Nature’s Stewards

U.S. Rice Farmers Embrace Sustainable Agriculture and Earn First-Ever Carbon Credits for Rice Production

“He would often dream up new ideas and inventions that he would build in his shop and implement on his farm. Most all of them worked better than anything else available. He never faced a hill that he didn’t think could be flattened with a lot of hard work and determination, and he taught those around him to question the conventional wisdom and not be afraid to boldly seek new ways of doing things.” 

 -from Leroy Isbell’s obituary in the Stuttgart Daily Leader, 2014

Chris Isbell didn’t set out to make history.  He was just following in his father’s footsteps.  

But on June 14, 2017, Chris Isbell and six other farmers – two from California and five from Arkansas and Mississippi – did just that. The first ever carbon credits generated from rice farmers were sold to Microsoft, all because these pioneers tested out a radical idea – that by implementing conservation practices on their crops, rice farmers could reduce methane emissions and thereby generate a carbon credit that could later be sold on the carbon market. Their voluntary conservation practices not only generated carbon credits but also reduced energy consumption and water use, critical to both regions.

The sale of the carbon offset credits, managed by Terra Global Capital, to Natural Capital Partners on behalf of its client Microsoft, rewards the farmers for their activities and demonstrates credibly measured environmental benefits. “Being the first of a kind emission reductions from sustainable rice production, Microsoft valued the innovation by farmers and the investment in technology to catalyze measuring and monitoring emission reductions,” said Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist, Microsoft.  Read the joint press release by Terra Global Capital and the American Carbon Registry.

A diverse group of like-minded partners guided the farmers through the process, including Terra Global Capital, American Carbon Registry (ACR), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), California Rice Commission, White River Irrigation District and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). This public private partnership was funded by NRCS under the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program and Entergy Corporation, an integrated energy company, through its Environmental Initiatives Fund.

About agricultural sustainability, Mark Isbell – Chris Isbell’s son and fourth generation innovator – says that “It’s a combination of something we do with others, i.e., we can’t do it alone, and building on the knowledge our ancestors have passed down to us.”


Green in the Desert: Local Farmer Captures Carbon to Grow Food, Feed Community

Author: Chilton Tippin | Published: October 7, 2017

Shahid Mustafa is the first to admit his farm might not look as orderly as those you see while driving down the highway.

At Taylor Hood Farms, you won’t find manicured rows or flood-irrigated fields. Nor will you notice bed after bed of a single crop like alfalfa, commodity cotton or chile peppers.

To hear Mustafa say it, there’s a little bit of chaos in nature. Some of that chaos reflects in the appearance of his farm, where red amaranth grows tall and sweet carrots fill beds near lemon cucumbers and artichokes. But embracing nature’s way, according to Mustafa, could offer key solutions to some of the region’s most urgent environmental and health difficulties—even if some chaos is part of the package.

“The regenerative way is to work with nature, instead of against it,” he said. “Our philosophy is that the best food comes from the best soil, so most of our focus and attention is on enriching or enhancing the soil that we have.”

In the Paso del Norte region, Mustafa is pioneering an innovative approach to farming called regenerative agriculture. The practice could help restore topsoils degraded by conventional farming techniques, to say nothing of its implications for ensuring residents have consistent access to healthy foods.


Importance of Working Landscapes to California’s Economy and Climate Change

Author: Stephanie Larson and Adam Livingston | Published: September 27, 2017

To accelerate California’s policy leadership in the face of global crises like water scarcity, climate change and uneven economic development between urban and rural areas, it is essential to recognize of the importance of the state’s natural capital, especially in relation to working landscapes and rural economies.

The California Economic Summit defines working landscapes to include farmland, ranches, forest, wetlands, mines, water bodies and other natural resource lands, both private and public. Carbon is the energy currency of most biological systems, including agricultural ecosystems. All agricultural production originates from the process of plant photosynthesis, which uses sunshine to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air with water and minerals from the soil to produce plant material, both above and below ground.

Agriculture is the ONE sector that can transform from a net emitter of CO2 to a net sequestered of CO2.

There is no other human-managed realm with this potential. Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil, grazing, result in the return of CO2 to the air. However, all farming is “carbon farming” because all agricultural production depends upon plant photosynthesis to move carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the plant, where it is transformed into agricultural products, whether food, flora, fuel or fiber.

Agriculture contributes only 9 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the US (EPA); and agricultural landscapes, particularly grassland/rangelands, have great potential to function as a sponge for carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The maximum capacity of soil to store organic carbon is determined by soil type (percent clay); management practices implemented to maximize plant growth and minimize losses of organic carbon from soil can increase organic carbon storage in soil. Keeping working lands “working” can result in long-term carbon storage (decades to centuries or more) in soils.


Carbon Farming: An Introduction

Author: Tobias Roberts | Published: July 7, 2017 

As we struggle to find ways to deal with the excess amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, much attention has been given to high-tech solutions and cutting fossil fuel use. While these are good and worthy discussions to have, carbon farming offers an opportunity to revolutionize the agricultural sector to improve soil and store excess atmospheric carbon where it belongs: in the ground.


We hear all of the time about the dangers that come with excess amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. During the last century or so, our civilization has released enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air through the burning of fossil fuels, the deforestation of our forests, and the degradation of our soils.

Plants breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. That seems like a pretty good compliment to us humans who do just the opposite. As our human quest for domination of the planet has increased, however, we have thrown that balance into turmoil.

Plants can take carbon dioxide floating around in the atmosphere and turn it into plant biomass. As those plants eventually die, their organic material decomposes into fertile top soil which is filled with carbon. The carbon dioxide that was floating around in the atmosphere causing global warming and climate change, is thus placed back into the soil through the process of healthy soil growth.

The main problem with this apparently simple and reasonable solution is that our current, industrial agricultural methods do nothing to promote the storing of carbon in the soil. Instead of promoting the growth of diverse and abundant plant biomass, we clear cut forests (the ecosystem with the densest biomass) for pasture lands. Instead of growing cover crops to add biomass to the soil, we use glyphosate and other herbicides to kill off any and all plant growth that “threatens” our monoculture grain crops.

The excessive tillage of soils year after year actually takes carbon out of the soil and sends it into the atmosphere. Farming, then, instead of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and placing it into the soil is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
What is Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Farming?

Carbon Sequestration is a fancy scientific term that denotes the storage of carbon in a stable solid form. In other words, the opposite of carbon dioxide gas that is floating around our atmosphere in excessive quantities. Carbon sequestration occurs when plants have chemical reactions that turn the carbon dioxide gas into inorganic compounds such as calcium and magnesium.


Regenerative Agriculture Initiative Seminar: Rebecca Burgess

Published: February 9, 2017 

Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, speaks at the Regenreative Agiruclture Initative at Chico State University in Febuary of 2017. Fibershed, a non–profit organization, develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers, by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, forming catalytic foundations to rebuild regional manufacturing, and through connecting end-users to farms and ranches through public education.


A Farm in Mexico Is Growing a Solution to Climate Change

Published: April 26, 2017 

Ricardo Romero inherited a former cattle ranch in Veracruz, Mexico, from his father decades ago. Since then, he’s turned the land into the Las Cañadas Farm Cooperative, a place that’s at the forefront of a new agriculture technique called carbon farming.

When plants grow, they draw carbon from the air and deposit it in the soil. Carbon farming is a simple way to grow crops and manage soil that encourages the buildup of carbon in the ground. Over 200 food companies, nongovernmental organizations, and scientists have endorsed the technique for countering rapidly warming temperatures around the world due to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.


Local Farmers Sowing Seeds of Carbon Farming

Author: Stephanie Hiller | Published: April 5, 2017 

This year, the third warmest in recorded history, spring has come a month early, with regions all across the United States experiencing May temperatures in March. While warmer temperatures are welcome after a cold, wet winter, the cause is not.

Oceans are warming and rising, and last year was the fourth consecutive year of mass seal pup strandings along local beaches due to reduced populations of anchovies and sardines. Glaciers are melting and collapsing at record rates. Heat waves and fires are likely to threaten our placid summers. Worse disasters loom in our children’s future.

Despite what the Trump administration says, climate change is here. As Naomi Klein pointed out in a 2011 article in The Nation, climate deniers know its consequences full-well: Addressing climate change means not only ending the flow of their black gold—it’s the end of their entire way of life.

“To lower global emissions,” she writes, “can only be done by radically reordering our economic and political systems in many ways antithetical to their ‘free market belief system.’” Hence, oil companies have invested billions to convince much of the voting public that climate change is a hoax and accomplished the ultimate coup d’état with the installation of a like-minded government that will raise the temperature, and the consequences, even more.

But we still have a chance to pull back from our race to the edge. There is a climate-change solution that can take root at the local level which can actually reverse climate change by at least 40 percent. By changing the way we grow food, we can actually draw down carbon from the atmosphere and put it to good use where it belongs: In the soil. Call it carbon farming.

Healthy Soils

North Bay farmers have led the way with these techniques, and with the help of climate-advocacy groups, they won state support to promote a program that just might save the world.

The California Healthy Soils Initiative (CHSI), launched on January 11 in Sacramento by the National Resource Conservation Service and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, encourages farmers to adopt carbon-friendly farming methods by offering grants and training assistance. Grant applications will be accepted later this spring.

Judging from the number of people who turned out for the September “Building Partnerships on Healthy Soil” summit—more than 200 for the conference itself and many more via webcast—interest in this carbon-friendly “regenerative” soil-management program is growing. It can’t come too soon: The very existence of topsoil is at risk.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that more than half of the topsoil worldwide has been lost over the past 150 years, mostly due to industrial agriculture. Some sources say that the loss is more like 70 percent. It’s possible that in 60 years, the topsoil on heavily grazed and monocropped farmlands will be gone, leaving nothing but an impervious layer of hardpan in its place, conditions that led to the Dust Bowl phenomenon in parts of the United States and Canada in the 1930s. Without its thin skin of topsoil, fertile land turns to desert, a process that has been accelerating all over the world in large part because of intensive industrial agriculture.

But David Runsten, policy director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), says that agriculture can be part of the solution. He began working with the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), a nonprofit that advocates for climate-friendly agricultural policy, in 2009 to get state officials to embrace carbon farming.

“Finally, the governor said he would support Healthy Soils,” Runsten says.

The legislation passed last summer and allocates $7.5 million for the program, $3 million for demonstration projects and up to $4 million in grants of up to $25,000. Governor Brown is sold on the program. He originally asked for $20 million once he embraced the idea.

Funding for the program comes from the California Air Resources Board’s Cap-and-Trade Program.

California’s Cap-and-Trade Program generates money from big emitters who are required to buy permits to emit greenhouse gases, says Renata Brillinger, executive director of CalCAN.

“The Legislature and the governor decide how much [of that] money to spend and on what,” Brillinger says. “It’s billions of dollars that we can influence through a democratic process.”

Healthy Soils projects must be directly linked to climate change, she says. “Farmers are getting money to do things on their farm that draws down carbon or reduces emissions. It is the only source of funding in the United States that will pay farmers to do that.”

One of the pioneers of carbon farming is the Marin Carbon Project (MCP). The nonprofit took it upon itself to provide scientific evidence to substantiate the benefits of carbon farming. Working in concert with Whendee Silver, professor of environmental science, policy, and management at U.C. Berkeley, the MCP found that adding a half-inch of compost to the soil increased soil carbon by one ton, or 40 percent, per hectare.

Most dazzling was the discovery that the amount continued to increase by the same rate year after year without adding more compost. This research demonstrated that carbon farming “can improve on-farm productivity and viability, enhance ecosystem functions and stop and reverse climate change,” explains Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, a Petaluma-based organization partnered with the MCP.

The Carbon Cycle

Plants sequester carbon from atmospheric CO2 by photosynthesis, using the airborne carbon to create carbohydrates and relaying the excess sugars to microbes in the soil. In turn, microbes return carbon to the soil. The more microbes, the more carbon is taken up, the stronger the roots and the more productive and resilient the plant. Adding organic matter to the soil feeds the fungi and bacteria, and enhances the effect.


Unlikely Allies Seek to Make Vermont’s Milk the Cream of the Industry

Author: Alicia Freese | Published: February 22, 2017 

An improbable coalition is calling for dramatic changes to the state’s dairy industry. Former agriculture secretary Roger Allbee has joined forces with three longtime environmental activists to argue that depressed milk prices, the need to reduce water pollution, and uncertainty about trade and migrant labor at the federal level present a unique opportunity to reinvigorate Vermont dairy farming.

“A perfect storm is brewing,” Allbee told the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee earlier this month. “Vermont has the rare opportunity of helping rescue its largest agricultural industry and to plot a future agriculture [system] for the state that is uniquely Vermont.”

The goal: to develop a set of environmental and ethical standards for dairy farms and build a made-in-Vermont brand that would bring farmers a premium price for their milk. Farms would have to meet those requirements — which could go above and beyond using organic practices — to qualify for using the state seal.

Requirements could include providing a livable wage and decent housing to farmworkers, allowing cows to graze on grassland, using non-GMO corn, forgoing pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, and cultivating carbon-rich soil. State financial incentives would encourage, rather than force, farms to make the transition.

“Our model is broken,” said Allbee, though he added: “I recognize that all dairy farmers cannot go organic.”

In addition to making its pitch to the legislature, the loose alliance of activists is meeting with government officials, writing op-eds and pressuring Vermont’s largest milk customers, which rely on conventional milk.

The Green Mountain State’s conventional dairy farmers have struggled for decades. Unlike farmstead cheese, milk is a commodity. Consumers don’t differentiate Vermont milk from that produced in Wisconsin or Idaho. So farmers here are subject to the price volatility of an international market and to increasing competition from larger farms able to produce cheaper milk. Vermont currently has 838 dairy farms, down 158 from five years ago, according to the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. The number of cows declined by 4,000, to 130,000, during the same time period.

Persistently low prices have further squeezed Vermont’s farmers in recent years. Milk has been selling for less than what it costs to produce, and a federal price insurance program has failed to provide much relief. At the same time, farmers are under mounting pressure to reduce water pollution as the state launches a concerted effort to clean up Lake Champlain and other waterways. Runoff of manure and fertilizer from farms contributes roughly 40 percent of the phosphorous contaminating the waters.


NYS Lawmaker Introduces Carbon Farming Tax Credit Bill

Author: Allison Dunne | Published: February 15, 2017

A New York state Assemblywoman has introduced legislation on carbon farming that she says is the first of its kind. The idea is to promote environmentally friendly farming practices while, at the same time, putting money back into the pockets of farmers.

Democrat Didi Barrett has sponsored a bill that creates a carbon farming tax credit. Barrett, who represents portions of Columbia and Dutchess Counties, says the plan will give farmers a new tax break while helping the state reach its climate change goals.

“This would make New York state the first in the country,” Barrett says. “And I’m very excited about something that really is a win-win for our environment and for our farmers and have New York be the lead on it.”

The 2014 Farm Bill gave USDA authority to provide technical assistance to farmers and land owners in support of their response to climate change. Barrett says that while other states like California have also begun to develop programs with similar aims, New York’s carbon farming tax credit would be the first of its kind to create a tax break for farmers who use climate-smart methods. Barrett says she had been speaking with farmers over the past few years about whether they thought such a tax credit would be beneficial.

“In continuing this conversation, in the midst of one of them, I said, do you think that if we created a tax credit for practices that put carbon back in the soil and obviously therefore take it out of the atmosphere that farmers would find that attractive,” says Barrett.

And these conversations led to her crafting the bill. Barrett, who sits on both the Assembly’s agriculture and environmental conservation committees, says there are items that still need to be worked out, such as metrics, or figuring out how to measure carbon in the soil. She says metrics on the USDA web site are a good place to start.

“What we need to work on next is really figuring out how we measure the changes,” says Barrett. “At one point, you start, and then you measure what the carbon content of the soil is, and then, after a particular cycle, measure again to see the change and the increase, and then develop a tax credit based on that.”


The Magic of Carbon Farming

Author: C B Ramkurmar | Published: February 4, 2017 

Farmers have always been life givers, as they work to feed the millions in this planet. The service they provide of growing food for all of us is invaluable. This importance of farming is even greater for economies that are dependent on agriculture as the primary contributor to the economy. Now, this humble age old practice of farming has now taken on a role, that is making climate activists and scientists smile.

Until now, we know farmers who farm fruits, farm vegetables, farm millets, etc. but attention is now going towards farmers who farm carbon! And this is what is drawing the attention of the climate change community.
“There’s a really significant potential for carbon farming worldwide to play a role in reversing the climate crisis,” said Stedman, an agricultural consultant at AppleSeed Permaculture. Stedman explained that plants pull carbon out of the air and bury it in the ground. While this seems like an obvious truth that all of us learnt in school, the problem is when all the carbon is then released to the atmosphere because of the modern farming practices.

All agricultural production has photosynthesis at the centre of it. Plants use sunshine to combine carbon dioxide from the air with water and micro nutrients from the soil to produce plant material that we see growing in farms.

These plants have a root system that is below the ground that we do not see. As the plant grows, it stores some of the carbon it produces below the ground. As farmers till the soil and as live stock grazes, the carbon that is stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere. As much as one third of the Co2 in the atmosphere that is driving climate change has come from land management practices.

On the other hand, carbon can be stored in soils for decades and centuries too, and this process is called soil carbon sequestration. Carbon farming is a process when the rate at which Co2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant matter is accelerated.

This results in reduction of Co2 from the atmosphere. Carbon farming is successful, when the amount of carbon that is removed from the atmosphere by the plants is greater than the amount of carbon that escapes into the atmosphere as a result of farming processes like tilling. So the trick is to now engage in smart farming practices that keeps this formula in mind.