More than 40 soil enthusiasts gathered last week at Paicines Ranch south of Hollister at a “State of the Soil” meeting, hosted by the Paicines Ranch. The meeting consisted of scientists, farmers and ranchers, policymakers and funders interested in advancing the idea that healthy soils are a key element in the challenge of global warming.
Soil has the ability to capture and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere – a well-known fact among scientists, biology students, ranchers and farmers – but not always thought of as a solution to climate change.
“Carbon farming is land restoration,” said Connor Stedman, a young farmer and owner of AppleSeed Permaculture from Stone Ridge New York. “With regenerative agriculture we can build a global toolkit using agroforestry, farming in the wild, and adding a human dimension to planning & design.”
Stedman was not alone in his hope that agriculture, and soil health specifically, has a positive role to play in decreasing global warming. The convening was a three-day discussion about ideas on how to advance soil health. Participants agreed that in order to move soil to the forefront of funders’ and policymakers’ agendas there is work to be done on monitoring and measuring soil health, as well as communicating the importance of its role in a healthy environment.
“It was a really great group of people focused on what actions we could collectively take,” said Wendy Millet, director of TomKat Ranch in Pescadero, Calif. “Break out groups focused on some important topics and participants seemed eager to follow up and talk about next steps.”
Participants were all invited to the gathering because of their work to advance soil health and are all working on the topic, either in academia, government or private enterprises. The group included some of the country’s most well-known names in the regenerative agriculture community, a vibrant and growing segment of the larger agriculture sector.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming is the executive director of Greenhorns, an Essex, New York-based non-profit dedicated to recruiting, promoting and supporting a new generation of young farmers.
“We know qualitatively that ranchlands managed by rotational grazing make for calmer, healthier cattle, that soil moisture lasts longer, that the ground is covered with better perennial grasses, that stocking rates can go higher, and that the beef is higher quality,” von Tscharner Fleming said.
“We know that some ranches are healthier than others, with wetter-springs and denser wildlife — and we know that this takes work. We know that these are the outcomes of good management by thoughtful cowboys, land stewards and ranch managers improving the life of the soil, and its capacity to hold carbon.”
Policymakers discussed the need to review existing state and federal laws that benefit farmers and ranchers who care for the land to encourage good stewardship. California’s AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, is the most comprehensive climate change law in the country but “does little to advance agriculture’s unique opportunities to provide climate benefits,” according to Renata Brillinger, executive director of The California Climate and Agriculture Network. Providing landowners with incentives like property tax breaks or infrastructure improvements could promote soil health while fighting climate change, she said.
Scientists agreed they need to standardize monitoring methods and soil health measuring protocols. Huge amounts of data are currently being collected around the country in various projects that measure soil health but needs to be cataloged.
Peter Donovan, co-founder of the Soil Carbon Coalition, is building an “Atlas of Biological Work” using Google engine to map landscapes. He is planning to build a Wiki-like database and sees benefits in correlating different types of data like layered digital maps that could accept data uploaded from farmers and ranchers across the country.
“There is citizen usability: a digital infrastructure to layer all this stuff together at all scales and graph databases,” Donovan explained. “We can use citizen science to upload and download data so people could use it as they want to, creating building blocks. We just need to put the pieces together using cloud data storage.”
The Marin Carbon Project has also seen success on spreading compost on rangelands, speeding up the process of increasing carbon in the soil and partnering with municipalities to recycle green waste.
Greg Simonds manages hundreds of thousands of acres in Nevada and says the potential of rangelands to sequester poses a huge opportunity for landowners and policymakers alike. “I’m an environmental capitalist,” Simonds said. “People have opportunity and responsibility at the same time.”
Paicines Ranch owner Sallie Calhoun bought the ranch with her husband, Matt Christiano, in 2001. Since then, they have renovated all of the historical buildings on the property and developed a grassfed beef business. They also rent out the facilities for weddings and events, including the annual Kinship Wine Tasting. Calhoun has also turned the ranch into an educational facility where people can come to learn about holistic management, regenerative agriculture, and soil health. Her vision includes looking for solutions to climate change and seeing how healthy soils can play a role in that.
“I am managing from a place of abundance and hope,” Calhoun told the group. “And it should be fun.”
Benefitting the environment, energizing rural communities, and producing good food were common themes of the meeting. One goal of the group is to establish better monitoring tools so that practices that produce results can be verified and replicated.
“We also know its sometimes hard to track exactly what has improved, in terms of soil carbon, or to make the case to land-owners that they should do what it takes to get these results,” von Tscharner Fleming said. “By using low-cost monitoring approaches, we can help all the stakeholders justify the work it takes to get good results on the land, which bear fruit for more than just the landowners and cattle, but also for watershed users and indeed sequestering carbon from an over-crowded atmosphere.
For me the excitement springs from understanding that the data-standards and monitoring technologies are beginning to be able to quantify successful management. We need to keep supporting this work so that open, community-gathered data can be used for policy advocacy, adaptive management, and quantifying the results of good practices.”