The case for carbon farming in California

Can farmers and ranchers use plants to capture greenhouse gases?

 

Workers prepare compost for the next season at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo, California. If 5% of the state's 56 million farm acres were treated with compost, it would sequester as much carbon as taking 6 million cars off the road.
Kitra Cahana/Getty Images

Agriculture is responsible for one-third of global carbon emissions, but an increasing number of farmers and ranchers think it can be a powerful ally in the fight to slow climate change, through a set of techniques called carbon farming. 

The underlying principle of carbon farming is straightforward: to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, where it drives climate change, and put it back into plants and the pedosphere, the Earth’s living soil layer. One way farmers do this is by fertilizing their lands with nutrient-rich compost. As plants grow, they store carbon in their leaves and roots and bank it in organic matter, such as decomposing plant pieces in the soil. Soil microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, also store carbon. This prevents the carbon from escaping into the atmosphere and joining oxygen to form carbon dioxide.

Carbon farming has taken hold in California, which is increasingly stepping up as a pioneer of progressive climate policy in the U.S., even as the Trump administration denies the reality of climate change. Today, more than 80 ranchers and farmers in the state are implementing the practice. And the number is likely to increase, since the 2018 Farm Bill includes provisions for a pilot program that gives farmers an incentive to farm carbon. 

Grassland soils naturally absorb and store carbon in soil organic matter, but common agricultural practices, like plowing and tilling, diminish this ability by breaking apart the soil and releasing its stored carbon into the atmosphere. The good news is that carbon can be reabsorbed by the very same soil. Dozens of farming methods, including composting, managed grazing, no-till agriculture and cover crops, are thought to achieve this feat. Many of them mirror age-old, organic farming techniques.

The potential for land-based carbon sequestration in California is significant. Rangelands cover about 56 million acres, half the state’s overall land area. According to The New York Times, if 5% of that soil is treated with compost, the carbon sequestered would offset about 80% of the state’s agricultural emissions, the equivalent of removing nearly 6 million cars from the road. If scaled to 41%, it would render the state’s agricultural sector — now accounting for 8% of the state’s overall emissions — carbon neutral for years. This amount is anything but negligible: California is the most populous state in the U.S. and the country’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Overall, it’s responsible for 1% of global greenhouse emissions.

Because carbon farming allows farmers to use fewer pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, it’s likely to help cut costs. That means that increasing soil carbon while farming isn’t just possible, but good for business as well.

Still, logistic and economic challenges remain. The up-front cost, for one: While carbon-farming techniques can ultimately save money, the high production costs associated with compost make it quite expensive in the short term. Applying compost in California costs around $700 per acre — more than the majority of ranchers and farmers can afford. California is trying to offset costs by offering ranchers and farmers small grants. With demand currently outstripping supply, there is also the problem of compost availability. 

And there are many unknowns — for example, no one really knows how long soil keeps carbon out of the atmosphere. Additionally, climate change itself could be an enemy of carbon farming: As temperatures warm, soils heats up, and soil micro-organisms expel carbon dioxide. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, calculates that by 2100, up to 15% of the world’s soil and biomass could become net carbon-emitters.

Ultimately, carbon farming may only pull a limited amount of carbon from the atmosphere. But in California, grasslands appear to be a less vulnerable carbon storage option than fire-prone forests. With global greenhouse gas emissions on the rise, we need to commit to using carbon farming.

Marcello Rossi is a science and environmental journalist. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, Smithsonian, Reuters, Outside and others. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...