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