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A Better Farm Future Starts With the Soil

Author: Alyssa Charney | Published: September 19, 2107

Within the next year Congress will reauthorize the massive amalgamation of legislation we commonly refer to as “the farm bill.” The farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, has major implications for every part of our food and farm system and covers issues including but certainly not limited to: conservation, nutrition, local food, credit and finance, research and commodity subsidies.

Although healthy soil is one of the essential building blocks of agriculture, historically the issue has not been a major focus of the farm bill – as some farmers would say, soil has been treated like dirt. With extreme weather events on the rise and farmers and foresters feeling the effects of a changing climate, however, soil health is now at the forefront of our national conversation.Soil health is critical for agriculture and natural resource management because only healthy soil can effectively cycle nutrients and capture and store water, which sustains plant and crop life and helps to build resilient, productive agricultural systems. As our most significant package of food and farm legislation approaches expiration on September 30, 2018, many are asking: How can the farm bill support resilient farms, address natural resource concerns and increase productivity? A key part of the answer: promote soil health.

At the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, we’ve been working with our membership for 30 years to create and expand programs and policies that support soil health – an effort we’ll continue in the 2018 farm bill.

Conservation

Healthy soil depends on conservation management practices that invigorate its ability to cycle nutrients, capture and store water, and sequester carbon from the air. The farm bill authorizes several technical and financial assistance programs that support farmers and ranchers in these activities, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Together, these two programs serve as the heart of the USDA’s working lands conservation portfolio.

Through EQIP, participants can take the first step in soil health management by integrating practices such as cover crops, conservation cover, prescribed grazing, range planting and nutrient management. When farmers are ready to step up to even more advanced conservation systems, they can access CSP, which can be used to target soil health improvements, including diversified crop rotations and high-level rotational grazing, on a farmer’s entire operation.

The next farm bill should enhance the long-term funding base for both working lands programs and ensure an ongoing and growing focus on improving soil health. In addition, the farm bill should make sure that USDA has the authority and funding it needs to measure and report on program outcomes. This provides accountability for taxpayers and ensures USDA has the information it needs to modify and improve conservation programs to ensure that they are creating solutions to priority resource concerns, including soil health.

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Soil Carbon Scheme a World-First for South Australian and Victorian Farmers

Author: Jess Davis | Published: August 10, 2017

Farmers in Victoria and South Australia are taking part in a world-first carbon capture scheme to generate a new source of income.

The farmers won a bid under the latest round of the Federal Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) announced in April.

One of the farmers, Mr Farmer Steven Hobbs, said the scheme was a bit tokenistic, but that ”a little bit of tokenism was better than none”.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of double standards in the way our Government is approaching our emissions and it’s very tokenistic in many respects,” he said.

But Mr Hobbs said it was a good first step that the Federal Government had recognised soils were capable of storing carbon.

Farming Soil Carbon

The ERF is an auction available to farmers and land managers for projects to capture carbon, similar to the capture of methane in landfill or piggeries.

For soil carbon, farmers are paid roughly $10 for each carbon credit based on how much carbon they can sequester in their soil over a 10-year period.

Farming is like mining soil, said project leader Deane Belfield, Director of Regenerative Australian Farmers.

Mr Belfield said a lot of carbon had been released through farming over time and the plan was to try to reverse the process.

“The incentive for the farmer is to implement regenerative farming practices, to draw down the carbon into the soil, and that’s what they get paid for,” he said.

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Summary of State Efforts To Promote Healthy Soils and Soil Carbon Sequestration

Date Published: Jul 12, 2017

Conference call notes prepared by Taylor Herren, Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions

20 participants joined in a conference call on July 12, 2017 to share knowledge and insights about existing or proposed policies for promoting healthy soils and soil carbon sequestration (SCS) at the state level. This summary is based on that call and receipt of brief notes from all presenters.

There is a growing interest in healthy soils that is being driven by a concern for water, climate, farmers, and many other co-benefits. These interests, coupled by immense concern in the wake of the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, have created momentum for state led efforts on SCS. Several states are advancing efforts that promote healthy soils in one form or another. Below is a summary of work happening at the state level that aims to support healthy soils and in particular, SCS.

These state initiatives include a range of approaches such as funding mechanisms for demonstration projects and subsidies for farmers transitioning to healthy soils practices, technical assistance aimed at increasing use of healthy soils practices on agricultural land, and re-orientation of existing programs to prioritize and incentivize healthy soils practices.

California

Jenny Lester Moffitt – Deputy Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA)

Renata Brillinger – Executive Director, California Climate Action Network (Cal-CAN)

Torri Estrada – Executive Director, Carbon Cycle Institute

California’s Healthy Soils Initiative (HSI) is a collaboration effort that involves a coalition of state agencies and departments of which are being led by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The HSI is a key part of California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon sequestration in and on natural and working lands. The goal is to comprehensively look at policies that can support healthy soils through (1) improving governmental agencies, (2) incentivizing ranch and farm practice, and (3) research and education.

CDFA has partnered with the NRCS, the California Climate Action Network (Cal-CAN, California Association of Resource Conservation, the Carbon Cycle Institute, along with several universities have helped to inform the design of the program. Climate legislation (first established in 2006) set the state climate target at 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The legislations also established a cap and trade market mechanism, which is where funding for the HSI is derived from.

At the end of the legislative session in August 2016, the legislature approved a cap-and-trade budget that included $7.5 million in first-time funding. Half of that funding was earmarked to go directly to farmers and the other half was earmarked for demonstration projects.

The COMET planning tool is used to assess the impact of practices and projects funded by the HSI.

Links to Resources:

Healthy Soils Initiative Fact Sheet

Healthy Soils Action Plan (CDFA)

Cal-CAN Webpage on the Healthy Soils Initiative

Oklahoma

Stacy Hansen – Oklahoma Carbon & Soil Health Program, Water Quality Division, Oklahoma Conservation Commission

The Oklahoma Carbon Sequestration Enhancement Act (Title 27A, Section 3-4-101) was signed into law on April 16, 2001. The law was amended in 2003 and 2011 and is currently unfunded.

The Oklahoma Carbon Sequestration Enhancement Act called for an Advisory Committee to be formed and specified membership, with members to be appointed by the Governor. The Act required the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, with assistance from the advisory committee, to submit a report to the Legislature by December 1, 2002. The Legislature amended the law in May 2002 to modify and add members to the Carbon Sequestration Advisory Committee. The amendment also authorized the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (a non-regulatory agency) to establish and administer the Carbon Sequestration Certification Program.

Partnerships have been critical from the days of the Advisory Committee, to writing the rules, and developing the verification methodologies. The process has included farmers, ranchers, conservation district directors and employees, and representatives from ARS, NRCS, electric cooperatives, electric companies, grain and seed companies, land grant university, the agriculture department, other environmental agencies and non-profits, the association of conservation districts, oil and gas professionals, and EPA Region 6.

A strength of the program is that it was developed in Oklahoma, for Oklahomans, for the benefit of Oklahoma land, air, and water resources. This increased buy-in of partners and participants. Another strength is the program’s simplicity and practicality. The Oklahoma Carbon Program utilizes policies, methods, and standards that are based in science, reasonable to implement, and achievable by producers. While all carbon market programs must strive to assure that their systems are based on sound science and create positive, verifiable benefits, we feel it is imperative that they also be user-friendly and realistic for land managers.

Some interpret the program’s simplicity as a lack of rigor. The program is not linked to a major market or trading registry. The program needs more funding and staff to reach out to Oklahoma businesses, continue the program’s branding, forge partnerships with other states and markets, and to develop projects.

Verification methodologies developed for no-till, seeded grasslands, rangeland, and soil sampling. Application materials and forms developed. Verifiers trained. Current focus is on soil health education ongoing statewide. Program is branded. “Progressive management crediting matrix” drafted for expanding verification and payments based on tiered management approach (see appendix C in this document). Long-time program developer and director is leaving the agency in September 2017. The program is anticipated to continue.

Links to Resources:

Oklahoma Carbon Sequestration Certification Program

Hawaii

Diana Donlon – Food and Climate Campaign Director, Center for Food Safety

On January 25th, 2017 the state of Hawaiʻi introduced House Bill 1578.

This bill “establishes the Carbon Farming Task Force within the Office of Planning to identify agricultural and aquacultural practices to improve soil health and promote carbon sequestration—the capture and long-term storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change.”

The bill was shepherded through the legislative process in coalition with Hawai‘i CFS, Sierra Club Hawai‘i and the O‘ahu Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. CFS Soil Solutions program provided written testimony for the measure as it passed through several committee hearings.

On June 6th Hawai‘i Governor David Ige signed this bill into law. He also signed SB559 a law adopting the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. making it a historic day for climate action. The creation of the Carbon Farming Task Force went into effect July 1, 2017 and is a direct outcome of the “Healthy Soils, Healthy Ranching” conference hosted by Hawai ‘i CFS and CFS Soil Solutions in October of 2016 on the island of Moloka‘i.

Maryland

Margie Brassil – Legislative Director, Delegate Dana Stein from the Maryland General Assembly

Susan Frick Payne – Coordinator, Ecosystem Markets and Certainty Programs, Maryland Department of Agriculture

The passage of California’s healthy soils bill was the inspiration for proposing legislation in 2017 that would provide an additional push to Maryland’s efforts. HB 1063 – Maryland Healthy Soils Program—was short and not overly prescriptive. The bill’s stated purpose is to improve the health, yield, and profitability of the soil, increase its carbon sequestration capacity, and promote more widespread use of healthy soils practices among farmers in Maryland. It defines healthy soil as the capacity to function as a biological system, increase organic matter, improve soil structure and water and nutrient-holding capability, and sequester carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The bill requires the Department of Agriculture to provide incentives, such as research, education, technical assistance, and subject to funding, financial assistance to farmers to implement practices that create healthy soils.

There were several factors that worked in favor of the bill. First, farmers were already participating in anti-pollution programs to protect the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, which is closely tied to the State’s identity. The Bay’s iconic stature and its role as an engine in the State’s economy through tourism and fishing are ongoing concerns in the State. Strong efforts have been underway for years to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution that has hurt the Bay. Farmers have been doing their part to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, largely through a cover crop program subsidized by the State.

Using monies provided by the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, grants are made to farmers to plant cover crops to protect their fields from erosion, suppress weeds and pests, and improve soil health. In the 2016/17 fiscal year, 560,000 acres of farmland in Maryland, about 50% of eligible lands, were planted in cover crops. This year, the funds will provide $22.5 million for the cover crop program. In addition, Maryland farmers were among the first in the nation to practice wide-scale, no-till farming—reducing not only sediment loss, but also the amount of carbon released from their fields.

Second, Maryland has an aggressive climate goal – reducing GHG emissions by 40% by 2030 — and in preparing its plan to get to that goal, the Maryland Department of Environment has realized it must consider all options, and sequestration is one of the planned measures. A key reason that Maryland is in the lead among state efforts to fight climate change is that Maryland is the third most vulnerable state to rising sea levels. Much of the lower part of the Bay shoreline is close to sea level; in fact, new maps show that about 5% of the State’s land, approximately 284,000 acres, will be permanently underwater in 30 years or less, with a sea level rise of just two feet. And, of course, that percentage will go up as sea levels continue inevitably to rise. The bulk of at least two counties, much of Ocean City, a large tourist resort, and parts of the capital, Annapolis, will be underwater for good before the end of this century.

Finally, the Healthy Soils Consortium had already pulled together many of the stakeholders that could either support—or oppose—a healthy soils program. Because the Consortium members were already primed to support a program that would improve agriculture and address global warming, the bill only needed some tweaking to win support of the major stakeholders and it sailed through both houses of the Maryland General Assembly: It passed the House of Delegates 137 to 1 and the State Senate 47 to 0.

One of the key takeaways from this legislation is that there is tremendous potential for support for healthy soils because of the joint support between the agricultural and environmental communities—two groups that don’t always get along.

Links to Resources:

Maryland Healthy Soils Program

Vermont

Ryan Patch – Senior Agriculture Development Coordinator, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets

The Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is a voluntary program that encourages and supports local agricultural producers to achieve environmental and agricultural excellence. VESP’s goal is to accelerate water-quality improvements through additional voluntary implementation efforts, and to honor farmers who have already embraced a high level of land stewardship. This program was conceptualized in 2016 in response to statewide water-quality and environmental challenges.

This effort is being led by a group that includes the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension.Currently, there are five farms signed up to participate in the VESP pilot program, and there is still an ongoing search to find five more – all ten of which will be used as demonstration sites.

The VESP Pilot will be utilizing the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) new Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool (RSET) which is an online platform that streamlines over a half-°©‐dozen individual field assessment tools.

In addition to VESP, there have been three “Regenerative” or “Soils” based bills that have been drafted the past two sessions:

2016: S.159 https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2016/Docs/BILLS/S-0159/S-0159%20As%20Introduced.pdf

2017: S.43 https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2018/Docs/BILLS/S-0043/S-0043%20As%20Introduced.pdf

2017: H.430 https://legislature.vermont.gov/assets/Documents/2018/Docs/BILLS/H-0430/H-0430%20As%20Introduced.pdf

Links to Resources:

VESP website

Description of VESP Pilot Program

Massachusetts

Dan Bensonoff – Policy Director, Education Events Organizer & PR for Educational Events, Massachusetts Chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association

The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill (H.3713, An Act to promote healthy soils) that is current written to do two things: (1) define “regenerative agriculture” and (2) create a Healthy Soils Program that would be tasked with enhancing “education, training, employment, income, productivity and retention of those working or aspiring to work in the field of regenerative agriculture in addition to providing incentives for regenerative agriculture.

The necessity of this bill is prompted by a few things. There is currently no one in the MA Department of Agriculture who is a specialist in conservation/agroecology/organic agriculture. In addition to this, last year’s drought cost the state and federal governments a lot of money. Such droughts and other extreme weather are likely to become more common and the thinking is that investing in healthy soils is, in fact, a better use of tax dollars than costly infrastructure.

The plan for implementation is as follows. This program would likely be administered as a grant program, ideally funding will be split into a few different buckets that include demonstration sites that highlight innovative practices (ideally, this would be a private farm in partnership with an NGO/institution that would provide exemplars for others and a site for on-farm research), technical assistance (possibly coupled with direct incentives for farms looking to transition to an approved healthy soils practice, or multiple practices), and possibly towards subsidizing purchase of conservation implements/equipment that would then be leased out to farmers

A Soil Scientist With a Plan for a More Resilient Food System

Author: Kai Olson-Sawyer | Published: July 14, 2017 

Laura Lengnick is a big thinker on agriculture and the environment. She has been guided in her work by the understanding that the problems generated by the U.S. industrial food system have been as significant as its ability to produce vast quantities of food. As she sees it, it’s not enough to produce food if there’s not a reckoning of costs and benefits from an unbalanced system.

This comprehensive outlook is a hallmark of Lengnick’s work, as is her positive vision for a more equitable and sustainable future. When it comes to her career, the question is not what work Lengnick has done to explore resilient, sustainable agriculture, but what hasn’t she done. Soil scientist, policymaker as a Senate staffer, USDA researcher, professor, sustainability consultant, advocate—Lengnick has done it all.

With her home nestled in a sunny cove in the North Carolina mountains, she bio-intensively tends to her 3,000-square-foot micro-farm. (She grows everything from greens and radishes to figs and sweet potatoes.) Based on her rich experience and deep expertise, Lengnick now views herself as a science interpreter in her interactions with farmers, public officials and the public at large. (She calls it “science-in-place.”)

Lengnick is the author of many articles and papers for scholars, practitioners and the general public, including the useful and engaging book Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. She was also selected as a contributor to the Third National Climate Assessment, the authoritative U.S. climate report.

Over the years she’s traveled throughout the United States to meet with farmers to investigate the challenges and successes in the field and present her findings to many different audiences. Most recently, Lengnick has been invited to collaborate with the world-renowned Stockholm Resilience Centre, which will bring her views to an even larger audience. In a series of conversations, Lengnick and I spoke about her background, career, and philosophy to better explain where she is today.

Don’t Discount the Future

Innately curious, Lengnick didn’t start out imagining that she was on the road to food and agriculture—she thought of farming as grueling labor, an upbringing which her grandparents were eager to leave. In college she went into a pre-vet program, then photography and the visual arts. After she entered into landscape architecture and took a soils course, things came together. As she dug into soil science she knew she’d found her calling.

As she says, “Coming at it from the front I didn’t see all this connection and relevance you see now. But what I remember, and I think it is what’s sort of served me well in my whole career, is that if I had an option about work or if I was trying to create options for the next thing, it was always something that I was really passionate about.”

After acquiring her degrees in soil science, including a Ph.D., Lengnick was motivated to make an impact. With the passion and knowledge of soils and sustainable agriculture, she turned to a monumental question: How can we feed humanity while maintaining the health of the planet? What she observed was an out-of-whack food system where ever-greater yields and production came at a price to the surrounding environment. From plowing under healthy soils for depleted, monocropped fields to the impairment of clean air and water, she knew the current American agricultural model must do better.

To change the scenario, Lengnick went into the policy realm and became a staffer for South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, a prominent voice on farm and environmental issues, in a role where she worked on soil, water, and wetland conservation programs for farmers. She then moved on to ag research in the USDA, after which she left and spent five years on the outside, lobbying and crafting policy for sustainable ag producers at the federal level.

While Lengnick was successful in her efforts at the federal level, she felt the pace of change was too slow, and decided to leave government. It freed her to be a leader for sustainability in the academic and advocacy worlds, where she had more flexibility to address the challenges of the industrial mindset, of which the industrial food system is just one form. What she identified earlier in her career had become even clearer upon further analysis: The industrial food system was simultaneously productive and brittle, and it degraded natural resources and social bonds.

“The cost-effectiveness of the food system is the same as many other systems that are created by the industrial mind, the neoliberal mindset,” she explains. “I don’t think the food system stands out as particularly good or bad. It is another expression of industrialism, and so I see the same kind of quality in the food system. I also see the same kinds of costs in education system and in communities and any sort of modern industrial assembly of communities and materials and energy.”

Lengnick notes that the industrial system is based on a philosophy that is “laser focus[ed] on technology as being the source of solutions and the source of wealth.” While technological innovation is welcome and necessary to create a good society, the fixation on it is not. This narrow focus perpetuates the concentration of wealth and defines success as the accumulation of material things beyond the point where they retain their value.

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New State Program to Recognize Outstanding Farmers

 Published: July 13, 2017 

You can tell a lot about a farm by looking closely at the soil. That’s why the new, statewide program to recognize Vermont’s most environmentally friendly farmers will be based on soil-sampling and monitoring. Today, Governor Phil Scott announced the pilot launch of the new Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP), which will use soil-based analysis to identify farmers who are going above and beyond to protect our natural resources.

Surrounded by state and federal officials at the North Williston Cattle Company, owned by the Whitcomb family, Governor Scott emphasized the important role farmers play in Vermont communities.

“Vermont farmers are contributing to our economy and keeping our landscape beautiful and productive,” said Governor Phil Scott. “This new, science-based program will use soil health data to help us identify and honor farmers who are going above and beyond the regulations to protect our natural resources.”

The program is a partner effort by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, and the University of Vermont Extension.

“We are still accepting VESP applications, and encourage farms of all types and sizes to apply,” added Vermont’s Ag Secretary, Anson Tebbetts. “We want farmers who are going the extra mile to be recognized and celebrated for their efforts.”

Tebbetts noted that many partners across the state and federal government came together to create this innovative program.

Following Governor Scott’s remarks, farmers Lorenzo and Onan Whitcomb gave a tour of their farm, including their robotic milker, and discussed some of the conservation practices they employ. To see aerial footage, captured by drone, of some of the Whitcomb’s conservation practices, including no-til corn, cover-cropping, and buffer strips, click here: [link](link is external)

To apply for the VESP Pilot, farmers must be in compliance with all State and Federal environmental regulations, and be actively farming their land.

Applicants for the VESP Pilot will be selected for participation through a competitive application ranking process on a rolling basis; there is no fee to participate. Five to 10 farms will be accepted into the pilot program, which will inform the final parameters of the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program, launching in 2019. For more information, please visit: https://agriculture.vermont.gov/vesp(link is external)

About the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program:

Conceptualized in 2016 in response to statewide water-quality and environmental challenges, the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program (VESP) is a voluntary program that encourages and supports local agricultural producers to achieve environmental and agricultural excellence. VESP’s goal is to accelerate water-quality improvements through additional voluntary implementation efforts, and to honor farmers who have already embraced a high level of land stewardship.

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6 States Tapping Into the Benefits of Carbon Farming

Author: Diana Donlon | Published: July 12, 2017 

A handful of states around the country have begun to recognize the importance of carbon farming as an expedient tool to fight climate change. What’s carbon farming? Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, describes it as “a suite of crops and agricultural practices that sequester carbon in the soil and in perennial vegetation like trees.” If carbon farming were widely implemented, it could return billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere—where there’s currently too much, to the soil where there’s too little. Carbon in the soil, i.e. soil carbon, becomes a resource that increases food, water and climate security.

Last month, Hawaii became the first state in the nation to pass legislation officially supporting the Paris climate agreement, just days after President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the global agreement. One of the two landmark laws signed in Hawai’i was an act creating the Carbon Farming Task Force. Written and championed by Hawai’i Center for Food Safety, along with the Sierra Club of Hawaiʻi and Surfrider Foundation O’ahu Chapter, the task force went into effect July 1 and will develop incentives for Hawai’i’s farmers and ranchers to improve the resilience of their lands by increasing the soil’s carbon content.

University of Hawai’i assistant professor of agricultural ecosystem ecology, Rebecca Ryals, believes “Hawai’i’s Carbon Farming Task Force is a critically important first step toward finding local solutions to global climate change, and soil carbon farming strategies should be emphasized in its incentive programs.”

Hawai’i is just one of a growing number of states preparing to protect rural livelihoods from the threats posed by climate change by tapping into the multiple benefits of carbon farming. Here are five others:

1. In May, Maryland established the Maryland Healthy Soils Program introduced by Delegate Dana Stein. Stein’s legislation (HB 1063) passed unanimously in the Senate and had the support of both the Maryland Farm Bureau and the soil and climate communities (including thousands of Center for Food Safety members who responded to our action alert in support of the bill). The act, as approved by Gov. Larry Hogan, requires the Maryland Department of Agriculture to provide incentives including research, education and technical assistance contributing to healthy soils.

2. Massachusetts is right behind Maryland. “An Act to Promote Healthy Soils” (No.3713) presented by Paul A. Schmid III, would establish a fund for education and training for those engaged in agriculture that regenerates soil health. Indicators of healthy soil include levels of carbon, rates of water infiltration and biological activity.

3. Meanwhile, in New York, Assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced A3281, a first-of-its-kind bill to use a tax credit model for farmers who maximize carbon sequestration potential on their land. Although the bill did not pass this past year, Barrett was able to incorporate the Carbon Farming Act into the state budget which is providing $50,000 to study incentives for carbon farming tax credits, grants and other programs.

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California Farmers Creating Healthier Soil to Help Battle Climate Change

Author:Wilson Walker | Published: June 7, 2017

California farmers and researchers are helping rethink approaches to climate change by reworking traditional farming practices.

At Green String Farm in Sonoma County, Bob Cannard grows produce for some of the most celebrated restaurants in California.  “The soil is the foundation of all life, and it can hold so much carbon, and produce so much bounty,” says Cannard, walking through fields that might look overgrown.

This ground cover explosion, however, is entirely by design, because the life and death of these weeds will bring new life to this dirt.  “It doesn’t all burn out in one year,” says Cannard. “You build carbon into your soil.”

That’s the big idea California will now invest in, moving carbon out of the atmosphere and back into our soil.  This summer the state of California will spend seven million dollars encouraging farmers to embrace practices that would make their soil more carbon absorbent.

It’s just a trial program, but the practices that are being encouraged have already been adopted by many climate-conscious farmers.  “The atmospheric carbon, bringing it in and doing positive things with it instead of frivolous or negative things,” explained Cannard, who has embraced the idea of so-called carbon farming for decades.

“I love that soil is becoming part of the story line, that people are saying the word out loud,” said a beaming Kate Scow, soil scientist with the University of California, Davis.  Near the town of Winters, Scow and a team of researchers are conducting a 100-year study on how land responds to different farming practices.

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Factory Farms Put Climate at Risk, Experts Say, Urging Health Officials to Speak Out

Author: Georgina Gustin | Published: June 7, 2017 

Roughly 200 experts in disciplines from nutrition to animal welfare are calling on the World Health Organization to take a more serious look at the impact of industrial livestock production on human health and the climate.

In a letter sent Monday, the group—which includes former New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and environmentalist Bill McKibben—appealed to the WHO, asking that its next director-general work “to reduce the size and number of factory farms.” The WHO’s World Health Assembly got underway Monday, and the body will elect a new leader this week.

“As the global health community acknowledges the intertwined nature of planetary and human health, it must also confront the role that factory farming plays in climate change,” the letter says.

The group points to predictions that, without a reduction in meat consumption, agriculture—including livestock production and growing grain to feed livestock—is on track to gobble up half the world’s carbon budget if countries expect to meet the 2050 target of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. The livestock industry’s contribution to greenhouse gases come from direct sources, including methane emitted from the animals belching and their manure, but also from indirect sources, including land conversion and deforestation linked to growing feed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that agriculture, including livestock production, is responsible for 9 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) gives a higher global number, estimating that livestock production accounts for about 14.5 percent of all human-caused emissions, or about 7.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide or its warming equivalent.

Sara Place, who works on sustainable beef production for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said Monday that the letter’s points about the impact of the beef industry globally misrepresents the U.S. beef industry, the world’s largest producer.

“In the U.S., direct emissions from beef, in terms of methane emissions, was 1.9 percent of U.S. emissions,” Place said, citing 2014 numbers from the EPA. “Transportation is 25 percent of our emissions. Numbers that are accurate at the global level don’t necessarily apply to the U.S.”

While short on policy recommendations and details, the letter suggests that advocacy groups and academics are going to push the issue at a global level.

“The letter highlights the interconnectedness of health, climate and meat consumption. They’re overlapping issues,” said Sunjatha Bergen, a food and livestock specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is an issue that the WHO should look at.”

Globally, meat consumption has increased over the past 40 years, particularly in developing countries as incomes have risen, according to the FAO. The letter points to data indicating that factory farms have served this increased demand, especially for poultry and swine—but it says this surge in production has come at a cost to health and the environment.

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California Today: To Fight Climate Change, Heal the Ground

Author: Mike McPhate | Published: May 30, 2017 

The climate change fight has focused largely on cutting emissions.

But California is now considering another solution: dirt.

Whereas an overabundance of carbon in the air has been disrupting our climate, plants are hungry for the stuff.

The Central Valley’s farmlands essentially operate as a vast lung, breathing in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and converting it into plant tissues. That results in less of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

But the healthier the soil, the more carbon is stored in plants.

Enter California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, a statewide program rolling out this summer that is the first of its kind in the country.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that the soil beneath our feet has huge potential to sequester carbon,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

More than a quarter of California’s landmass is used for agriculture. Over generations, farming practices like monocropping and tillage have reduced the amount of organic matter in the soil, affecting plant growth. Some of that organic matter, which contains carbon, needs to be put back.

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A Climate Change Solution Beneath Our Feet

Author: UC Davis | Published: May 17, 2017 

When we think of climate change solutions, what typically comes to mind is the transportation we use, the lights in our home, the buildings we power and the food we eat. Rarely do we think about the ground beneath our feet.

Kate Scow thinks a lot about the ground, or, more precisely, the soil. She’s been digging into the science of how healthy soils can not only create productive farmlands, but also store carbon in the ground, where it belongs, rather than in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Looking across the landscape on a spring day at Russell Ranch Sustainable Agricultural Facility, most people would simply see a flat, mostly barren field. But Scow—a microbial ecologist and director of this experimental farm at the University of California, Davis—sees a living being brimming with potential. The soil beneath this field doesn’t just hold living things—it is itself alive.

Scow likens soil to the human body with its own system of “organs” working together for its overall health. And, like us, it needs good food, water and care to live up to its full potential.

Solutions beneath our feet

Farmers and gardeners have long sung the praises of soil. For the rest of us, it’s practically invisible. But a greater awareness of soil’s ability to sequester carbon and act as a defense against climate change is earning new attention and admiration for a resource most of us treat like dirt.

Soil can potentially store between 1.5 and 5.5 billion tons of carbon a year globally. That’s equivalent to between 5 and 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide. While significant, that’s still just a fraction of the 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted every year from burning fossil fuels.

Soil is just one of many solutions needed to confront climate change.

But the nice thing about healthy soils, Scow said, is that creating them not only helps fight climate change—it also brings multiple benefits for agricultural, human and environmental health.

“With soil, there’s so much going on that is so close to us, that’s so interesting and multifaceted, that affects our lives in so many ways—and it’s just lying there beneath our feet,” she said.

Subterranean secrets 

Underground, an invisible ecosystem of bugs, or microorganisms, awaits. In fact, there are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are humans on Earth. Many of them lie dormant, just waiting to be properly fed and watered.

A well-fed army of microbes can go to work strengthening the soil so it can grow more food, hold more water, break down pollutants, prevent erosion and, yes, sequester carbon.

“I love the word ‘sequestration,’” said Scow, who thinks the word is reminiscent of secrecy, tombs and encryption. “Soil is filled with microbes who are waiting it out. The conditions may not be right for them—it’s too dry or too wet, or they don’t have the right things to eat. They’re sequestered. They’re entombed. But if the right conditions come, they will emerge. They will bloom, and they will flourish.”

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