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'Carbon Cowboys': Farmers thriving during COVID-19, thanks to regenerative grazing

Carbon Cowboys
May 20, 2020

A new documentary series that examines an innovative farming technique — one that is now positively affecting food supplies during the coronavirus epidemic — has been released by the award-winning environmental nonprofit Carbon Nation in collaboration with Arizona State University.

The documentary series of short films, called “Carbon Cowboys”, was shot over six years in rural communities in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and presents farmers who have avoided bankruptcy by using regenerative grazing to produce more food from less land. 

Will Harris, a rancher from Bluffton, Georgia, says in the film: “Today I’m very glad that I made the changes that I made because the farm is again profitable, cash flow positive.”

Regenerative grazing involves quickly rotating cattle from pasture to pasture, before they can damage the land — similar to how bison herds moved across the Great Plains. The practice, which does not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, builds soils that are richer in carbon, which in turn boosts crop and livestock yields. It also makes the land better equipped to cope with drought and reduces flooding. 

The 10-part (or paddock) series has films ranging from eight to 23 minutes. It was made available for the first time this week on a new “Carbon Cowboys” website and YouTube.

“As people are getting more concerned about their health, they’re thinking more about where they get their food from, especially their meat," said Arizona State University Professor of Practice Peter Byck, the film’s director. "The film shows farmers working with nature, rather than against it. You see them caring for their animals and for their land. You see farmers making more money and creating an alternative to industrial farming.”

Industrial farming has been linked to the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, according to scientists in the UK.*

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the farmers in the film series who sell direct to consumers are reporting increased sales of between three and 10 times over the last year. Some have sold a year's worth of meats in the past month. This distribution method has proven resilient through the coronavirus epidemic, while the centralized industrial beef supply chain has been heavily impacted. 

“We are now sold out months in advance," said Tim Hoven, of Hoven Farms in Alberta, Canada. "This COVID crisis has made people who have been on the fence for a long time make a purchase. They’re saying, ‘I have always wanted to place an order and finally decided to order now.’”

Regenerative grazing has also been shown by scientists to address climate change, according to scientists at Michigan State University,** with the capacity to draw down and store 3.59 tons of soil carbon (13.2 tons of CO2) more per hectare per year than conventional grazing. If the approach was used across all of the world’s grazing lands (3.5 billion hectares), even using a conservative figure of drawing down only 1 ton of soil carbon (3.67 tons of CO2) per hectare per year points to the potential to annually store close to a third of annual global greenhouse gas emissions prior to COVID-19.

*Intensive farming increases risk of epidemics, warn scientists, University of Bath, 5 May 2020.

**Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems, Stanley et al., Agricultural Systems, May 2018.

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