Land management is among the largest contributors to climate change. Agriculture is the ONE sector that has the ability to transform from a net emitter of CO2 to a net sequesterer of CO2 — there is no other human managed realm with this potential. Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, using fossil fuel based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides result in significant carbon dioxide release. Alternatively, carbon can be stored long term (decades to centuries or more) beneficially in soils in a process called soil carbon sequestration. Carbon Farming involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter.
Carbon farming is successful when carbon gains resulting from enhanced land management and/or conservation practices exceed carbon losses.
Carbon Farming Practices
Recent studies demonstrate the efficacy of several carbon-beneficial agricultural practices in increasing soil carbon sequestration. Compost use has been shown to increase the amount of carbon stored in both grassland and cropland soils and has important co-benefits, such as increased primary productivity and water-holding capacity. Restoration of riparian areas on working lands has the capacity to sequester significant amounts of carbon. There are at least thirty-two on-farm Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation practices that are known to improve soil health and sequester carbon, while producing important co-benefits: increased water retention, hydrological function, biodiversity, and resilience.
Carbon Farm Planning
We start with the creation a Carbon Farm Plan (CFP), where our team works with a farmer or rancher to assess all the opportunities for GHG reduction and carbon sequestration on their property. A set of online tools (COMET) developed by researchers at Colorado State University, NRCS, CCI and the Marin Carbon Project, allows the quantification of GHG benefits. When we implement carbon farming, we also address many of ecosystem health impacts related to agriculture, including: groundwater and surface water degradation. Converting manure and other organic waste into high-quality compost, avoids the methane and air quality issues of conventional on-farm nutrient and waste management, and, improving soil health and soil organic matter directly improves the water holding capacity of soils, as we have seen first-hand on our demonstration farms across California.
Carbon Farming Implementation
The Carbon Cycle Institute has developed a model framework for land management that emphasizes carbon as the organizing principle. Land management within this framework leads to enhanced rates of carbon capture, increases the provision of important ecosystem services (especially water), and mitigates climate change. The framework relies on sound policies, public-private partnerships, quantification methodologies and innovative financing mechanisms that ultimately empower local organizations to efficiently implement on-the-ground, science-based solutions. Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) are an essential component of this framework. RCDs act as hubs that foster local partnerships to develop and implement carbon farming plans and practices in their districts, Several RCDs across California are building local partnerships, creating Carbon Farm Plans and engaging producers in carbon farming. it is critical to strengthen the capacity of RCDs and local agricultural support organizations to scale carbon farming to achieve measurable carbon capture, and address climate change and agricultural resilience, through both mitigation and adaptation.
Implications for Our Climate
According to Marin Carbon Project research, sequestration of just one metric ton per hectare on half the rangeland area in California would offset 42 million metric tons of CO2e, an amount equivalent to the annual green house gas emissions from energy use for all commercial and residential sectors in California.
(The majority of these practices were selected from the USDA-NRCS GHG Ranking Tool)
- Mulching/compost application
- Residue and Tillage Management, No Till/Strip Till/Direct Seed
- Anaerobic Digester
- Multi-Story Cropping
- Windbreak/Shelterbelt Establishment
- Silvopasture Establishment
- Forage and Biomass Planting
- Nutrient Management
- Tree/Shrub Establishment
- Forest Stand Improvement
- Contour Buffer Strips
- Riparian Restoration
- Riparian Forest Buffer
- Vegetative Barrier
- Windbreak/Shelterbelt Renovation
- Alley Cropping
- Riparian Herbaceous Cover
- Range Planting
- Herbaceous Wind Barriers
- Critical Area Planting
- Residue and Tillage Management
- Forest Slash Treatment
- Filter Strip
- Grassed Waterway
- Hedgerow Planting
- Cross Wind Trap Strips Conservation Cover
- Wetland Restoration
Carbon constantly cycles through five pools on planet earth. Light energy coming from our sun functions as the fuel for the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is a critical natural process that moves carbon through our atmosphere, biosphere, pedosphere, lithosphere, and oceans.
Human activity has tipped the balance of the carbon cycle through extracting enormous quantities of deeply sequestered fossil carbon as fossil fuels. These dense forms of carbon, when burned, release massive amounts of energy and carbon dioxide.
More carbon dioxide is now being released than the earth’s land-based plant life and oceans can naturally reabsorb. The excess carbon dioxide has formed a blanket in our atmosphere—trapping the sun’s heat and changing our climate, as seen in shifts in our earth’s jet stream, ocean currents, and air temperature. Rainfall patterns are changing and glaciers (water storage for many communities) are melting quickly.
We have an opportunity to restore balance within the carbon cycle in a way that will ameliorate climate change, build resilience to drought and increase our agricultural productivity naturally. This natural solution is called Carbon Farming.