On every bag of our Maxfield’s line of inspired products for backyard farmers, it clearly states our products are 100% peat-free. Today, you’ll learn why.
I’ve had the good fortune of having traveled the world and played a role, albeit small, in many noble pursuits. As the executive director of Orbis Institute, I helped connect hundreds of American and Chinese youth so as to open their eyes to the world and enhance dialogue between the two most impactful (for better or worse) countries on the planet. During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, I worked hand-in-hand with members of local communities to combat deforestation, increase citizen participation and labored with local subsistence farmers to increase yields by using organic soil amendments. Before taking this job with Waste Farmers, I would never have imagined I would become so passionate about a mission far more important than any I’ve worked on in the past – the preservation of peatlands.
Where Peat Comes From and its Role in Nature
Also known around the world as mires or bogs, peatlands are formed by an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation where acidic and anaerobic conditions prevent the plant matter from fully decomposing. Because the vegetation isn’t allowed to fully break down, the organic carbon stored in the plants stays locked up in the peat bogs, under water where it remains sequestered indefinitely. This makes peat bogs nature’s most effective means of sequestering carbon dioxide. These “global coolers” are helping with the fight against climate change. Experts estimate there is more carbon stored in peat bogs than in all the world’s forests.
Here are a few more extremely impressive attributes of peat: 1) Peat bogs provide a home for rare flora and fauna that are often only found in wetland habitats 2) Peat serves as nature’s water purifier filtering up to 10 percent of all of our freshwater resources and 3) Peat bogs provide effective flood prevention where heavy rains can lead to topsoil erosion.
Global Coolers to Global Warmers
For hundreds of years, peat has been used as a soil amendment, helping to acidify native soils and retain moisture. In many parts of the world, it remains a source of cooking fuel. In today’s Russia, peat-fired power plants light up surrounding cities. When peatlands are drained and prepared to be mined (as is the case with peat for use in horticulture), the partially decomposed vegetation is exposed to oxygen and the organic carbon is released, becoming a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
It is estimated that the use of peat is responsible for up to 2 gigatonnes (1 gigtonne = 1 billion metric tonnes) of carbon emissions annually, or 6% of total global carbon emissions. Here’s how the EPA would have us understand these numbers: 2 gigatonnes is equivalent to the annual emissions of 417 million passenger vehicles. Yes, you read that right. Here’s another one for you – it would take approximately 51.3 billion tree seedlings 10 years to sequester that much carbon. Yikes. These global coolers are fast becoming dangerous global warmers. Plant a tree or buy peat-free? Answer: both.
Scientists warn that global warming will trigger environmental changes that will further contribute to the warming of our planet. This is known as a positive feedback loop. Peat bogs serve as one such example. We’ve just learned that disrupting peat bogs causes the release of a colossal amount of greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming. With rising temperatures, the largest peat bog in the world, located in Western Siberia and the size of France and Germany combined, is thawing for the first time in 11,000 years. As this permafrost melts, it has the potential to release billions of tons of methane gas into the atmosphere, thereby further exacerbating global warming.
Instead of removing thousands of years old carbon and destroying vital habitats in the process, why not make products that actually sequester carbon and help create a long-term home for beneficial microorganisms and fungi? When we were in the early stages of product development for the Maxfield’s soil line, our founder, John-Paul, made it perfectly clear this was our mission.
“No way in hell are we using peat in our products,” he decreed.
Our soil shaman and master mixologist, Matt Celesta, quickly started to investigate and experiment with alternative ingredients. One renewably grown ingredient, which demonstrates amazing moisture retention qualities and lasts far longer than peat, is shredded coconut pith – known as coconut coir. With coir serving as the base, Matt mixed in other renewable ingredients that promote soil biology like worm castings, yucca extract, and aged compost. Then he added mycorrhizae, the ever-so-crucial fungal element that aids plants in water and nutrient uptake and helps them be more resilient against adverse conditions like heat and drought. Now comes the magic ingredient that sequesters carbon in our Colorado soil – biochar. Derived from beetle kill pine and other plant and wood waste, biochar will take thousands of years to break down and thereby holds onto the organic carbon locked inside its walls. But biochar does much more than just act as a high quality carbon sink; it provides a long-term home for beneficial microorganisms, prevents nutrient runoff, retains water and creates long-lasting soil structure that will keep clay soils broken up for longer than you and I will be alive.
Mixed with other ingredients like rice hulls, expanded shale and organic fertilizer, we can create a variety of soil mixes like our Maxfield’s Soil Conditioner, Planting Mix and Potting Soil. These mixes will last longer and outperform peat-based soil products and will dramatically reduce the amount of watering and fertilizing necessary to maintain a healthy soil ecosystem.
Are our products perfect? No way. Coir starts its journey to Colorado on the other side of the planet. Coir comes compressed and ships extremely efficiently but we understand our products still have a carbon footprint. We are constantly developing ways to build sustainability both into our process and products and make them better.
The rainforests have Sting. Africa has Madonna and Bono. George Clooney and Sean Penn are all over the map. Since the peat found in bagged soil products in United States comes from Canada, I say we plead to a Canadian celebrity to take up the cause of the bogs. Are you a Bielieber? No, me neither. Hmmm… I’ve got it! Neil Young! Neil has had farmers’ backs for a long time now and unfortunately our struggle will outlive this legend.
We all know the answer: It’s up to you and me.
Rare are we, as residents of the Rockies and far from the peat bogs, given the opportunity to play a role in a conservation effort so vital to the health of our planet. Industrial agriculture has the biggest environmental footprint of any industry that exists today. There is nothing more beneficial that we can do for ourselves, our communities and our planet than growing our own food right in our own backyards. And by growing in peat-free products, you’ll be helping to preserve an ecosystem as delicate and important as the rainforests.
So for peat’s sake, grow your own food, grow responsibly and celebrate the harvest. Grab a bag of Maxfield’s peat-free soil products and cultivate the farmer within.
Help us save the peatlands by sharing this with your friends.
Aron Rosenthal is an avid urban farmer, fly fisherman, cyclist and reader. The main thing that gets him up in the morning is the thought that with Waste Farmers he is working to develop a more robust culture of local food production, thereby chipping away at centralized agriculture.