The Marin Carbon Project Leads The Way for SCS: It All Started With Compost

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The Marin Carbon Project began at the West Marin Nicasio Native Grass Ranch under the management of John Wick and Peggy Rathmann. Originally an experiment designed to measure the carbon benefits of good grazing, a comprehensive soil survey of grazed grassland in Marin found that the biggest soil carbon stocks occurred in lands that had manure applied to them historically. This finding lead to the theory that adding carbon to the top of the soil could create an ongoing carbon sink

in grasslands. Using compost instead of manure to test this hypothesis, it was discovered that a single, one time, application of compost stopped carbon loss and restored health to the soil and plant communities creating an ongoing, photosynthetically derived carbon sink. This increase in soil carbon

and the overall betterment of soil health had the additional benefit of increasing forage production, enhancing water retention and creating higher protein content in grasses. These benefits persist ten years after the original compost applications and new political, economic and educational systems have since been successfully piloted and scaled to the state and corporate level in support of carbon cycle management through agriculture.

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Based on their scientific findings, the partner organizations of the Marin Carbon Project with leadership from the local Resource Conservation District created a suite of processes, projects and policies designed to support carbon capture and storage on ranches and farms. They modified a long used tool for landscape restoration provided by the US Department of Agriculture called conservation planning and refocused it on managing for carbon, calling it Carbon Farm Planning. Working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service they created the COMET-Planner, an online calculator that allows landowners to estimate soil carbon benefits from over thirty USDA approved conservation practices. Working with the local dairies, fiber producers and non-profit partners they also began to build the regional rangeland producers ability to increase the value of their products though community and corporate investments in on farm and regional agricultural processing and manufacturing infrastructure centered around climate beneficial products.

Carbon farming producers are now self labeling their products and working with corporate buyers to tell the climate beneficial story. As of 2018 there are sixteen individual Carbon Farm Plans in place in Marin County, and over thirty Resource Conservation Districts in California offer Carbon Farm Planning, providing technical assistance and financial support to farmers and ranchers for over two dozen conservation practices known to enhance soil and biomass carbon capture on farm. Over a dozen California counties have included agriculture and soil carbon sequestration in their Climate Action Plans and many more plan to do so. The NRCS is almost complete with statewide trails of compost application which will make the practice eligible for Farm Bill monies via the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and in 2015 State of California launched its Healthy Soils Program which allocates revenues from the State’s cap and trade program to agricultural producers implementing practices known to have a soil carbon benefit.

Ten years after the original test of a one time light compost application on a holistically grazed 540 acres of California coastal prairie, the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch continues to flourish. Wildlife is abundant and many unique wildflower species are on riotous display in the spring. Areas treated with compost continue to produce above average forage and remain greener longer in the drier season. Mr. Wick manages his ranch with the purpose of developing and demonstrating management methodologies that are known to be climate beneficial. He does not own his own herd of cattle, but borrows one each year instead, focusing on the use of grazing to optimize the health of the entire ecosystem.

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As a land manager I have seen a cascade of measurable benefits from focusing on carbon development and fostering a habitat where life can thrive.
— John Wick, Co-Founder Marin Carbon Project

San Diego: The Most Robust Carbon Farming Network in Southern California

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San Diego’s landscape is both urban and rural and contains more small farms than any other county in the nation. Perhaps because of this, it was one of the first southern California regions to adopt the framework for carbon farming pioneered by the Marin Carbon Project. Beginning in 2016 with two $10,000 dollar grants, one to the Resource Conservation District (RCD) and one to the San Diego Food System Alliance, local partners committed to the vision of healthy soil, got to work putting in place the support systems necessary to launch carbon farming in the region.

Two years later the region has the most robust carbon farming network in Southern California.

  • The RCD has developed a carbon farm planning and technical assistance program (creating their first two carbon farm plans and reaching 38 producers with their initial technical assistance workshop for the Healthy Soils Program),

  • The County included soil carbon sequestration in the update to their Climate Action Plan (putting in place a new possible funding mechanism for carbon farm practices)

  • The City of San Diego passed a first of its kind ordinance for California allowing community composters to operate in city (making compost more affordable and accessible for area farms).

In the first round of the California Healthy Soils Program, the Greater Area San Diego RCD received funding to support the implementation of three practices in the region, compost application, mulching, and cover crops, and has hired new staff to provide technical assistance and consultation for carbon farming in both San Diego and neighboring southern California regions.

Montado Farm and San Diego RCD Staff at the Santa Ysable Ranch (first ranch in San Diego County to create a carbon farm plan and southern most site for the CA NRCS field trials for compost application on grazed rangelands)

Montado Farm and San Diego RCD Staff at the Santa Ysable Ranch (first ranch in San Diego County to create a carbon farm plan and southern most site for the CA NRCS field trials for compost application on grazed rangelands)

In 2017 with leadership from the Farm Bureau and the San Diego Food System Alliance (SDFSA) the Carbon Farming Advisory Council was formed. Its members include: the regional Air Pollution Control Board; San Diego Health and Human Services; San Diego Department of Public Works; San Diego Agriculture, Weights, and Measures; San Diego Planning and Development Services; local RCDs; the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); as well as non-profits, and educational institutions. SDFSA produced a detailed local analysis estimating potential GHG benefits of compost application on crop and range lands and riparian restoration could sequester over 234,000 MT CO2E annually. Elly Brown, the Executive Director of SDFSA, explains why they took up advocacy and community organizing to support carbon farming;


Left to right: Puja Batra of Batra Ecological Strategies and Elly Brown, ED of San Diego Food Systems Alliance

Left to right: Puja Batra of Batra Ecological Strategies and Elly Brown, ED of San Diego Food Systems Alliance

“…farmers in our community are facing financial pressures while also holding an unturned key to our climate change goals. We felt soil health could provide farmers another form of financial sustainability while also contributing to the overall health of our food system. We also saw that carbon farming and zero waste opportunities are a strong and clear nexus between rural and urban systems.”

Work supporting carbon farming continues in 2018 with the local chapter of the Farm Bureau exploring how it can support healthy soil practices in its membership, while SDFSA seeks to link products coming off practicing farms with the regional economy. Says Brown, “…we have the framework set up, now we want to ensure that the large institutions in our community buy in by purchasing food produced here on carbon farms and composting their food waste back for use here in the County.”