What’s a Carbon Farmer? How California Ranchers Use Dirt to Tackle Climate Change

Author: Sally Neas

For many climate change activists, the latest rallying cry has been, “Keep it in the ground,” a call to slow and stop drilling for fossil fuels. But for a new generation of land stewards, the cry is becoming, “Put it back in the ground!”

As an avid gardener and former organic farmer, I know the promise that soil holds: Every ounce supports a plethora of life. Now, evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

Evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

“I think the future is really bright,” said Loren Poncia, an energetic Northern Californian cattle rancher. Poncia’s optimism stems from the hope he sees in carbon farming, which he has implemented on his ranch. Carbon farming uses land management techniques that increase the rate at which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in soils. Scientists, policy makers, and land stewards alike are hopeful about its potential to mitigate climate change.

Carbon is the key ingredient to all life. It is absorbed by plants from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and, with the energy of sunlight, converted into simple sugars that build more plant matter. Some of this carbon is consumed by animals and cycled through the food chain, but much of it is held in soil as roots or decaying plant matter. Historically, soil has been a carbon sink, a place of long-term carbon storage.

But many modern land management techniques, including deforestation and frequent tilling, expose soil-bound carbon to oxygen, limiting the soil’s absorption and storage potential. In fact, carbon released from soil is estimated to contribute one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Ranchers and farmers have the power to address that issue. Pastures make up 3.3 billion hectares, or 67 percent, of the world’s farmland. Carbon farming techniques can sequester up to 50 tons of carbon per hectare over a pasture’s lifetime. This motivates some ranchers and farmers to do things a little differently.


A Boon for Soil, and for the Environment

Author: Beth Gardiner

When Gabe Brown and his wife bought their farm near Bismarck, North Dakota, from her parents in 1991, testing found the soil badly depleted, its carbon down to just a quarter of levels once considered natural in the area.

Today the Brown farm and ranch is home to a diverse and thriving mix of plants and animals. And carbon, the building block of the rich humus that gives soil its density and nutrients, has more than tripled. That is a boon not just for the farm’s productivity and its bottom line, but also for the global climate.

Agriculture is often cast as an environmental villain, its pesticides tainting water, its hunger for land driving deforestation. Worldwide, it is responsible for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, though, a growing number of experts, environmentalists and farmers themselves see their fields as a powerful weapon in the fight to slow climate change, their very soil a potentially vast repository for the carbon that is warming the atmosphere. Critically for an industry that must produce an ever-larger bounty to feed a growing global population, restoring lost carbon to the soil also increases its ability to support crops and withstand drought.

“Everyone talks about sustainable,” Mr. Brown said. “Why do we want to sustain a degraded resource? We need to be regenerative, we need to take that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the cycle, where it belongs.”

Since people began farming, the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 percent to 70 percent of their natural carbon, said Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at the Ohio State University. That number is even higher in parts of south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, he added.


Soil Matters

Russ Lester’s property looks, at first glance, like that of many of his neighbors. He grows about 900 acres of walnut trees a few miles east of Winters. But at Dixon Ridge Farms, Lester never tills his land, and he keeps cover crops growing most of the time. He also laces the earth around his trees with biochar, charcoal-like leftovers from biomass energy production. Added to the soil, this gritty burnt material  —  made largely of carbon  — stays there for a long time.

These simple practices have profound implications for the environment and, especially, the climate: Lester’s farm is a carbon sink, absorbing carbon atoms more rapidly than they can escape into the air.

“We’re carbon negative,” Lester says. “Most businesses and farms, and most people, are carbon positive.”

“We aren’t going to get out of our gas-guzzling cars anytime soon or rebuild our cities, and we have major infrastructure issues that won’t be solved anytime soon -— but we have the knowledge and the tools to modify right now the way that we grow food.”

Renata Brillinger, executive director, California Climate & Agriculture Network

Agriculture generates lots of carbon dioxide, the main culprit in climate change. Louise Jackson, a UC Davis soil scientist, explains that tilling the earth allows microbes to better access the soil’s organic matter, which consists of about 50 percent carbon. “And like people, they produce carbon dioxide,” Jackson says.

Due to unsustainable farming practices, staggering volumes of carbon — hundreds of billions of tons — have escaped from the planet’s soils and into the atmosphere since the dawn of agriculture. The pace of emissions has increased since the advent of mechanized farm machinery, and over time, carbon-rich soil that was almost black as coal when human fingers first broke its surface has been transformed into thin, pale dirt.


Carbon Farming – Agriculture’s Answer to Climate Change?

On April 12, the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) announced a new funding opportunity aimed at increasing the carbon storage potential of U.S. agricultural soils.  Land-use, which includes agriculture, is responsible for 25 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While reducing fossil energy use is key to limiting warming to the internationally agreed less than 2 degrees Celsius, it will be impossible to meet climate targets if emissions associated with land-use are not also addressed. At the same time, modern agricultural practices have severely depleted the natural reserve of soil carbon; however addressing soil carbon can reduce emissions associated with agriculture and store additional carbon in the soil.  This article explores both low- and high-tech approaches to “carbon farming” and the political and social appetite to use agriculture as a means to address climate change.

The ARPA-E initiative — Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration (or ROOTS), will use modern breeding and genomic tools to create crops that can help accelerate soil carbon storage. The agency expects to invest a total of $30 million in 8 to 12 projects that “modify, through targeted breeding and plant selection, crop plants to produce more roots, deeper in the soil profile,” which will in turn accelerate soil’s carbon storing abilities.  Through the ROOTS initiative, ARPA-E sets an ambitious target of a 50 percent increase in the carbon storage of soils, a 50 percent decrease in nitrogen emissions from conventional agriculture, and a 25 percent increase in water productivity. The net result would be a 10 percent reduction of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States while also boosting the climate resilience of the agriculture sector.

ROOTS will fund projects that will advance data collection, modelling of the root-soil interaction and creation of new plant characteristics that could enable greater soil carbon storage.  ARPA-E estimates that 87 percent of current U.S. cropland could benefit from these as-of-yet developed carbon storing traits and could accelerate the carbon storage potential of U.S. soils.

ARPA-E is taking a high-tech approach to a long-understood problem – balancing soil carbon and agricultural productivity.  Modern agricultural practices, which have enabled ever higher agricultural yields and, therefore, lowered food prices and decreased food insecurity, have also reduced the soil’s carbon level. Carbon in soil is important because it helps store water, nutrients and regulate soil temperature. Increasing the amount of soil carbon can help address drought, water quality issues, nutrient management and climate resiliency – all thorny subjects in the agricultural world today.  Soil quality will also be key in addressing food security, as increasing soil carbon also translates to enhanced food production with potentially reduced inputs.

Through more traditional farming methods, or “back to basics” if you will, farmers, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), grower’s groups and others have been exploring the potential of conservation and other measures such as cover crops, no-till and the use of biochar, which not only decrease the amount of fossil inputs on the farm but also increase the soil’s ability to store carbon.  Just one example can be found on Dave Brandt’s Ohio wheat, corn and soy farm, where he hasn’t tilled the soil since 1972.  Every winter, he plants over 10 varieties of cover crops, providing continuous living cover over the soil – a key ingredient in not only building soil carbon but preserving water holding capacity of the soil and maintaining water quality. Independent scientists have estimated that Brandt has increased the carbon content of his soils an astounding 61 percent in the past 35 years, with his corn yields increasing by up to 44 percent.  Brandt and other farmers are proving that it’s possible to pair conservation with productivity.


Farmers are Capitalizing on Carbon Sequestration: How Much is Your Carbon-Rich Soil Worth?

Author: Brian Barth

Carbon farming—a catch-all phrase to describe the cultivation techniques that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (where it causes global warming) and convert it into carbon-based compounds in the soil that aid plant growth—has long been touted as a way to enlist farmers in the fight against climate change. Thanks to the growing market for carbon sequestration, farmers could soon stand to profit from such good deeds.

Environmentally-minded farmers are well aware that building up soil carbon is one key to achieving high yields without chemical inputs. It’s through the expansion of global carbon markets, however, where polluting corporations purchase “carbon credits” to offset their carbon emissions, that farmers are starting to get paid for adopting these practices.

When these polluters purchase carbon credits, the money goes to another company, organization, or project that has prevented an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases (GHGs) from entering the atmosphere (which can include a farmer). The transaction is mitigated by a broker, called a carbon registry. In the past, wind farms, solar panel facilities, and reforestation projects were among the most common recipients of carbon credits, but farm-based carbon credits are becoming more widely available. Notably, Australia, Alberta, Kenya, and California now have active programs to reward on-farm carbon sequestration.

Measuring the actual amount of carbon sequestered in soil and plants is a costly and inexact science, which is one reason that farm-based approaches haven’t been widely accepted by carbon credit programs yet. (It’s much easier to quantify reduced carbon emissions with things like solar power.) Rather than measuring the carbon sequestered on each farm, carbon credit programs rely on the average carbon sequestration ability of particular practices (like adding organic matter to the soil, planting cover crops, and reducing soil disturbance) that have been tested over time and scientifically verified. The bottom line is that farmers aren’t expected to calculate their own soil carbon levels—it’ll be inferred by the credit-granting organization based on their farming practices.

To help farmers get an idea of their current climate impacts and prospects for earning carbon credits, however, the USDA now has a free web-based tool called COMET-Farm, which provides an approximate carbon footprint based on user-supplied data and allows farmers to apply different land management scenarios to see which has the greatest carbon sequestering ability.

So how much might a farmer make for their soil carbon? Not much, at least not yet.

Here is how it works: Land-based carbon sequestration is measured in metric tons per hectare (2.5 acres); one metric ton earns one carbon credit, making the math easy. In California—the only state in the US with a full-fledged cap-and-trade program—the current value of a carbon credit is around $12 to $13. (Farmers in other states, by the way, are eligible to earn credits through the California carbon market.) Alberta, which has the most robust carbon market in Canada and rewards several agricultural practices with carbon credits, raised the price of carbon credits from $15 to $20 on January 1, 2016; in 2017, the price will go up to $30 per credit.


Regenerative Agriculture: Sowing Health, Sustainability and Climate Stability

[ English | Español ]

Authors: Sarah Streat and Katherine Paul

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

In his opening address to the Savory Institute global conference in London on August 1, Alan Savory said that while agriculture is the foundation of civilization and of any stable economy, it is also, when poorly practiced, the most destructive industry—even more so than coal mining.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that since 1960, a third of the world’s arable land has been lost through erosion and other degradation. Much of the destruction is caused by increased demand for GMO corn, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beet and alfalfa crops, used to feed factory farm animals, to produce highly-subsidized yet inefficient biofuels and to make processed foods.

The perpetual cycle of planting mono-crops, saturating the crops and fields with toxic chemicals, tilling them under and replanting them destroys the soil and degrades the land by depleting soil nutrients and causing erosion. Overgrazing pastures instead of managing livestock herds holistically, using a system of planned rotational grazing, is equally destructive.

Destruction of land and soil by poor farming isn’t inevitable, said John Liu, who also spoke at the Savory conference. Liu told the audience we have to connect economic growth to ecological restoration—and “restoring ecological function is the only way we will survive.”

How do we do it? In large part through “regenerative agriculture,” in combination with reducing fossil fuel emissions and reversing global deforestation.

Can we do it? By all accounts, yes. But as Savory cautioned, regenerative agriculture represents a small minority, probably 3 – 5 percent, of today’s global agriculture. Sadly, 90 percent of farmers, policy-makers and the public still believe in an agricultural model based on chemistry, technology and faulty policy. “We’re not even at the table,” Savory said.

But we could be. One of the key ways to do that, Savory said, is to convince consumers, who far outnumber producers, that agriculture has to change. Organic Consumers Association recommends consumers do that by boycotting GMOs and factory-farmed foods, in keeping with the advice on our popular bumper sticker: “Cook Organic not the Planet.”

Our failure to do so will not only lead to hunger and poverty, but it will represent a huge missed opportunity to reverse global warming.

Beyond ‘sustainable’

Let’s face it. “Sustainable” is not a sexy word. It suggests a relationship that is merely maintained—plodding along on an existing plane.

It’s time to move beyond the notion of “sustainable” agriculture to a model of agriculture that restores and rejuvenates soils, farms, economies and communities.

So what is “Regenerative agriculture”? Dr. Christine Jones, who founded Amazing Carbon, describes regenerative agriculture as a diverse set of farming practices that replenish and reactivate the soil. “When agriculture is regenerative, soils, water, vegetation and productivity continually improve rather than staying the same or slowly getting worse.”

The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture is dynamic and holistic, incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping, to increase food production, farmers’ income and especially, topsoil.

Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies.

What makes up healthy soil? According to Jones, healthy topsoil is composed of weathered rock minerals, air, water and living things such as plant roots, microorganisms, insects and worms and the organic materials they produce.

There are six essential ingredients for soil formation, Jones says:
1.    Minerals
2.    Air
3.    Water
4.    Living things in the soil (plants and animals) and their by-products
5.    Living things on the soil (plants and animals) and their by-products
6.    Intermittent and patchy disturbance regimes (such as planned grazing or slashing)

Unlike mono-crop agriculture which relies heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, erodes the soil through excessive tilling, and doesn’t protect the with cover crops, regenerative agriculture produces healthy soil, while at the same time producing food (both plant and animal-based). Because regenerative agriculture doesn’t strip the soil of nutrients and leave it depleted, food grown in that soil tastes better, and has a higher nutrient content.

Can regenerative agriculture save the climate?

Healthy soils not only produce healthy food, healthy economies and healthy communities, but as it turns out, healthy soil just may be the best tool we have to reverse global warming.

According to a recent study by the Rodale Institute, if regenerative agriculture were practiced globally, 100 percent of current, annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would be sequestered.

The Rodale Institute has been conducting its Farming Systems Trial (FST) since1981. It’s the longest-running test comparing organic and conventional cropping systems. Data from the test shows that organic, regenerative agriculture reduces CO2 by taking advantage of natural ecological systems to extract carbon from the atmosphere and sink it into the soil. According to the data, soil managed organically can accumulate about 1,000 pounds of carbon-per-acre foot of soil each year—equal to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide-per-acre taken from the air and sequestered into soil organic matter.

While commercial agricultural practices are some of the largest contributors to global warming, regenerative agriculture practices are carbon neutral and actually reverse climate change. Carbon-rich soil doesn’t need synthetic fertilizers. This leads to further reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as both the production and use of fertilizers generate CO2.

Transitioning on a global scale

Regenerative agriculture practices rely on knowledge and care, rather than expensive farming equipment, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. While in the short term, they may produce slightly lower yields than conventional, chemical-intensive crops, over time they produce higher yields which lead to greater financial security for farmers, especially in communities that are economically dependent on agriculture.

More and more small-scale farmers are using regenerative practices to cultivate land and grow food. The movement has a strong collaborative voice in places like Australia and the UK, where innovative farmers are sharing their knowledge both informally, and in structured courses and workshops.

Regenerative farming is also practiced widely across the U.S. by many local, small-scale farms, though they may not be using the term “regenerative agriculture.” Farms like Polyface Farms in Virginia, Jubilee Farm in Washington State, and the Marin Carbon Project in California provide good models for how organic, regenerative farming can lead to prosperous and healthy communities.

But if we’re going to restore the world’s vast tracts of degraded lands, and avert a climate disaster, we’re going to need to transition on a global scale from today’s dominant chemical-intensive, mono-crop system to a regenerative model of agriculture. And that will require the support of political systems that currently favor and promote the destructive models of farming over the regenerative model.

Consumers can, and must, play a role in pushing governments to make this transition. We have the power to reverse the trend toward chemically grown, biotech crops by creating demand for healthy foods produced using regenerative practices. We do that by choosing locally, organically grown foods until the market for highly processed packaged foods, and foods that are produced on factory farms—foods that support unhealthy farming practices—shrinks and farms practicing regenerative agriculture fill the void.


Rodale Institute

Regenerative Agriculture United Kingdom

Department of Land & Water Conservation, New South Wales Government

Soils for Life

Polyface Farms

Sarah Streat is a contributing freelance writer and researcher for the Organic Consumers Association.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.