to smooth water. He had also seen how flood surges swept valuable water and soil off deforested streambanks. Before long, he is speaking of similarities in the challenges of parenting.
“So many refugees have lived through some kind of trauma.” Once here in the United States, he went on, picking words with care, “immigrants work hard, long hours for little money to support their families” and send remittances back to family and friends. On top of everything, they face anti-immigrant rhetoric from even religious people in this country. Tesfamariam said he sees how many people are suffering and pass their traumas on to others unaware.
“I know you have to tell some stories to your children, but sometimes people tell them really bad stories. It can really hurt them,” he said.
But Tesfamariam loves his new job and said his family does, too. Just the weekend before, he had brought them out to the farm for a tour and to show them the team’s progress.
“They were so excited, especially my third child,” he said. “She is very involved with what I do in the garden. She likes to learn everything.” He said they were all looking forward to their next visit.
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