As a boy growing up on a dairy farm in Ames, Iowa, Josef Biechler never imagined the distant lands where his love of farming would take him. Now, at 25, he manages 18 small research farms (along with a dedicated team) as a soil scientist in Costa Rica, doing work sponsored by the Rodale Institute, a highly respected nonprofit group at the cutting edge of organic farming, and The Carbon Underground, an organization dedicated to reducing atmospheric carbon levels through sustainable agriculture.
Josef’s research focuses on organic practices that “sequester carbon,” enabling farms to become carbon negative — meaning that they emit less carbon into the atmosphere than is retained by their crops. The hoped-for result is a reduction in the greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming and climate chaos.
The path to Josef’s fascinating career led directly through Maharishi University. In fact, attending college at all came as a surprise to him.
At 20, finding the jobs he’d worked unfulfilling and unsure how to improve his family’s farm, Josef decided to visit the MUM campus, 150 miles away in Fairfield, Iowa. What he found there intrigued him.
“It was a huge change of scenery from what I was used to and the kind of people I had been around,” he says. “I liked the healthy lifestyle, the one-class-at-a-time, and the consciousness-based approach. But the ultimate draw was the Sustainable Living program. My parents use sustainable farming practices. It’s totally aligned with my ethics.”
At MUM Josef became an expert in composting, and started a soil lab (which is still operating). In his senior year, while brainstorming about possible careers with Tara O’Brien, a fellow Sustainable Living student, they decided to start a consulting company.
“We wanted to take the work directly to the farmers,” says Josef. “We figured we could travel and see a lot of farms.” They founded Red Clover Consulting, giving it the mission of “restoring natural resources by working to shift the current paradigm of ecosystem management from one of control to one of harmony and balance.” The company found local clients and runs a lab that serves the community.
In late 2012, the course of Josef’s life changed radically. He received an email from Luna Nueva Farm in San Isidro de Penas Blancas, Alejuela, Costa Rica. “They asked me to come down for three months to help with their composting,” says Josef, who met the farm’s co-owner, Tom Newmark of New Chapter, Inc., a manufacturer of organic herbal supplements that are grown there. Newmark, a committed environmentalist, enlisted Josef to help out in the carbon negative research.
“I’m really passionate about this,” says Josef, who runs the research trials. “We’re seeing what’s possible when farms use the best sustainable and biodynamic
Many variables are being tested; the most important one is soil carbon level. Soil samples taken from the farm’s organic lots, biodynamic lots, conventionally-tilled lots and chemical lots are all sent to labs for chemical analysis. Software programs track the carbon footprint of each. “We can compare and contrast how many tons of carbon we’re sequestering versus how much we’re releasing,” says Josef.
Josef may help to set up similar research farms in other worldwide locales, including, possibly, Thailand. “We want to test in many different biomes, from sub-Saharan Africa to rainforest Africa, to grasslands and forested areas. Our goal is to determine the best practices for reducing the carbon footprint, which will then help to mitigate climate change.”
The work also involves social outreach, which carries the hope of providing financial aid and crop insurance to small family farmers worldwide. “There are more than 500 million small-holder farms in the world,” says Josef. “Two billion livelihoods are directly related to these farms. With enough funding, we can provide subsidies to farmers who are moving to sustainable practices. Then, if their crops don’t make it one season, for example, it won’t destroy them financially.”
For Josef, the workday is a long and a familiar one. He typically wakes up at 4 am to do his Transcendental Meditation® practice, and will often work 15 hours a day. There’s much to be done and he wears many hats — managing farm crews, supervising, taking samples, doing microscope work, and even performing Human Resources and accounting.
Josef has no problem with any of that. “I love it,” he says. “It’s a lot of physical and intellectual activity. I grew up with a farm schedule. I know it well.”
Though many experts say it’s too late to do much about global warming and climate change, Josef embraces a “Think global, act local” view — though he is, in effect, doing both.
“So much of what we hear is doom and gloom,” he says. “They say ’We’re running out of time, it can’t be fixed.’ Well, I’m working towards a solution, every day. I’m working toward making a difference. To me, that’s very fulfilling.”
Looking to the future, Josef will remain at work on the Costa Rica research project. He just signed a 5-year contract that will take him until January 2019. After that, his hope is to find funding to sponsor further research, perhaps at his family’s farm in Ames, Iowa.