Soil management strategies are increasingly recognized as an important part of the solution to climate change and California’s severe drought conditions. Improving soil health by increasing soil organic matter boosts the soil’s ability to sequester atmospheric carbon while significantly improving its water holding capacity, increasing percolation, reducing erosion and contributing to increased biomass or forage production.
While many common agricultural practices degrade soil quality, other practices such as no-till farming, planting hedgerows, and applying compost can improve it. This presents an opportunity for the agricultural sector to farm carbon in addition to food and fiber – becoming an important part of the response to the tandem global challenges of climate change and severe drought.
Compost application projects developed and evaluated by the Marin Carbon Project, the Carbon Cycle Institute and UC Berkeley scientists demonstrate that a one-time application of ¼ inch of compost to grazed lands is a proven and effective way to increase soil carbon sequestration. This strategy can also help reduce emissions from landfills by putting food waste and green waste to better use.
In Santa Barbara County, a partnership has emerged that includes the Cachuma Resource Conservation District (CRCD), the Carbon Cycle Institute, the Community Environmental Council (CEC), LegacyWorks Group, the state and local offices of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District, the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Ted Chamberlin Ranch, UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC Extension, and the California Carbon Project. Together this team is identifying local interest, conducting carbon farm plans, and monitoring several field trials – including one of only 17 NRCS trials in California. We are also studying the availability of land and compost for large scale application and how this might help us meet the targets in the County’s Energy and Climate Action Plan.
Our region has been working to establish carbon farming practices on rangeland for several years. Each milestone is bringing us closer to scaling-up carbon farming across our lands.
- 2014-15: The Rancher-to-Rancher program provided educational resources and on-the-ground learnings to landowners, which, among other things, centered on the importance of carbon sequestration as a tool for increasing soil health and water holding capacity. Through the program, family managers of a local ranch became motivated to put carbon farming practices into action.
- December 2015: The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) funded and worked with the Carbon Cycle Institute to create a Carbon Farm Plan for the ranch. One of the strategies identified in the plan is the placement of compost on 4,300 acres of the property.
- January 2016 – present: More than a dozen partners are conducting field trials at the ranch – — making this project one of the most visible compost application research pilots in the state.
- May 2016 – December 2016: With funding from the LEAF Initiative, CEC and the CRCD conducted an analysis of the potential for scaling up carbon farming in Santa Barbara County and concluded that the supply of high-quality, low-cost compost would likely be one barrier. The final report, Scaling Up Carbon Farming: A Compost Supply Analysis of Santa Barbara County, is currently in a peer-review process and outlines next steps in compost development.
- May 2016: The Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan — of which the LEAF Initiative is a partner– identified the reduction of C02 emissions in the food sector as one of its top 16 priorities, and carbon farming as one of its top strategies. During the upcoming implementation phase of the Food Action Plan, the SBFAP project manager will work with partners such as the local ranchers and others to quantify the successes of pilot projects and feed those successes into the Food Action Plan’s reporting system.
- December 2016 – December 2017: With support from a recently awarded LEAF grant, CEC and CRCD will move into the “scaling up” phase by developing carbon farming eligibility for CEQA mitigation funding, addressing questions or concerns from specific stakeholders (ie relating to the impact of compost application on native plants), and conducting one-on-one outreach to gauge interest and identify the next possible ranchers and farmers to draft carbon farming plans.