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A Skeptical Science member's path to an experiment on carbon sequestration

Posted on 19 October 2020 by Doug Bostrom

During what now seems like another era entirely- back in February of this long year- Skeptical Science regular RedBaron (aka Scott Strough) mentioned in a discussion thread here that he'd been working on an idea for no-till cultivation of vegetables, was seeking to quantify what appeared to be promising results. Scott was a bit stymied on raising a modest amount of funding to defray expenses in connection with a formal experimental method. We suggested he try the crowd-sourced science funding organizer  Despite the singular travails of this year 2020,  Scott's application there (resembling a grant application to such as NSF in many ways) has panned out and he is now in the final days of completing his funding drive. Scott Strough

Scott's story of how he arrived at this juncture  is a bit reminiscent of our own Bärbel Winkler's path to Skeptical Science; life affords ample opportunities for observation, and those observations often compel us into action.

Scott describes himself as a conservative capitalist skeptic- skeptical in the true sense, we note. As he's a properly skeptical inquirer and member of Skeptical Science with a story to tell about how he's applied genuine skeptical thinking to the good, we feel it worth highlighting his work. 

We've taken a bit of Scott's time to explore where he started from, how his skepticism served a useful roll in formulating his concept,  his extended effort to refine what he's discovered about sequestering carbon while raising food,  how he's seeking to quantify that. As well, Scott tells us some useful things about applying for funding and the persistence required for success. Finally, for home gardeners and cultivators Scott has some practical advice to offer on gardening or raising vegetables in a "climate friendly" way. 

And again, Scott is currently seeking to complete funding for his project, so if you're excited by his approach do lend some support. 

Quantifying capture of carbon in soil is not a typical retirement activity. Your career was as a marine engineer— how did you find your way to this specialized interest?

I traveled a lot as Marine Engineer. And I loved it too. I saw and experienced things in far off places people usually only dream about. But after a while I longed for stability and to retire and spend the second 1/2 my life as a small market farmer, just selling tomatoes and peppers and assorted other vegetables to my neighbors. I had an opportunity to move to Oklahoma and settle down. So  I took it.

I grew up on a small rural homestead in the middle of corn country north central Indiana. I was very active in 4H and most my early jobs were working for my Dad, or the farmers and big agricultural companies in the area. So I had a pretty good foundation. But it had been years, and I was a bit rusty. So I first started reading and watching videos, joining farming and gardening forums etc.. and got to work.

Most influential was Joel Salatin, although he mostly does animals rather than vegetables. The way he approached farming was and is very influential to my thinking. It would have stopped there though if I had not seen Allan Savory's Ted Talk. I was extremely skeptical. But like any true skeptic, I was unwilling to dismiss it out of hand. The basic concept of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil was something that rang true.

So what does a skeptic do when faced with something that rings true but has limited evidence? I set about collecting every scrap of evidence I could find both for and against his claims. I took a holistic management course offered by HMI so I could know more precisely what it was all about. Then I took a climate science course to understand in greater detail what that was all about. I took a soil science course. Next step was to take this idea of mitigating AGW with soil carbon sequestration to the skeptic and climate change sites. Real Climate, Skeptical Science, International Skeptics Forum, etc. You have probably seen my posts over the years here.

Your focus on your project has been sustained and has clearly required a lot of effort. What has kept you going through this years-long process? 

I sell tomatoes and peppers at a roadside stand in front of the house to offset some of the costs involved. As far as what motivates me to continue? When I was traveling around the world I saw many countries.

One in particular is embedded starkly in my mind, Haiti. Here is an example where unsustainable agriculture combined with poor energy solutions to fossil fuel use completely collapsed the environment. You can literally see the border between Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was appalling. Clearly the combination of just reducing fossil fuel emissions alone, without replacing those with sustainable agriculture and modern renewable energy is not acceptable. (In Haiti they mostly use charcoal and deforestation, collapsing the whole ecosystem and society is the result)

I wrote a little about my experiences here: Scott Strough's answer to What would happen to world food production if all pesticides and GMO foods were banned? - Quora

For others considering engaging with, as a new veteran of the vetting process what words of advice do you have for others thinking of the same path? 

It is a painful process to negotiate with the scientists reviewing the project. They are very critical of how you word things and also very limited in the number of words you can use! Almost a catch 22.

It is really tough to describe complex things in very few simplified words. You have to follow their structure to the letter. I can't tell you how many edits I made! It took 2 months! Then there was the covid delay that took another 6 months! They actually are on your side though. They just wont allow anything sloppy by them. 

I would encourage anyone who has the patience to focus their mind laser sharp on something overlooked by the larger research organizations to take a stab at it. If anything it will certainly improve your critical thinking skills, and who knows? Maybe you can turn some anecdotal evidence into something usable as real evidence for the larger scientific community! After all is said and done well worth it.

What feature of your experimental method has preoccupied you most, has been the most challenging to address, caused sleepless nights pondering how to overcome?

How to take those soil samples and what soil tests to use on them. I even considered taking a course to become a certified soil testing lab myself! That would cost $5000.00 and a whole lot of additional studies! Then of course the sampling protocol to use gets more and more expensive the deeper into the soil profile you sample. Even the hand tool I purchased cost almost $100, and maximum can take samples 1 foot deep.

Luckily the Nobel Foundation has accepted my application to be a cooperator, and has helped tremendously with this issue. I can send samples to them and they will have them tested without bias at already certified labs using standardized protocols.

I have not listed the soil sampling protocols yet in the lab notes because if I go over, I will be able to take deeper samples and afford better tests. However, I can still get useful results as long as I reach the minimum 100% funded.

Presuming that your preliminary observations and hypothesis are borne out in experimental results and replicated so as to broadly boost confidence in the organic no-till method, how do you see the technique being promoted in the agricultural world?

I am a conservative capitalist businessman at heart. I firmly believe that the only way to make this work worldwide is to first develop a profitable business model and run a "proof of concept" at a scale usable for any farmer, from the backyard gardener to the large commercial farmers, and everyone in between. That was the second most difficult thing to develop and caused many a sleepless night. Luckily years ago I developed a way of problem solving involving studying hard, then getting a good nights sleep. In the morning I often had the solution worked out by my subconscious.

As a matter of implementation details, how broadly can this method be applied? Would it extend as far as grain crops?

As a matter of fact it is already worked out for grain production. I actually to some extent borrowed the concept from Colin Seis's pasture cropping technique. It has already gone under rigorous soil carbon testing by Dr. Christine Jones too, in ten year trials. The results can be found here: Liquid carbon pathway unrecognized  [PDF reprint of Australian Farm Journal article].

I am sure that my own modifications can be used in a variety of annual vegetable and fruit crops and even vineyards and orchards with almost no modifications. However, there are many other researchers working on various other crops. I have identified a whole range of methods already developed for almost every agricultural product worldwide, and written about them here: Scott Strough's answer to Can the global climate change be reversed or halted? - Quora

For people gardening or cultivating at home, how may they be mindful of carbon retention and capture as part of their activity?

Part of the business model I developed for the "proof of concept" I mentioned above does include teaching gardeners how to do this very thing! The best place for this is at the place they buy their seeds, plants and gardening supplies in my opinion. This goes for farmers too.
That's a lesson I actually learned from the big industrial guys like Monsanto. When they develop a product, the people that sell that product to the farmers actually teach the farmer how, when, and why to use it. This is a big part of how they gained market share so quickly.
So a big part of how this could become a common practice on a wide range gardens and farms would involve community interaction locally right at the point of sale, as well as seminars, videos and classes sponsored by each "hub" as part of a modular autarky business model.
But for those reading this now, who can't wait for a new hub near them, I would suggest a general rule of thumb. The five keys to soil health: 
  • The first key to soil health is least amount of soil disturbance possible, preferably no-till.The soil disturbance should be limited to the hole made by planting the seeds or seedlings, and the hole made by harvesting root crops. I even limit pulling weeds, preferring in many cases to cut them at ground level or even let them grow as long as they don't shade out my crop. You'll be amazed how many so called "weeds" are actually beneficial companions when the soil food web is functioning properly. 
  • The second key is no bare soil. EVER if possible. Grow cover crops in the off seasons to have a living root in the soil as long as possible. Plants are the foundation of the soil food web, and their roots feed a whole complex network of beneficial soil life. At minimum cover that soil with mulches when something isn't growing. Never allow bare soil anywhere. If you see bare soil, even between rows of plants, cover it!
  • Key three is diversity; nature never has monocultures.Part of the reason I allow grasses and forbs to grow between my rows is to insure a tomato field has something besides tomatoes growing in it. There are tremendous benefits to the soil food web when you have a diversity of plants growing together, from nutrient sharing, to pest prevention, to drought resistance, to attracting beneficial insects and pollinators and more.root cooperation
  • Fourth, keep a living root in the ground for as long as possible.Roots have exudates that feed the whole soil food web. Think of something like tree sap, but that flows down through the roots instead of upwards to the branches and leaves. Many beneficial symbiotic soil microorganisms like arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) require a living root to feed them or they die. They trade key nutrients, water and pest resistance compounds for those root exudates. This is another reason for the grass between my rows. They are perennials and their roots will keep the AMF networks alive even through winter. Mycorrhizal Fungi: The World’s Biggest Drinking Straws And Largest Unseen Communication System
  • The final key is animal impact. I am not testing this particular key to soil health in this particular experimental trial. I am just simulating a grazing animal's impact with a mower to simulate grazing, and a compost pile to simulate manure. But to go to scale, this must reform animal husbandry practices just as much as it reforms crop production. But certainly many home gardeners could benefit from even something as simple and beneficial as a backyard chicken flock, if integrated properly and allowed by zoning regulations.

Thanks very much to Scott for taking the time to answer our questions so usefully. Readers interested in helping Scott see this investigation through to completion: pay a visit to his page at and kick in some funds. For the price of a deluxe pizza you can help to make the world a better understood, better to live in place, permanently and with no impact on your waistline. 

(root illustration from Introducing Perennial Grain in Grain Crops Rotation: The Role of Rooting Pattern in Soil Quality Management

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. I think this experiment sounds very useful, so good luck. I also think some form of regenerative agriculture has merit, and is the way of the future. I haven't always agreed with RB (aka Scott Strough), possibly because I'm a born sceptic (I drove my parents crazy) but I agree on many of the basics.

    I came across the following discussion some time ago. No till farming is good for soils, but it reduces productivity and this is apparently why farmers are a little bit reluctant to use it. However  reduced till farming hits a sweet spot of significant soil benefits and improved productivity according to this research.

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  2. It may be a matter (and I have a completely superficial exposure to this topic so emphasis on "I dunno") that  this is a bit akin to other sustainable technologies: no, it's not economically optimal according to some framings, but economics as they're understood from our history don't predict economics we may expect in the future, economics that are dominated by "we've filled the space available and we now need. a plan for how to occupy the available space in perpetuity."

    Our history and experience of economics is very short and very warped by circumstances.   

    One thing I _know_ (and yeah, I have my thumb heavily on the scale here I freely admit) is that more understanding of capacities is what we need, and Scott is offering a means to expand that understanding, help to set brackets on what we can expect.

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  3. Nigel,

    As a general rule of thumb, no-till increases yields over tillage systems. There are a few exceptions though. For example organic production with reduced tillage does beat conventional no-till usually. But focusing narrowly on those two would also be misleading, because no-till organic beats both long term. There are very good long term trials proving both those controversial claims. 

    Yields from a long-term tillage compareson study

    The Farming systems trial

    Even focusing on that would be misleading though, because farming is a science and a skill too. There is a learning curve. And in both the cases above when people first switched, they generally lost yields per acre at first. Only after they became more skilled at it did they see the gains. Soil health also does not rebound immediately either. So the yield increases seen by improving the soil, even with experienced farmers, can take three years or more. A novice farmer could take decades to really gain the knowlege required.

    For those two reasons and more, it is also easy to find shorter term trials that have the opposite result.

    If you really want to be a skeptic, you need to always check your premises first. Next step is to check context.

    Trust but verify

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  4. Yes, It's good to hear that his experiemnts are trying to do something about the soil and the carbon level of the environment. I wish him al lthe best. But, reducing the soil use should be a goal too. In this era we have alternate way of farming. Like as vertical gardening and using the hydroponic system.

    Trying to returning back the carbon back to the soil - I just don't think this will be economically viable. Environmentally - Yes, but think about all the people we have to feed.

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  5. Vertical gardening is a niche method, intended to resuse otherwise wasted space.  Within its boundaries, it's a fine idea.

    A brief excercise with arithmetic will demostrate how the method is unsuited to making a sufficently substantial contribution to adequately feeding 9-12 billion people for it to be a substitute for more conventional methods.

    Meanwhile, hydroponics don't feature carbon capture, which is a key feature here.

    We need to sequester carbon and eat.  Both things have to happen. 

    Economics follow reality, in the long term. And "long term" here means "forever." Our systems have to work forever

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  6. Hi RedBaron

    I'm not sure how relevant it would be to your work, but for gardening techniques there is probably no better source than Anne and Eric Nordell

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  7. At Wayne #6,

    Yes Wayne, Biodynamic is a way to grow good crops. But it is not no-till and it has quite limited use as a method to increase soil sequestration of carbon. This produces biomass that decomposes in the labile carbon cycle rather than the non-labile carbon cycle. (fixed carbon that decomposes and returns to the atmosphere as CO2, rather than sequestered carbon that forms stabile humic polymers tightly bound to the mineral substrate)

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  8. RedBaron, I'll think you'll find that the Nordell's and a few others have done quite a bit of experimentation with no-till, which is quite amazing as they are farming with horses. We're talking about real working, succesful, profitable farms. I've never met them but know some very impressive people that have, and quite frankly they are legends

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  9. @Wayne 8,

    Well I did notice this from your link Wayne, 

    Cultivating Questions: Evolution of a Permanent Bed System
    by: Lou Johns
    from issue: 27-3
    Crops & Soil • Cultivating Questions • Farming Systems & Approaches
    Planting Beds
    After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

    It's pretty similar to what I am testing. But I don't see any soil tests, much less a rigorous trial. So it is interesting, and could even be tested to see what rate that sequesters carbon. 

    Interesting because they saw that they still had the ongoing problem with soil degradation. (requiring amendments to maintain fertility) And decided to make a change. I might encourage them to test it at too. If they are legends, it shouldn't be too difficult to raise the expense money by crowdfunding it for a token donation from their followers. 

    I can assure you though, that isn't a standard biodynamic approach. They even say it themselves.

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  10. Hi RedBaron

    I doubt they would have the time, need,or inclination to do what you are doing as it would be a distraction to their primary endeavour. There is another 20 years of articles going forward and the SFJ has another 20 years going back.

    How many acres are you looking at converting to no-till?

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  11. For those considering funding this trial, I thought it might be useful to post a more formal link to the hard science supporting the reprint of now defunct Australian Farm Journal article. Here you can find the methods, scope, and results supporting Dr. Christine Jones claim for a CO2e sequestration rate of 5-20 tonnes CO2e /ha/yr "under appropriate conditions". 

    The role of grazing management in the functioning of pasture ecosystems

    And here is a published paper from the US confirming a similar rate.

    Grazing management impacts on vegetation, soil biota and soil chemical,
    physical and hydrological properties in tall grass prairie

    I should caution though. While the first one did include both grazing alone and pasture cropping, the second by Teague was only comparing various grazing strategies and did not include any cropping at all, nor was it a long term study either. 

    Since I am cropping only and only simulating grazing with a mower and compost, I really don't know what the rate of carbon sequestration I will find will be at all. I am as curious as the rest of you. Also the scope of the trial I designed is quite limited. I designed this to be potentially useful for those farmers wishing to help mitigate AGW by changing agricultural methods and become eligible for carbon credit payments. So the audience I am mostly looking at is not PhD's, but just ordinary farmers. So my scope is very modest. 

    If funded of course all this and more will be added to the lab notes section.

    I would think that it would take a much more expensive trial and a formal team of full time research scientists to follow up if the results I find are interesting and/or significant. But the results I find should be useful "in the field" for actual action mitigating CO2 rise in the atmosphere.

    We will see?

    And the link for those who haven't been there yet. 

    What is the rate a new regenerative agricultural method sequesters carbon in the soil?

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  12. Hm. I am disappointed with funding so far. This is an interesting experiment that deserves your support.  Advertise it on your facebook etc. people.

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  13. Scaddenp, I wish to donate funds, but am running into an obstacle.

    As a computer klutz, I don't recognize what I am doing wrong.  There were some earlier problems I had, a couple of weeks back.  But now that you have reminded [us] to donate, I find a new problem :-

    when I click on the donating field, up pops a window with : "LOG IN"

    plus [second line] : "Don't have an account yet? Sign up."

    Unfortunately, the LOG IN [etc] announcement almost fully overlaps the first field below it - and I cannot access the first field.  ( I can access the email field and the password field which are below that. )  

    Is there some extremely simple mistake I am making?  Do the people need to re-jig their layout?  (Worse - are other potential donors getting frustrated and abandoning the attempt?)

    [ Mine= ancient Apple desktop, but with up-to-date software, I believe. ]

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  14. Eclectic,

    I am not exactly sure what you mean, but if you follow the page you will see this at the top right: Discover   Start a Project    Sign In

    Click "Sign in" and it will ask for an email and a password, or you can use facebook if you want.

    Fill them in click log in and it will sign you in. Then you can go to my project and click "Back this project".

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  15. Sorry, RedBaron, but I still can't access via Sign In.  The pop-up window does not allow me access to email & password fields.  Very strange.

    I see at the bottom right corner of the [] Home page there is a field where I can request the regular newsletter emailed - but I am not wishing to enrol for the newsletter.

    RedBaron, you probably can't do anything to raise my IQ to something above moron status.  But it may be worth your while to contact the Administrator, to see if there is some attention needed to the pop-up window that I mentioned.  ( I shall check back in a few days to see if the Home page has altered.)

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  16. @ 12: scaddenp, Who are you to be disappointed? The world doesn't owe you anything --> especially when you consider it gave you everything.

    How ungrateful are you for being so rich by mistake?

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    Moderator Response:

    [BL] You are pushing the envelope in inflammatory rhetoric. Tone it down.

    Skeptical Science is a user forum wherein the science of climate change can be discussed from the standpoint of the science itself.  Ideology and politics get checked at the keyboard.

    Please take the time to review the Comments Policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

  17. Keithy,

    One of the donors lost her farm when the Russians annexed Crimea. As recently as 6 months ago she was struggling to avoid becoming homeless when Corona hit, having her whole family disrupted and nearly "refugee status" around Kiev, an already poor country before the war. And I never asked her for a dime, just showed her the work I am doing to help farmers back when I first designed this, before the corona delay. She told me back then she was almost in tears to think people she never even knew were working so hard to help people they don't even know. So clearly this isn't about being "rich". I was even embarrased that she donated. I wished she would have told me, so I could have stopped her. But you know how farmers are, stubborn to the core.

    The whole point of a crowd funding science is to have lots of people donate really small amounts, so that no single person needs to dig deep at all. And then the science is open sourced for all to benefit. In this case there were a few bigger donors and I am eternally grateful and amazed. But that tiny donation from a displaced farmer who lost almost everything she owned  so recently, touched me more than I have words to express.

    I will bet my bottom dollar Scaddenp was just frustrated, as most of us here are, by the lack of people realizing how important mitigating AGW is. 

    My friend from Crimea knows first hand how quickly our lives can change through forces out of our control. I am pretty sure that's the sort of motivation the whole world needs to think about, as about 80-90 % of the World's population is in danger zones from unmitigated AGW, whether from coastal flooding, droughts and fires, or war.

    There is another group of farmers that know all too well what's in store for us all. Maybe you heard of them?

    The Ominous Story of Syria's Climate Refugees

    So please don't be too hard on Scaddenp. We are all in this together.

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  18. Eclectic, I just signed up for red Barons website ok. Suggest you try using another web browser or computer.

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  19. I should clarify that I am not in anyway involved in the experiment except as one of the donars. I have been very skeptical of the experimenter's claims made on this site in the past but the weight of evidence provided by him has convinced me that:

    a/ should his hypothesis be correct, then his methods could make very useful contributions to mitigating global warming (with plenty of environmentally useful addition as well)


    b/ this hypotheses has promising supporting evidence and deserves further experimental testing. The proposed experiment and the conditions of should provide useful evidence.

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  20. Nigelj @18 ,

    thanks - I have now tried another computer, and possibly successfully!!

    Mine is an all-Apple household, so I figured (in my klutzy way) that simply shifting to another Apple would make no difference.  But quite wrong.  The second computer brought up Scott's webpage, and the pop-up window this time appeared to be perfectly conventional & fully functional in accepting details (including credit card).  So now I have donated - possibly.  I say possibly, because Scott's webpage shows a coincidental contemporary uptick in his total . . . but my credit card account shows no deduction yet.

    I shall keep an eye out - I hope it's just some electronic "lag effect".

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  21. Eclectic @20, I made a donation some hours ago and having read your comment I just checked my credit card account, and payment not registering either, so its probably a delay. I think it can take a day or two sometimes.

    I'm a bit like Scaddenp, so a bit sceptical about the whole soils issue, but I think basically its because more information is needed, and experiments like this help. Its a worthy cause.

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  22. @20 Eclectic,

     Your card won’t be charged unless the project is fully funded.

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  23. RedBaron @22 ,  

    thanks for that info.   I did see that a charge would not be made until 28 Oct . . . but I wasn't clear whether that applied only to donations which were in excess of the official target.  The wording was a touch ambiguous ( I thought ).   I am guilty of overthinking the wording.

    BTW my original computer has still shown the defective pop-up window on the website.  Perhaps my software is not as up-to-date as I had believed.   All the same, it might be worth dropping a word to the site Administrator, to check that the donation "mechanism" is functional for a wide range of operating systems (both ancient and modern) ~ if such is possible in a secure way.  Every fishing line should have a hook on it!

    2nd BTW ~  and thanks, RedBaron, for the Widow's Mite tale you had mentioned earlier.  No reply from Mr Keithy, I see.

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  24. Scott (Red Baron) made his target this morning, so can go ahead with the project.

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  25. So now we can look forward to a published paper some day on the subject. Well done Scott. I hope the experiment proceeds smoothly.

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  26. Thanks very much to all who helped, either with donations, or information! I couldn't have done it without your support! 

    Sorry it took so long to reply, but Oklahoma got hit with a record breaking ice storm this week! over 300,000 without power and the roads were full of broken tree limbs. I couldn't even check on my own project myself! But my friends came through in the end and I am eternally grateful!

    First order of business is grab a chainsaw and finish clearing a path of the tangled mess of tree limbs so I can safely enter my front door. Then when I finally get finished thanking everyone, I will get to work on the project.

    Thanks again everyone.

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  27. the DOI will be

    DOI: 10.18258/15503

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