Sarah’s Wand

In the spirit of We Are Science, here’s an edited chat with Dr. Sarah Taber, whom I’ve met over the tweeter. She has things to say about land ownership, farming, and AGW. Enjoy.

[Willard, so W] hello

[Dr Sarah Taber, henceforth S] ayyyyy how’s it going

[W] good enough, you

[S] good good, how do we get started?

[W] *opens file*
in an ordered manner or i just go down the list
let’s try to look conventional
you are an agronom, right?

[S] haha no worries
sort of? I did my bachelor’s degree in agronomy/soil science, and then a doctorate in … like … being a veterinarian for crops (it’s a degree they just invented ~10-20 years ago)

[W] veterinarian for crops, so you’re kingdom agnostic

[S] so all the agronomy I’d already done,
plus plant disease, controlling weeds, insect ecology, etc
and most of that is with an eye to prevention with “pesticides if something gets fucked up and you need to fix it”

[W] you’re in North Carolina, right?

[S] yup, we’re in NC

[W] i was asking about your education because it’s not there
i guess it’s a farm state
*really looks at a map*

such a farm state
we’re #2 in the US for pork, after Iowa
the growing season is very long so we can often get 2 crops per summer instead of 1
like in the Midwest

[W] so you don’t have any real winter

[S] isn’t it?
I feel like this is an overlooked thing about agriculture in the South

[W] agriculture is overlooked in general
i blame hipsters

[S] haha
we have about a month or two of winter in December & January
but it’s more cold rain than snow

[W] that’s six months less than us
that’s only five months less than us
march is maple syrup time
pork, we have pork here too

[S] ah maple syrup, one of the few things we can’t grow

[W] i think we produce 80% of everything
this documentary about bacon is worth noting
let me ask you a question that needs some development
i need to go grab some coffee




that’s my question

[S] hmmmm well
growing food is kind of a hit-or-miss business.
but OWNING the land people grow food on?
consistent, great business.

[W] they’re not the same
the people who do these things
farmers rent lands?
is it supper time?

[S] yup brb
ok back

[W] my turn to be afk, give me ten
just tell me something about the land owners

[S] no problem

So, as far as I can tell, most farmers own at least some of the land they work. Also very common for them to rent a little extra land. (This is often the farmer retirement plan- rent it out to a younger farmer.)

However, a lot of the rented farmland is owned by an absentee landlord of some kind. This could be a major landowner in the county/state, a trust, or even an investment fund.

So you have a continuum of absentee landlords that can go from “our neighbor who’s too old to farm & moved to Florida” all the way to “hedge fund based in New York City.”

We’re pretty good at vilifying Wall Street guys, but I think the “rural big shots who own tons of land” are a hugely overlooked demographic & power base in the United States.

In most rural counties, most of the land is owned by 2-3 big families. There’s no economic activity to speak of besides farming. Therefore, the landowners effectively run the county as their own personal estate.

(At least in the South, this is very much a holdover from the plantation era. Probably the best way to think of it.)

It’s difficult to describe how corrupt & impoverished these places get. The landlords use their influence to minimize taxes, education, public services, & all other social safety net in their domains. They prevent any other economic activity from taking root, so that they don’t have competition.

[W] according to georgists, land owners are not cool kids
i’ve once seen a village founded by lumberjacks
it was their anniversary, so had their names in front of the houses
those who owned the sawmills kept the land and the status over the years

there’s a study about a town in italy, can’t find it
but basically the surnames of the richest families did not change since renaissance

[S] hahaha amazing
that’s landlording for you

Rule of law doesn’t really apply, because you have to keep the landlords happy in order to have a decent life. Business deals, social opportunities for your kids, access to emergency services, not getting hit by frivolous lawsuits, etc all dependent on staying on their good side.

[W] so, in the USA you got corporations who own the land,
and they have a right to decide what to grow, and they are dumb
and then there’s this great resource for everything you think about

there is a book in that, many books, even, if you sell 100 pages

i could also mention the bout with the Duke energy representative




[S] haha
oh man that was dumb
I was kind of offended.
Like, try harder, dude.
At least make a sock puppet account or something.

[W] i listened to one podcast episode last week

you were basically saying that farms are just bad plants
this may be linked to the absentee landlord thing?

[S] Oh cool! maybe?

The key thing is, ok, there are farmers (who in the US almost always own at least some of their own land) and then there are absentee landlords.

Here’s where people get lost. Most farmers who own their own land…. vote, think, & pray the same as the county landlords

1) that’s the only way to get ahead socially- chum around w the landlords
2) landlords are really, REALLY good at networking w the little guys who outnumber them, and making the little guys feel like they’re one of the team. And/or, like the landlords are one of the little guys. It’s this whole fascinating ourouboros of white rural identity politics where class just gets erased.

Most of the farmers who are really effective at spreading the “yayyyy little family farms are good! support them!” message are gigantic estates.

Case in point: one of the original mommy bloggers is Ree Drummond, running a blog called The Pioneer Woman.

[W] not unlike joe plumbers vouching for wall street

[S] exactly

She’s got this whole schtick about how she used to have this big city job, but then she fell in love with a cowboy, and she gave it all up to be a farm wife and oh farm & families & the simple life are just the best

yeah her husband’s the son of like
the 23rd biggest land-owning family in the United States.
Their money all comes from drilling oil on Indian land
and they spend their oil money on cattle ranching so they can feel down-homey.

oh and now that she runs this mommy blogging empire
she’s pulling in a couple million a year of her own
as if they need more
and they collect millions of dollars in government subsidies
every year because of owning all that land.

[W] i like that story

[S] hahaha it’s a good story, right?

[W] i like that one too



i think we will have enough material with the AGW angle
it may even connect everything together
big owners and big AG is big carbon
to solve this big carbon problem, we may need to change big owners and big AG


[W] and to make the farms more efficient

[S] there can be a lot of overlap between people who own a lot of farmland & people who own a lot of fossil fuel investments (see: Ree Drummond’s family)

[W] owners tend to own stuff

[S] because land ownership as a business model involves monetizing both food production & mineral production aspects of the land

[W] so, let’s suppose you have a magic wand

[S] uh oh

[W] i’m already a frog
grassland is there
and that seaweed thing
and and and?

[S] hmmmm
farmland is now owned by employee-owned companies
profits go to the people who work the land, not landlords
BOOM: rural poverty solved
who knew it was so simple

[W] you haven’t solved AGW yet
there are still spells in that wand
the idea of growing animals who feed on grass is that it’s more or less carbon neutral
they also help nurture land that has better carbon sinks

[S] right

[W] and trees aren’t made for all kinds of places

[S] ah so you’re asking *how* to farm
like technically

[W] yes, i want all your secrets
i would settle to an outline of
how to improve our chances to mitigate AGW
using better farming techniques

[S] aha
ok so I think biochar is a big one
any organic waste material- manure, sewage sludge, old clothes, household trash, tires- you can turn it into charcoal & put it on soil



the biochar doesn’t break down, so it sequesters carbon
and the charcoal does really good things for soil quality
makes it hold water better, has a looser texture so it doesn’t put as much wear & tear on farm equipment, etc

[W] interesting

[S] one of the best feedstocks for biochar is either manure or municipal sewage sludge
so this magic wand would have to cover cities too
the machine that makes it is kind of like a boiler or incinerator
and then you just dump out the biochar when it’s done
and spread it on land like it’s fertilizer

[W] ok, so it takes energy

[S] a little bit actually
the biochar hangs onto soil nutrients so they don’t run off as much

[W] can it be profitable

[S] actually biochar makes energy!

[W] oh

[S] I know right?

[W] wait, we do that in montreal

[S] yeah biochar is kind of halfway between composting and incineration
you heat up your feedstock (say, manure)
but you do it in a big, closed tank or chamber & don’t add more air as it heats
so it can’t burn all the way down to ash like it would in an incinerator
once it gets hot enough (but there’s no oxygen so it can’t burn) it starts giving off gases like CO and hydrogen sulfide. These gases can be burned to generate energy & continue the heating process
once all those gases are gone, what’s left is just charcoal
which you bury
this improves the soil

[W] that’s some magic, lady
why aren’t we doing this
let me guess
we have absentee landlords who also control fossil fuel interests who maintain strange ties with farmers who are not running efficient plants

[S] nah
I think it’s just because biochar is a pretty new concept
(kind of arrived on the scene in 2007)
and the folks running biochar boiler companies are nerdy engineers
who make sure it works good, not lobbyists
I’m doing a couple podcast episodes on it in the next season

[W] right, the podcast
and the book, for there’ll be a book?

[S] hahaha oh no
yup biochar should be covered in the book

[W] when?

[S] oh man
let’s say a year
I’m halfway through writing the proposal

[W] ah
so there’s a last thing

[S] mmm seaweed

so basically, seaweed and seagrass meadows are really good at sequestering carbon
Seagrass meadows shed a lot of parts and it gets buried in the sediment underneath them. Seaweed loses a lot of pieces in storms (5-10% of its mass), that gets flushed out to the deep ocean. Eventually sinks & gets buried in deep ocean sediments
We can farm seaweed. Seagrass meadows are more just a wild habitat restoration thing

[W] so,
more forests, more grasslands, more biochars, more sea weed, and better farming
same or better production
and coops, forgot coops
i guess we’d eat less meat?

[S] yeah probably
I’m not necessarily about vegetarianism
(like. people can do it if they want by all means, but I don’t think it’s necessary)
but treating meat more like an ingredient nstead of, it IS the meal
and way more vegetables
which incidentally are way more profitable to farm than grain and most meat & dairy

[W] it is?
i like profit

[S] same

We have an area about an hour east of here that’s the #1 county for growing sweet potatoes. Surrounding areas grow corn & soybeans.

Sweet potatoes have to be picked by hand, so there’s tons of immigration into that county.

You’d think sweet potato farmers would be poorer than corn & soybean farmers bc they have to pay these giant hand picking crews. They’re not. Doing really well

And with the influx of people who came for farm work, there’s a lot more local business. Most of eastern NC is a depressing tattered mess but this one county is in really good shape

(like. it’s still a working farm area, it’s not a glitzy hipster district. but it’s a functional farm area where people aren’t stuck in despair.)

[W] usually people misrepresent the wealth of country people
i got a friend who did his thesis on that
as if city folks did not realize they were the ones needing to be near services because they were poor
although i can understand that being poor and far away is possible, and is the wurst

[S] right

yeah it’s easy to see the difference in cost of rent/land from city to country. it’s harder to see how much it costs you to spend your life driving (and in an $80K pickup truck, if you want to be considered a real human in a rural community)

[W] i think we got something
adding this because i can




[S] tadaaaaaa

About Willard
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18 Responses to Sarah’s Wand

  1. BBD says:

    Now that was interesting. Thank you (both).

  2. “At least since Keeling’s measurements of rising atmospheric CO2 levels, more
    scientists thought about how to stop this trend, and therefore mitigating a possible
    climate change. In 1977, the quantum physicist Freeman J. Dyson made the first
    proposal to increase the amount of carbon, stored in vegetation and soil (Janzen 2004).
    Ever since, this concept has been discussed and cultivated alongside the other two ways
    to slow down the increase in atmospheric CO2, which is firstly, the reduction of CO2
    release from energy use, and secondly, the replacement of fossil fuels with biofuels. In
    Chapter 5.1 some comparative informations about these approaches are given.
    Nowadays, the idea of terrestrial carbon sinks is also proposed in the Kyoto Protocol as
    a strategy to offset greenhouse gas emissions (Lehmann, Gaunt & Rondon 2006).”

    No question that Sarah’s cuter than Freeman.

  3. BBD says:

    Biochar may be a bit like nuclear, Tom. One tool in the box, but not a silver bullet. Emissions reduction – dramatic emissions reduction – is the essential route to avoiding severe climate impacts.

    And imho, the cute remark was uncool in the extreme.

    Happy Christmas.

  4. Happy Christmas to you too, BBD. I completely agree that a portfolio approach to the environmental challenges we face, including anthropogenic contributions to climate change, is not only the wisest course of action, it is the only sane one.

    Freeman is also cute, just in a gnomish, elven way, don’t you think?

  5. Willard says:

    Gnomes ain’t Elves, and only Gnomes offer carbon-sucking-trees profit plans:

    Just on the surface, that idea looks to be just plain nuts. It’s the kind of thing that works well in sci-fi novels, not in reality. But let’s give it a chance for just a minute or two, and take a (semi-)serious look at it.

    We’ll set aside the fact that we don’t currently know how to create a biological process to convert carbon into a form that’s not readily usable by other life forms. We’ll also set aside the difficulties involved in getting numerous species of trees to accept some sort of genetic modification that will get them to use that process. We’ll also ignore the logistical issues involved in getting that modification spread into 25% of the trees living on the planet.

    Instead, let’s just look at how much inert carbon these trees will have to somehow output. In 2007, humans released an estimated 8.47 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. (Note: that’s the mass of the carbon, not the mass of the carbon dioxide.) That figure has been rising, and I’m just looking for round numbers, so I’m going to say that the last 10 years of output works out to around 80 gigatons.

    If we’re looking for a way to store the carbon that’s not going to be readily degraded back into carbon dioxide, the best way is probably going to be to store it in as close a form to pure carbon as possible. Even giving out an enormous amount of the benefit of the doubt, I’m not prepared to say that we’re ever going to be able to make diamonds grow on trees, so that basically leaves graphite – the stuff that we call lead when it’s in a pencil. Graphite has a density that ranges from 2.09 to 2.23 grams per cubic centimeter, but for simplicity I’ll round that up to 2.25.

    80 gigatons = 8.0 * 10^10 metric tones.

    With a density of 2.25, that should work out to about 3.5*10^10 cubic meters.

    If I’m doing the volume conversions correctly – and I’m fairly sure I did, since the first one’s easy – that works out to a 1 meter thick block of graphite that covers an area of 3.55*10^10 square meters, which works out to a bit more than 35,500 square kilometers, or a 10 centimeter thick chunk that covers 355,000 square kilometers.

    In terms that are easier to grasp than numbers alone, that’s a 10 centimeter thick sheet of graphite that’s large enough to cover the entire state of New Mexico, with enough left over to cover Delaware and Maryland, and probably still supply the world with pencil lead for a few decades. And that’s just from the last decade of emissions.

    We really do burn a lot of carbon-based fossil fuels, don’t we?

    I won’t be taking any more questions at this time.

  6. BBD says:

    It’s, ah, worse than I thought 🙂

  7. Well, rather than questions let’s just all extend the holiday cheer to include the stunning realization that trees and even many plants grow higher than 10 cm.

    Yes, we do burn a lot of carbon-based fossil fuels.

  8. BBD says:

    the stunning realization that trees and even many plants grow higher than 10 cm.

  9. Steven Mosher says:

    More dumb ideas

    what does she know!

    what was dyson thinking back in 2009?

    I bet she’s a skeptic

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Biochar has been around for thousands of years; terra preta in the Amazon basin. Modern pyrolysis to make biochar is the subject of numerous web sites and attempts to make biochar. Cornell has had a research program for many a decade. The respondent is a bit naive.

  11. Willard says:

    > The respondent is a bit naive.

    Thank you, Reviewer 2.

    I hope you won’t argue that climate changed for millions of years, therefore something something.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Season’s greetings to all.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Season’s greetings.

  14. Ken Fabian says:

    A LOT of carbon gets burned; six times more for an average Australian than all other waste combined. (17t vs 2.7t) – about 5t pppy globally. A column of the CO2 each person “makes” with a similar cross section to their own body would reach beyond the troposphere. Every year.

    I seriously doubt that anything less than greatly reduced burning of it will be sufficient to regain global climate stability. Is it even possible to return the same amount of carbon to soils as was lost from deforestation – without returning large parts of the most productive agricultural land to forests? There are good reasons to improve our land management in ways that raise soil carbon and carbon in vegetation but it can’t substitute for a transition to low to below zero emissions.

  15. Ken Fabian says:

    err, that would be six times more CO2, rather than carbon burned.

  16. BBD says:

    Season’s greetings to all.

    And to you David.

  17. Pingback: Jonathan’s Funk | …and Then There's Physics

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