Soil Your Undies

by Stephen Shafer on November 5, 2018

Introduction Soil your undies or soil my undies  is an international gimmick to show that soil is alive and  demonstrate  its vigor.  A pair of  brand-new 100% cotton underpants is left underground to the mercies of soil biota,  then retrieved after exactly two months for public display  Here’s one of many how-to descriptions.      Procedures vary.  The only standards seem to be  60 days underground and material all-cotton except for elastic waistband.  It’s not clear to me whether the unmentionables used  must be proper to females; several videos seem to show male briefs, which with  the fly have more material.  This report describes our first  tests,  in late summer 2018.        

Methods  Two pairs of  new white cotton  male’s underwear were buried in our perennial pasture north park in August 2018   (a) on Aug 15  Fruit of the Loom boy’s (all I could find at the mall  in 100% cotton ) (b) on Aug 22  Calvin Klein men’s small size (32-34 “)   Each pair was buried about 4 inches deep, laid flat with the sod replaced.  No soil was put inside the cloth though this is done is at least one video.  Both pairs were within 50 feet of where last year a soil sample had been submitted to a Comprehensive Analysis of Soil Health (CASH)  at Cornell.  On ten of  the  twelve  dimensions that sample scored  93/100 or better.  The overall score was 86 = OPTIMAL.  It was  dragged down from the high 90s by poor results for surface hardness and subsurface hardness,  both state-dependent variables. 

Rainfall  Aug 9 – Oct 21  totaled 14.3 “    over 18 days (of 75) that saw precipitation. The one-day maximum was  2.5.“   The longest dry spell was Aug 19-Sept 4.  Lambs grazed the pasture lightly until early October. The herbage later that month is  shown  in plate 5.   Native grasses predominate with a good admix of white clover, some wild violet and a scattering of pinkweed.  The most recent soil amendment had been to spread  nine months earlier  sheep barn floor waste  that had been stockpiled outdoors in a single wide windrow  uncovered for 4-8 months.

Results: the boy’s briefs were exhumed on Oct 15 after 60 days under the sod and gently washed. The  image below shows a lot of cloth consumed compared to the never-buried identical pair in the next picture . The seat is gone, though the front panel is relatively intact. 

FOL child briefs unburied








 on L  front view, before, boy’s size

boy's briefs after 60 days underground 2018










                                                                                     view from the back, after

The small adult pair was dug up  on Oct 21 after 59 days underground, much the worse for its residence in the sod.  Compare before  below to after, following washing  Six to eight earthworms were found in each site. 

Aug 22 2018 CK size adult small          






  above: front view men’s small 32″ before  

men's small 60 days washed










                  view from back of same pair after  59 days

The  “undiesclosed location”  of the experiment is pictured below on Oct 22 2018

undiesclosed location

Conclusions: In both specimens, a substantial portion of the cotton cloth originally buried had completely disintegrated by sixty days, due to activity of micro and macro-organisms in the soil.

Discussion: “Soil your undies” could  become a metric about soil health.    It  needs validation.  There are two prongs to this.  One is to quantify how much material has been lost to soil organisms. Quantifying disappearance could be done by weighing before and after.  That is not easy, because the exhumed  remains have to be well-washed of dirt,   yet vigorous washing without catching all loose fiber from  the rinse water could exaggerate how much of the cotton has vanished.  Moreover, any completely detached fragments have to be picked up, washed and weighed.   An eyeball evaluation can only  distinguish “nearly all gone” [ => really good soil] from “hardly touched” [ => poor soil]. 

            The second prong is to compare the amount of material lost with traditional markers of soil health like organic matter content  or respiration measured nearby at almost the same time.  From the  CASH study done in 2017 on soil from the “undiesclosed location,”  we knew the soil was very good indeed.  Those results are shown below.




Leaving out the dismal hardness results, the sample averaged 97/100 on the other ten.  The hardness results last year may have been misleading; I may have used the penetrometer wrong and  the soil may have been dryer than average.    Soil with high moisture content has lower penetration resistance.  This October the soil tested less hard on surface and subsurface than last,  because perhaps we’d  had a bit more rain.    On Oct 19 soil hardness within 20 feet of the sites was 100-150 psi  to 6” depth,  while probing to 300 psi went down 16-18.”   Rainfall Oct 9-19  had  totaled  1.15 inches, nearly all on Oct 11.  On Oct 27, after another 0.1 inch of rain hours earlier, the penetrometer consistently got to 6” by 100 psi,  nearly always to 12-14” by 200 psi and  to 16-18” by 250 psi.  Especially in the top six inches these readings were much better than last year’s.

On the 2017 CASH, available water capacity was very high   I suspect that penetrometer readings have to  be controlled  for moisture content of the near-surface soil.  On all  our pastures if it hasn’t rained for two weeks  Graeme often has to use a hammer to pound in the spiked posts for flexnet fencing.  The soil expert at Cornell told me that some silt loam soils, though great in other  respects, can get very hard.  SOM and forage testing in September 2018 in the larger pasture surrounding the “undisclosed location” again showed high SOM and high protein in the forage.

Given that the soil near the test sites is truly optimal and was probably softer this year than last, I was disappointed that the cotton cloth of the briefs had not been entirely consumed. At least one soil your undies web site claims that in really good soil nothing should be left but the elastic.  I have seen one, but only one,  photo that shows nothing else.  Some possible explanations:

  • Time of year: in May to August the soil biota may be busier than in Aug-Oct .
  • Quality of cotton: organic is best but expensive and hard to find.  We did not use organic.
  • Male’s or female’s.  Men’s briefs have three layers of cotton, women’s, two
  • Qualities of soil not measured in CASH.  Our soil is not “organic,”  We don’t use synthetic nitrogen  fertilizers or plant-o-cides but do use chemical wormers, which might hurt soil life .     

This little experiment, in which soil your/my undies is compared to  last year’s CASH,  is inconclusive but appealing.  CASH is quite costly.  If  procedures for soil your/my undies could be standardized (preferably using only women’s panties) and 60-day outcomes validated in some places by CASH,  this semi-joke soil test could be actually useful.  If CASH is used, the surface hardness results should be controlled somehow for soil moisture content.  The test should not be done soon after lots of rain nor following a long drought.  As to materials, underpants are  be better than a handkerchief  because the elastic makes the pair easier to find and  hang up.  A handkerchief might almost disappear   A child’s white 100% cotton tee-shirt with a hemmed collar could work as well as underpants and would not be as gross to display afterwards. 

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photo Memories of the Dust Bowl      Pinterest  90deffe52297bcda9b2cfa8277288516  

The  seventh   essay in a series on how American agriculture can  thrive in  a strenuous good-faith effort to halt global warming.  The  first six,   earliest first, are these:

1.   What-is-a-carbon-footprint 

2.    Comparing-carbon-footprints-of-world-and-american-agriculture  

3.    Fossil-fuels-in-the-carbon-footprint-of-american-agriculture  

4.  Carbon-tax-and-american-agriculture  

5.  Carbon foodprints in American Agriculture

6.  Carbon sequestration and storage in soil 

Abstract:  A rising “carbon fee” would  be  un-affordable  to many agriculturalists whose small businesses would get no dividend  from “carbon fee and dividend (CFD)”  as households would; so, most farmers and ranchers  oppose CFD,  though deeply concerned about the effects of weather volatility on farming today and in the future.   Moreover, the decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from American agriculture expected from a rising carbon tax would be paltry compared to the drop expected in all other sectors of the economy, not worth the harm to farmers.  Carbon sequestration and storage in soil (CSSS), however, would benefit agriculturalists and the whole population enormously more than simply reducing CO2 emissions from agriculture. The potential gains from  CSSS in improved soil and atmosphere health should make it an integral part of the CCL exemplar for CFD.  The best path to that,  fair and sensible,  would earmark some of the annual carbon  fee revenues for  direct payments to farmers and ranchers who actively sequester and store carbon.          

           The objective  of  Carbon Fee and Dividend (CFD)  is to  rapidly shrink the US carbon footprint,  which  for 2015 was about   6,703 M mt  CO2-e/yr,   82% CO2  itself.  (Graph 7.1)  Most of the CO2 came from fossil fuel combustion (FFC).

 Graph 7.1.  Carbon footprint of USA ca. 2015 in million metric tons CO2-e/yr of three major GHGs, by gas: CO2 vs CH4 and N2O together.  Data sources see earlier  essay in this series

            The blue carbon dioxide block in Graph 7.1 is the main target of a carbon tax or fee on coal, oil and gas  collected “upstream.”  The fee will  have its biggest effect on  CO2 emissions from FFC,  with  much less leverage on methane and nitrous  oxide, the two other major greenhouse gases (GHGs).  

            A tax that causes a 50% decrease in FFC should bring (roughly) a 50% fall   in CO2 emissions. Graph 7.2 shows how the US carbon footprint might look in two hypothetical future scenarios.  With FFC down 50%,  the three-GHG footprint is down 40%.  With  FFC down 80%, the footprint has shrunk by 2/3.  If  CO2 emissions went to zero (not shown), the overall footprint would  be 82% smaller but could not shrink further,  as the releases  of CH4 and N2O  are not governed by FFC.  [Actually, they are, but less   than CO2 emissions.]  

 Graph 7.2 The US carbon footprint in two hypothetical future scenarios of less fossil fuel combustion compared to current.  Units and sources as for Graph 7.1

            The overall carbon footprint of the country should  shrink in step with falling FFC.   The footprint of  agriculture, however, will not show the same effect.  Even though the Ag sector relies on FFC,  the makeup of this sector’s carbon footprint is very different from that of the rest of the economy. Graph 7.3 (below) profiles the  two sectors, Ag (677 M mt CO2-e/yr) and not-Ag (6026 M mt CO2-e/yr).  For Ag, CO2 is only 23% of the sector total; for the rest of the economy, CO2 is 88%.  A 50% cut in FFC for the Ag sector will reduce the three-GHG carbon footprint by just 78 M mt (-12%) while a 50% cut of  FFC in all other sectors would bring down total emissions by 44%  or  2,670 M mt CO2-e,  a 34-fold absolute difference from Agriculture.



Graph 7.3  Carbon footprint by gas and sector, USA ca 2015

            Agriculture must  reduce  FFC, no question.  Putting the same carbon tax pressure on this sector  as on all others,  however, is inefficient and harmful.  It delivers less gain in total GHG reductions for  more pain to farmers and ranchers,  who  must incur new expenses to lower use of  fossil fuels.  Dividends from CFD  to households that are not businesses will never begin to cover costs of  responding to  the carbon fee to  which a  farm household that is a business is exposed.

                Fortunately, farming and ranching are uniquely positioned to make hay out of the country’s emergent need to  radically cut  emissions of  CO2  and  get it out of  the atmosphere.    Carbon sequestration  and storage in soil (CSSS) removes carbon from the atmosphere.  It also also improves soil’s fertility and resilience to weather volatility.  With legumes planted,  it can overcome the current dependence (some say addiction)  to synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and biocides. By  low-tech changes in management such as cover crops, no-till seeding and improved grazing of grasslands,  agriculture could come close to being carbon neutral (i.e. 3-gas footprint near zero, net of emissions minus sequestrations).  Only farmers and ranchers can do large-scale CSSS.

            Does this sound too good to be true?  The benefits of getting carbon back into soil and keeping it there are incontestable.   There are of course questions about how much carbon can be sequestered and stored on US agricultural lands and on those of the whole world.  Graph 7.4 uses a middle of the road estimate  for a “maximal”  rate of sequestration per acre   to project how much carbon dioxide could be sequestered  on the 2/3 of  US agricultural acreage that is grassland/pasture/rangeland.  (See p. 61 of this report by Garnett et al.) The highest rate shown (0.68 metric tons of CO2/acre applied by improved management to 840 million acres could sequester 571 M mt CO2/yr,  about 84% of the 2015 agricultural 3-GHG footprint.  Lower rates on fewer acres could sequester less, but half that rate on half those acres could sequester 143 M mt CO2/yr,   more than the  121 M mt CO2/yr  emitted from the whole Ag sector. 

            Graph 7.4 gives a  conservative picture.  It does not cover another 400 million acres of cropland that could also be used intensively for CSSS, at sequestration rates/acre higher than those averaged on properly-grazed grassland.



Graph 7.4  Potential for CO2 sequestration in M mt/yr by sequestration rate/acre and acreage managed with improved grazing on US grass and pasture lands

            The potential for large scale carbon sequestration, though unproven, appeals strongly to ecologists and agriculturalists,.   CSSS would not be a complete solution to  global warming even if every acre of now  or formerly agricultural land in the  world could take in and store carbon at the  highest rates in peer-reviewed literature.  It  is a wondrous  strategy for the world’s ranchers and farmers to deploy in lowering GHG emissions and removing CO2 from the air.  It  is not a free lunch but it’s a bargain.

             As I’ve explained in earlier essays, adopting even  low-tech methods for switching from conventional to “regenerative” agriculture will for several years cost everyone who hasn’t already done  it  money  and  labor  that many just don’t have.  Distaste for  being forced into an investment that one can’t afford makes many ranchers and farmers oppose CFD,  dooming it legislatively.  Citizens Climate Lobby is the  the outstanding nonprofit organization that has proposed  a CFD plan to legislators for their consideration.  I and like-minded colleagues  entreat  CCL   to revise the plan, allocating some revenues from CFD  to directly help farmers and ranchers commit to  CCCS.      

                 An analogy from chemistry is apt.  In graph 7.5 below, the orange line is the curve of  the “activation energy” to get US farmers and ranchers rolling on CSSS. We believe the curve is too steep and too high to be surmounted if the only impetus to get over the top  is the prod of the rising carbon fee on  fossil fuels used by farmers and ranchers.  The blue line represents a catalyzed reaction, where the catalyst is money from the carbon fee revenues.  I think the choice is clear.

Graph 7.5  Schematic of  activation energy curve for an un-catalyzed (orange line) reaction and the same reaction catalyzed (blue line).

Carbon Sequestration and Storage in Soil

December 30, 2017

Carbon  Sequestration and Storage  in Soil                                                                           image courtesy of   The  sixth  essay in a series on how American agriculture can  thrive in  a strenuous good-faith effort to halt global warming.  The  first five,   earliest first, are these: 1.   What-is-a-carbon-footprint  2.    Comparing-carbon-footprints-of-world-and-american-agriculture   3.    Fossil-fuels-in-the-carbon-footprint-of-american-agriculture   4.  Carbon-tax-and-american-agriculture   5.  Carbon foodprints [...]

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Carbon Foodprints in American Agriculture

December 17, 2017

                                                                        photo “Corn Harvest”  from pixabay,com This is the fifth essay in a series on how American agriculture can  thrive in  a strenuous good-faith effort to halt global warming.  The  first four,   earliest first: 1.   What-is-a-carbon-footprint  2.    Comparing-carbon-footprints-of-world-and-american-agriculture   3.    Fossil-fuels-in-the-carbon-footprint-of-american-ag   4.  Carbon-tax-and-american-agriculture   Abstract   I [...]

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Carbon tax and American Agriculture

December 14, 2017

The Keeling Curve:   Atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa Observatory,  annual peak and  trough by year 1960 to now  Source Scripps Institute This is the fourth of a series of essays about American agriculture and climate change.  The first three, in order of appearance are these:   1.   what-is-a-carbon-footprint 2.    comparing-carbon-footprints-of-world-and-american-agriculture 3.   Fossil [...]

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Fossil Fuels in the Carbon Footprint of American Ag

December 6, 2017

                                                                                                                                                                                                                          photo from Free Farm Images The  third  essay in a series on how American agriculture can  thrive in  a strenuous good-faith effort to halt global warming.  The  six,   earliest first, are these: 1.   What-is-a-carbon-footprint  2.    Comparing-carbon-footprints-of-world-and-american-agriculture   3.    Fossil-fuels-in-the-carbon-footprint-of-american-agriculture   4.  Carbon-tax-and-american-agriculture   5.  Carbon foodprints in American Agriculture 6. Carbon sequestration and [...]

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Comparing carbon footprints of world and American agriculture

December 2, 2017

              June grazing: photo by Stephen Shafer    Abstract In the  world, and in the USA, crop and livestock agriculture  accounts for about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions.  In both spheres, fossil fuel combustion (FFC)    is usually tagged with only  9-12% of agricultural GHG releases.  Ag-related sources not [...]

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What is a Carbon Footprint

December 2, 2017

  Part 1.  What is a “carbon footprint”  and how do we use it?   First in the series,  directly below    Part 2.  Comparing the carbon footprints  of world and American agriculture.       Part 3.  Fossil Fuels  in the Carbon Footprint of American Agriculture  Part 4.   Carbon Tax  Part 5.  Carbon foodprints in American agriculture [...]

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Sue Stewart

May 2, 2016

                                                                  Sue Stewart died March 13, 2016  after  a long illness.  Sue was a good friend to us, to children, and to all animals in her care,  as well as being a devoted wife to Graeme.       We remember her joy in taking care of animals, whether working at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital, as [...]

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Breeding 2013 and lambing 2014

April 20, 2014

     Lambing 2014 as of 4/20/14 .   First live birth Feb 1. last March 21.  More lambs born here (105) than ever before.    57 ewes put to rams last fall.   Three sold at NYS Bred Ewe and Ewe Lamb Sale in October, of which two had twins and one triplets.    Of [...]

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