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Marin Carbon Project and the Carbon Connection

By David Lewis, UCCE Marin Director

What began as a conversation and an idea between a Marin rancher, a local rangeland expert, and a University of California Berkeley professor has grown into a strong partnership of local organizations and multiple ranchers doing on-the-ground projects.

The Conversation and Proof of Concept
John Wick, co-owner with Peggy Rathmann of Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, and Dr. Jeff Creque, area rangeland consultant, had been collaborating on John and Peggy’s ranch for several years to improve ranch productivity through soil management. The more John learned the more he became interested in the potential to capture carbon that would benefit the ranch and provide one solution to climate change. “There were visual signs on the ranch that our efforts were making a difference in productivity but we had no way to measure and confirm what was happening” John related in telling the story. “We had hopes it was for the good and wanted to make sure we were not making things worse with regard to climate.” John and Jeff arranged for a meeting in 2007 with several UC Berkeley faculty to explore how this potential could be researched and scientifically confirmed. In attendance was Dr. Whendee Silver, a Biogeochemist that had been working on rainforest carbon dynamics. Dr. Silver, with the measured objectivity and skepticism of a trained researcher, took interest in the question presented by John and Jeff – can farming and ranching practices capture carbon from the air and store it in rangeland soils? Where it belongs?

That conversation initiated a research program that has now published more than six scientific articles and provided confirmation that the application of compost on California rangeland soils leads to significant and long-lasting carbon capture and storage. In addition to this offset of greenhouse gas emissions, forage production on test pastures is 40 to 70 percent higher than pastures without compost. A result that is likely driven by the documented increase in soil organic matter and the amount of water stored in compost treated soils. This proof of concept for carbon sequestration and documented gains in ranch productivity provided the needed confidence and credibility to scale up and implement this practice and others on cooperating ranches.

Metric ton – one metric ton equals 1,000 kilogram (kg) or 2,200 pounds (lbs.)

Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – a measure used to standardize comparisons of global warming potential from the emissions of various greenhouse gases. For example 1 MT of methane is equivalent to 25 MT CO2e.

Scaling up through Partnership
In parallel with that conversation, Marin’s agricultural support organizations were forging a partnership around agriculture and climate resiliency. Representatives from the Carbon Cycle Institute, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin Agricultural Department, Marin Resource Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and University of California Cooperative Extension forged the Marin Carbon Project to coordinate respective strengths and roles for broader community education and on ranch program implementation. “We are working on agricultural solutions to climate change,” summed up Jeff Creque. The Marin Carbon Project is doing this by taking the results from research plots of a few acres and scaling up to the entire ranch, countywide.

The cornerstone of this partnership is the development of Carbon Farm Plans. Comprehensive ranch specific documents detailing a suite of carbon beneficial practices that when implemented amount to substantial quantities of carbon captured on the ranch. Presently, the Marin Carbon Project through the leadership of Lynette Niebrugge - MRCD, Jim Jenson - MALT, and Jeff Creque - CCI have completed three plans. These plans adapt carbon beneficial practices, including compost application, methane digesters, and riparian forests among others -recommended by Natural Resources Conservation Service to specific soil conditions and production systems of each ranch.

Ranchers’ Interest and Role
“Most of us in ranching make our living from the soil” opened Loren Poncia, owner of Stemple Creek Ranch, when asked why he signed up for the Marin Carbon Project. “I don’t have all the answers, I am just learning and I needed education about soil and soil health,” he added. Loren along with Albert Straus, owner of Blake’s Landing Farm and Straus Family Creamery and Hank Corda, co-owner of the Corda Ranch and Director of the Marin Resource Conservation Service are participating with the Marin Carbon Project as three demonstration ranches. The Marin Carbon Project is “allowing me to plan and take a longer term approach with more expertise to make on-farm changes,” shared Albert. “Personally, I had been looking to establish a baseline for our farm and as a business Strauss Family Creamery’s mission is to make family dairy farms viable and part of that is to improve soil conditions,” he added. Hank, echoed Albert and Loren’s thoughts explaining, “we are benefiting from a five year plan that gives us a vision for our ranch beyond that. Helping us layout rotations for grazing and opportunities to grow more feed.”

These carbon farm plans are already making a positive difference for ranch operations and management. “I see a marked difference with the amount of residual dry matter in our pastures,” Hank shared, continuing “we were able to bail this additional grass for feed.” He emphasized that “even though we didn’t have a lot of rain this year we still had sufficient feed.” “One thing I am doing is paying attention to what is happening with the grass and soil,” Loren related, “another is that I am looking to use compost throughout the ranch.” Similarly, Hank offered “we plan to use more compost and even make some on the ranch for use.” Albert’s next steps include “putting up hedgerows and pasture fencing” to improve herd rotation through fields. Reflecting on broader benefits, Albert added about the Marin Carbon Project efforts, “quantifying the role of methane digesters helps tell the story of our farm and area farms reducing GHG emissions and working on climate change.”

carbon farming

Making a difference going forward
The three demonstration carbon farm plans cover a combined 2,400 acres. When fully implemented, more than 67,000 MT CO2e will be sequestered. If these predictions are correct, this is nearly 70% of the Marin Climate Action Plan annual goal for GHG emission reductions! At present, the Marin Carbon Project is initiating development of six more carbon farm plans begin implemmentation with the goal of having 20 plans written and beginning to be implemented by 2017. Achieving this scale of planning and implementation will make significant contributions to successfully reaching and eclipsing goals like those in the Marin Climate Action Plan.

Taking it all the way to the Capitol
The real challenge is securing the “support needed to do it at a scale needed to make a difference to the climate,” Jeff Creque stressed. Fortunately, steps like Governor Brown’s approval of the California Healthy Soil Initiative and approval of carbon beneficial practices by the American Carbon Registry and California Air Pollutions Control Officers Association are putting that support in place. At a local and regional level support is needed through the alignment of policies in specific county climate action plans and Air Quality Management Districts that recognize the potential offsets and solutions agriculture can provide. Climate change is an “all hands on deck crisis” Jeff emphasized and added “ranchers bring a passion to their relationships with their lands and soil, and with the right level of support we can make it.”

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Carbon is Everywhere

A human being is approximately 18% carbon, . Coal is 75% percent carbon . Compost, the prized gardening amendment, is approximately 50% Carbon. with somewhere between two and three pick-up truck loads containing a ton of carbon. Globally the largest pool of carbon is in the world’s oceans followed by the amount in fossil fuel reserves, terrestrial soil and vegetation, and the atmosphere in that order.

The transportation sector in Marin emits approximately 1.5 million metric tons (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) annually. This is equal to annual emissions of 315,790 passenger vehicles and is 58% of the 2.7 MT CO2e of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted annually in Marin. These emissions and others have contributed to increased carbon levels in the atmosphere and resulting change in the planet’s climate. In comparison, there is an estimated 10.1 million MT CO2e stored in soils of Marin and 7.2 million MT CO2e stored in the vegetation. These are buffer against climate change and hold the additional carbon.

Marin County released its draft Climate Action Plan in August. Full implementation of the action plan will contribute to an overall reduction of 104,500 MTCO2e for Marin County operations and jurisdictions. Strategies to achieve these goals combined renewable energy, mass transit and high efficiency vehicles, and energy efficient construction and renovations. The plan recognizes the potential for offsets that exist on Marin’s 160,000 acres of ranch and farm land, through the capture and sequestration of carbon.

What is the potential on Marin’s farms and ranches to contribute to reaching and even exceeding these goals, how is that being accomplished, and what are the reasons ranchers are pitching in? This and other benefits of soil management is what the Marin Carbon Project has been working on for the last seven years.