Can the Soil Really Save Us? This Company Intends to Find Out

Yard Stick wants to replace expensive, laborious ways of measuring soil carbon.

Yard Stick at work

Yard Stick

The other day, I was watching the Woody Harrelson narrated the documentary "Kiss The Ground" on Netflix. As Treehugger senior editor Katherine Martinko shared in her review of the movie on release, it offered a hopeful and, at times, profoundly moving argument for shifting toward restorative and regenerative forms of agriculture. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer:

We are, of course, huge fans of regenerative agriculture here at Treehugger. We get excited about the role of biochar in drawing down carbon. We believe wholeheartedly in feeding carbon to your gardens. We celebrate when companies and institutions commit to supporting agroforestry and other beneficial practices. And we know that, quite aside from the carbon sequestration argument, there are good reasons to reduce farm runoff and promote on-farm biodiversity by prioritizing soil health

That said, we also believe in a wide diversity of solutions. That’s why I confess I get a little suspicious when anyone promotes “that one thing” that will save us. As Martinko noted in her original review, the actual extent to which soils can store carbon—and for how long—is a matter of much debate and scientific inquiry.

So I was happy to receive a PR pitch from Chris Tolles, CEO of Yard Stick. Yard Stick, you see, is a soil science start-up that is trying to develop a robust, scalable, and affordable solution for accurately measuring and analyzing soil carbon. Co-founded alongside Dr. Cristine Morgan, chief scientific officer of the Soil Health Institute, with whom Yard Stick is collaborating on a $3.3 million ARPA-E grant, Yard Stick is trying to replace expensive, laborious, error-prone, and centralized models of soil carbon measurement. As Tolles explained, the central goal of the effort is to take the guesswork, naysaying, and/or wishful thinking out of the equation: 

“There are thousands of practices out there that come under the banner of regenerative agriculture, and some of them may work really well. While the evidence is directionally promising, it’s not nearly as robust as it needs to be. Part of the reason for that—especially when it comes to the soil carbon and CO2 sequestration angle of regenerative agriculture—is that measuring soil carbon well is very expensive.”

 Simplifying somewhat, Tolles explained to me that the traditional way to measure soil carbon is to a) extract a soil core, b) mail it to a lab, and then c) incinerate it and see what’s left. In contrast, Yard Stick uses a powerful hand drill, equipped with a spectroscopic probe, to collect soil carbon and bulk density measurements to a 45-centimeter (18-inch) depth in about 35 seconds. And it can even be used with crops standing in the field. The result, says Tolles, is a process that will cost 90% less than traditional methods. 

I noted to Tolles my concern that regenerative agriculture has become such a widely used buzzword, that it can be hard for consumers or advocates to know which practices to support—and how much good they can do. Specifically, I asked him about concerns that an over-reliance on soil-based solutions could lead to a false sense of security, especially if a warming climate and/or changes to cultivation practices lead to soil carbon being released again. 

He was very clear about Yard Stick’s position on this: 

“We can’t predict permanence, but also permanence is not binary. Central to understanding both permanence and risk is measuring how much and what types of carbon are in the soil, and then using that information to actually observe changes due to practice X or Y. I want to be clear though: We are not soil carbon fanboys. Our whole purpose is sober, scientifically-legitimate measurement, so we can tell what’s really going on in soils. In fact, our main contribution may be to show that soil carbon can’t go the distance, and that’s OK. Focusing carbon removal resources on the most effective solutions is urgently important.”

Yard Stick is currently working with pilot partners to develop their soil carbon measurement plans and practices and would love to recruit other players into the mix. The company eventually hopes to have teams across the Midwest and beyond helping farmers and the food industry separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of lofty claims versus actual evidence for exactly how far the soil can go in "saving us."