climate change, soil carbon, California, Wick, John Wick, ranchers, Silver, carbon dioxide, ranching, grazing, Jeffrey Creque, Modern agriculture, cattle, Whendee Silver, carbon capture, Marin Carbon Project, carbon cycle, carbon sequestration, MCP, Allan Savory, West Marin, Renata Brillinger, excess carbon dioxide, international conversations, UC Berkeley, Kellyx Nelson, excess carbon, Ohio State University, John Wicks, invasive plants, Point Blue Conservation, Heather Rene, soil biology, Carbon Cycle Institute, Skype Rattan Lal, soil microorganisms, Holistic Management, San Mateo County Natural Resources Conservation District, carbon compounds, Prince Charles, National Park Service, Point Reyes National Seashore, Peter Donovan, carbon credit, carbon credits, Brillinger, organic form, Lawrence Berkeley Lab, fermented foods, pilot projects, soil health, Joe Morris
UC Berkeley Recent Work Title From the Ground Up Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/4nc5m200 Author Mack, Heather Rene Publication date
Powered by the California Digital Library University of California
Heather Mack May 12, 2015 MASTER'S PROJECT UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism ABSTRACT: "From the Ground Up" Can ranching actually slow or even reverse climate change
? If you are talking to the growing community of "carbon ranchers," the answer is yes, as long as you are looking at soil as the first part of the solution. Long overlooked, this living, breathing ecosystem is home to thousands of organisms that are starving for carbon. Modern agriculture has released excess carbon into the air instead of keeping it right where it belongs, but a growing number group of ranchers, scientists and policy makers around the world are starting to figure out how to put it back. SOURCES Dr. Whendee Silver, UC Berkeley; Marin Carbon Project, 510. 643.3074 Dr. Jeffrey Creque, the Carbon Cycle Institute; Marin Carbon Project, 707.765.1059 John Wick, Marin Carbon Project, 415-450-1356 Wendell Gilgert, Point Blue Conservation, 530. 592. 3380 Peter Donovan, Soil Carbon Challenge, 541-263-1888 Allan Savory, Savory Institute (Zimbabwe), via Skype Rattan Lal, Ohio State University
CalCan Summit 2014 Books The Soil Will Save Us, by Kristin Ohlson Cows Save the Planet, Judith Schwartz Grass, Soil, Hope, by Courtney White
From the Ground Up Can ranching fight climate change? Deep in the coastal grasslands of West Marin, where rural ranches cohabitate with rugged wilderness, Whendee Silver was getting dirty. For weeks, she waded through the droppings of hundreds of cattle and plunged her hands into piles of reeking compost, all in pursuit of a theory she didn't even really believe. Silver, an ecologist at University of California, Berkeley
, was looking for carbon. In the air, carbon, in the form of Carbon Dioxide
, is the bad guy; existing in excess alongside other greenhouse gases that drive climate change. But in the soil, it's a highly desirable element that, pulled from the air by photosynthesis, can nourish soil health and in turn improve the health of plants and the animals that eat them---- all the while diminishing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The theory Silver was testing was the proposition of a local rancher, and it to her ears sounded naively ambitious: that soil, with the right ranching protocols, could capture and store carbon faster than it could be emitted, effectively offsetting climate change. But as she sampled soil from three--dozen farms in the far--flung outpost about an hour's drive from San Francisco
, Silver wasn't convinced. "I figured it would be impossible to prove that carbon was moving from one place to the other from the air to the soil," says Silver. "And I figured that if we could, we wouldn't like the results." Petite and lithe, Silver has a personable demeanor and an easy smile. But her manner can swiftly turn dauntingly cool when she's presenting data. Her blue eyes turn sharp and her words come out in in quick, exacting tones that suggest she doesn't have time for those who don't get it. Still, she had agreed to do the research at the behest of Marin ranch owner John Wick. As a carpenter--turned--rancher philanthropist (by marriage), Wick, 60, was new to ranching. A recent disaster had opened his eyes to the importance of rangeland ecology, and he was now convinced that building soil carbon was the key to reversing global warming
. As a biogeochemist, Silver had spent her entire career researching how nutrient cycling and biodiversity is affected by land use, and was dubious of the power of compost and cow crap to save the world. Then the data came in, and Silver was pleasantly, profoundly surprised. While there was a lot of variation in the carbon levels among farms, the highest levels came from those that had spread raw manure on the land. "The carbon was getting there and staying there," Silver says. "And we were not expecting that." But the carbon she was measuring was not just the carbon from the manure the ranchers had supplied. She was measuring carbon that had been in the atmosphere--a lot of it.
Silver had done literature studies on soil carbon, but there wasn't a lot of information on how it actually cycled through farms depending on how the land was managed. Agricultural rangelands make up about half of the planet's terrestrial geography. But ranching's role in combatting global warming has been overshadowed by its undeniable role in creating it. Agriculture as a whole is, paradoxically, both destructive and vulnerable when it comes to climate change. Modern agriculture in the form of tilling, chemical fertilizer and improper waste management contributes about one--third of excess carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, along with even more noxious greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide. At the same time, modern agronomic practices are robbing soils of the carbon they need to stimulate photosynthesis, hold water and prevent erosion. So, the air is choking with carbon and the soil is starving from the lack of it. Depleted of the element, the soil degrades, leading to a worst--case scenario of desertification. This process is exemplified by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the drying up of parts of Africa and Australia today, and some soils in California that are collapsing now under the current drought. Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State's Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, estimates that the world's soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their carbon stock since we began relying on modern agriculture, and we continue to lose it through careless practices like overgrazing or water mismanagement. Most of that carbon formerly in soil is now in the atmosphere, helping to heat the earth. But investing in the research and implementation to reverse that historical trend were almost unheard of until recent years. Enter Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, who is heiress to a biotech fortune. Wick's resources and zeal were all they [referent unclear] needed to take the data collection
to the next level. Thus, in 2007, was born the Marin Carbon Project: a consortium of ranchers, scientists and, later, government officials
dedicated to promoting soil carbon sequestration. For the next phase of research, they turned their attention to compost, since it has a more stable carbon content than manure. They set up formal test sites in Marin, the Central Valley and in the Sierra Foothills, and went to work spreading about a half-- inch of compost over the ground. They measured the carbon content of the soil and that of the compost, then waited a year. After measuring the levels, it was clear that the amount of carbon in the soil exceeded what could have come from the compost it was coming from the air. "The thing is, it worked," Silver says. She isn't prone to drama, but she pauses and slowly tucks a wisp of blonde hair behind her ear when she recounts the moment the data became clear.
"After a year, a metric ton of carbon was added to the soil. I thought it was a fluke, but it kept working, and here we are seven years later." It still is working, adding more carbon year after year, all the result of that one--time application of an inch of compost. Computer models the MCP developed indicated that the carbon levels could keep building, and would remain high for 30 to 100 years after that initial compost application. The results were convincing enough that they were able to conclude that if the practice were to be replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would capture enough carbon in the soil to offset 42 million metric tons
of carbon emission
s, an amount equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions
from all commercial and residential sectors in the state. "These are ranching practices that human beings
have been doing for centuries," says Silver. "All we did was quantify it." Wick is grateful for the data, but needed no convincing. In recent years, he had become obsessed with global warming and was initially hell--bent on returning the ranch he'd bought in Nicasio Valley into his own version of a National Park. But his own ranching mistakes led him to this newfound path of agriculture--as--land and climate steward. He sees carbon as a source of hope, and wants to get the entire planet onboard. "For anyone who doesn't think this will work? That's ok," he says. "We'll save the world for them, too." That may sound audacious, but there's reason to get excited. From its humble, albeit well--funded beginnings, the MCP has emerged as one of the leading examples of "carbon ranching," whose roster includes the organic, no--till practices developed by the Rodale Institute of Pennsylvania; a traveling school bus that spreads the gospel of soil with its Soil Carbon Challenge; and the rise of intricately planned grazing methods that puts the soil before the grass. The projects happening on the ground have led to an expanded role for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Services and have spearheaded new laws that provide ranchers with funds for soil conservation and restoration projects. Around the world, that promise of soil to help roll back climate change and feed the world is starting to gain traction. The United Nations
declared 2015 the International Year of Soils and established a Global Soil Partnership, stating, "The renewed recognition of the central role
of soil resources as a basis of food security... and ecosystem services, including climate change adaptation and mitigation has triggered numerous regional and international projects, initiatives and actions."
The methods aren't new, and they aren't expensive or high--tech. Yet there still is no centralized authority to ensure that soil becomes a key part of the dialogue about climate change. So for now, most of the work is happening one ranch or farm at a time. "Farmers employing holistic management and carbon ranching now are the incubator for what agriculture can do to fight climate change," says veteran environmental journalist Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate advocacy group 350.0rg. "We need more brains, muscle and judgment on farms." II. The Moment of Truth Wick wasn't always a champion of the ranching man. He was a city slicker with a dream to return to nature. When he moved to Nicasio Valley, a tiny hamlet in West Marin, he was in full--on panic mode over global warming. He lay awake at night, envisioning the earth as a dead planet. "I saw we were on the trajectory to becoming the next Venus," said Wick. "I couldn't even sleep at night. I wanted it to stop with me." So when he purchased a 540--acre ranch, hoping to do his part to save a piece of nature, he couldn't wait to dismantle the marks of man and return the land to its wild, natural state. He set to work tearing down fences and evicting the cattle that mowed the pasture, just as their predecessors had for hundreds of years. He worked feverishly, envisioning the hills as voluptuous mounds of velvety native grass undulating under a fog--cleansed sky. Instead, he was rebuked by the land itself. Not only was it staggeringly less beautiful than he had imagined less grassy than scrubby but it became downright unhealthy. The pastures choked with invasive plants, the soil bare in spots, and so dry it was cracking. "I thought wilderness was something that just happened naturally," Wick says, his clear blue eyes squinting intently into the middle distance. "I didn't know anything. I was hopelessly romantic about an idea that I didn't understand." Instead of reverting to a pre--grazed, pre--ranched state as if humans had never intervened, the land was caught in awkward tumult. Without a ruminant to graze them, voracious, water--sucking invasive plants took hold, overpowering the native grasses. Wick noticed that birds were passing over without stopping, as if there was nothing worth coming down to earth for anymore. Compared to the surrounding farms, where lush coastal grassland hums with a vibrant green practically the year round, Wick's land had become an eyesore. The vegetation was languishing, and the sun--exposed soil devoid of nutrients from manure and decomposing organic matter was starving. After generations of
grazers, from the Tule Elk endemic to the region to the imported cattle that have lived in California for centuries, the animals and land had settled into a comfortable symbiotic relationship
that Wick had intentionally destroyed. Cows, Wick had believed, were just the farting, burping methane bombs whose grazing only accelerated climate change. How the chemicals and gases cycled through air, plants and soil wasn't obvious to him yet. Gazing woefully at his ranch, he was heartbroken and confused. He needed some pastoral support. He turned to local rangeland expert Jeffrey Creque, who gently informed him the hands--free approach was killing the land. If it were ever going to recover, it wouldn't happen until the cows came home. "John's place was, well, it was pretty bad for awhile," says Creque, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "It was hard to look at." His eyes tightened at the corners in embarrassment. Creque, 60, is the laconic, brainy counterpart to Wick's ebullience, and now serves as the chief rangeland expert for the Marin Carbon Project. While Wick can expound on the unparalleled, world--saving potential of soil carbon sequestration for hours, Creque is demure, almost shy. He has the lean, compact build of a runner, greying sandy--blonde and a clipped beard that gives him a resemblance to Vincent Van Gogh. He speaks seamlessly in low, even tones with the temperament of a scientist, but his eyes have the same spark of excitement as Wick's. "It doesn't take high--tech strategies to engage with the carbon cycle," he says. "But you have to first understand that the ecology in the soil is dependent on carbon." The tricky part is carbon is not just a thing, it's a process; a complex chemical eddy in the flow of sunlight energy through an ecosystem, via photosynthesis. Driven by solar energy, plants pull in carbon dioxide from the air, mix with water and minerals from the soil, and begin the exchange of nutrients that stimulate Plant growth
. At the end, a portion of the carbon is left in the soil in a stable form. This reserve carbon will remain unless the cycle is disrupted enough that it escapes back into the air. "But if we do things that speed up the photosynthetic process, carbon is pulled out of the air and getting stored faster than any emissions can negate it," says Creque. The atmosphere has more than enough carbon almost 400 parts per million versus the 350 scientists say is acceptable to stabilize the atmosphere. Wick had those numbers burned in his mind, but his new education was showing him that it was not so much a conversation about how much carbon there is, but where it is, and how to redirect it to the soil.
After 30 years in organic farming, Creque knew that ruminants were critical to the health of grasslands like John Wicks'. Rangelands experts are still trying to pinpoint what it is about planned, rotational grazing wherein cattle are moved frequently to ensure any one plot isn't over grazed that improves soil health. But the working theories say grazers help aerate the soil and stimulate root growth, control invasive weeds and deposit manure that acts as a free fertilizer. So the cattle were brought back, and within a year Wick was startled to see the land regain its luster. The grass sprang up tall and green, insects buzzed happily between the flowering plants and the birds were overhead again. The life cycle had resumed. "For so long, I had bought into this idea that nature was better off left alone, but now I saw that this perspective just wasn't supported," he says. From there, a new John Wick was born. His focus shifted from unperturbed nature to soil microbiology, and he set to work devouring every book, lecture and TED talk he could find on the subject. Climate change was still the center of every conversation he had about agriculture, but for the first time, he began to see how ranching might be presented as a solution. "It's so simple," says Wick today, shaking his head. "The answer wasn't getting rid of cows or ranching; it was learning the life cycle of carbon and how to manipulate it." Wick's folly had offered up the perfect opportunity to learn the solution. He just had to get his head out of the clouds and into the soil. III. SOIL "Dirt is what's under your nails. Soil is what is under your feet," says Wendell Gilgert, an ecologist who's spent 34 years in the Natural Resources Conservation District. "There are more species living in a spoonful of soil than there are in the entire Amazon rainforest, but we know less about it than probably any ecosystem on earth." Soil is a living thing, teeming with all kinds of life forms that eat, breathe, excrete, reproduce and die. It is also a wilderness--far more complex than we yet understand and largely unmapped. Just a gram of the stuff is typically home to more than 10,000 individual species, and they're living in one of the most complex ecosystems on earth. The microbes, nematodes and bacteria that live in soil are among the oldest life forms on the planet. Along with worms, insects, and snails, all of these organisms decompose organic material aerobically, breathing oxygen and breaking down materials within the soil. This relationship between the micro and macroorganisms think of the mold bacteria that will overtake forsaken fruit until it's a pile of mush play the dominant role in cycling chemicals around earth.
"The carbon cycle is what we talk about when we talk about soil," says Creque. "And we have to stop interrupting it." But we haven't had to think much about soil health and the carbon cycle since we figured out, early in the 20th century
, how to force soil to produce year after year by applying synthetic nitrogen fertilizer
s. While nitrogen initially boots plant production, the fertilizer reaches a saturation point in the soil, then begins depleting the soil until the microbes have nothing to eat. The soil becomes acidic, unable to absorb nutrients, and eventually becomes a nitrogen junkie it can't do anything until it gets its hit, and but further depletes itself in the process. Practices that are sustainable are usually based on capturing carbon, but farmers just might not realize it, says Creque. They might be seeing increased forage and better water--holding capacity, without thinking about the fact that the carbon cycle is actually pulling greenhouse gas out of the air and adding it to the soil. "Carbon is what's stimulating the microbes to get to work and get that process going," says Creque. The carbon cycle moves in four steps starting with photosynthesis. In green plants, the energy of sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy in the form of glucose, which is made by combining carbon dioxide from the air with water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a by--product. Glucose is then resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates like cellulose and starch, proteins and oils. Much of the carbohydrate is used to build the plant itself. But if the soil is healthy, some 30 to 40 percent of the carbon from photosynthesis goes down to the roots, where it be exuded directly into the soil. Why? Because the plants feed sugars to the community of microbes in its rhizosphere in exchange for other nutrients the microbes supply to the plants. "It's like a hand--off of nutrients," says Creque. The sugars enter the microbial ecosystem and, as microbes die and excrete various byproducts, become humus the dark, thick rich layer of topsoil that we've come to associate with productive land. Humus is composed of large, complex molecules of carbon, nitrogen and minerals-- and the bodies of dead microbes. Once carbon is stored in the soil in the form of humus, it will usually stay there. And humus is a rich storehouse not only of carbon but of nutrients and water. The goal of the MCP is to use compost to nudge the rate of photosynthesis by nourishing plants and increasing microbial action in the soil. When it succeeds, the process grows more grass (and in turn more beef) and carbon is added to the soil faster than it can be emitted by either cattle or the soil itself. "As Wick says, "Win, win, win."
It was a hot autumn afternoon when Wick gave the full tour while driving his electric, golf cart--like vehicle. The long, winding driveway is lined with idle vehicles of all makes and sizes, from a white, bumper--stickered Nissan mini truck to an ancient Army bus ($300 on eBay!), all projects he's working on to convert to ethanol. We cruise past a cattle guard and a dried--up creek, which was once deep enough to hide a vintage washing machine now exposed for all to see. Based on what they saw on his ranch green, vivacious pasture following the return of grazers Wick and Creque knew something was increasing the soil carbon. But as they developed their theory about the possibility of rangelands as carbon sequestration tools, they needed a way to quantify it. Not only would this show that ranching could be a positive force in combatting climate change, it would afford them an entrйe into the carbon credit market
. "Once we started thinking about carbon capture, we started thinking about methods we could use that would actually help us measure it in ways that we couldn't with cows," says Wick. "So then Jeff and I started thinking about compost." Wick sets the break and hops out. He sets up a white board on an easel near the side of his three--mile long driveway and begins to break down the concept of compost-- boosted photosynthesis, complete with a drawing of a smiling flower, sun and a layer of soil full of wiggly creatures. It had the instant effect of being transported back to second grade, which could be a welcome refresher for those who haven't been in a science class in awhile. Compost gives soil an energy boost. It's full of nutrients in organic form which are bound to carbon compounds. Compost is also rife with bacteria, and those bacteria are workhorses, Wick explained. It's almost like a form of animal husbandry
. "It's bacteria, yes, but we have to have the right kind," he says. "It's like the difference between fermented foods and rotten foods." The compost's bacterial community breaks down organic matter into a form plant roots can absorb. Microbes start off the process, and as they eat, they generate heat within the pile before they poop out literally. Then come the heat--loving microorganisms that really get fired up compost piles can reach anywhere from 100 to 140 degrees with all the eating, excretion and decomposition. Along the way, big guys like worms and insects move through, eating the decomposing matter and then excreting a further "finished compost." Taken together, all these components serves as a slow--release fertilizer. Added to the soil, plant growth is stimulated faster and faster as carbon builds up within. There is nothing new about compost. Farmers have used it for centuries. In the Bay Area, the ubiquitous green bins on our kitchens and curbs, and posters touting compost as "the New California Gold," suggest we share, at least locally, a collective appreciation of the glory of food and plant waste. But beyond helping us grow more
robust and plentiful vegetation compost can increase forage up to 50 percent until recently little was understood about how it harnessed carbon in the soil. Wick didn't know either, which brought him and Creque to Lawrence Berkeley Lab, There, without warning, Wick got on Whendee Silver's radar for the first time. "He didn't even introduce himself. He didn't even make a presentation or mention climate change," says Silver. "He just looked right at me and said, `Are you an optimist?'" Silver was...sort of. She is a scientist, after all, and isn't given to enthusiasm without seeing hard facts to justify it. She recounts the story from her cavernous office in the Hilgard Hall, a stately building that is part of Berkeley's School of Environmental Science
, Policy, and Management. Even though she's on the third floor, the long, earth--colored hallways feel coolly subterranean. Appropriate for someone who has spent her career in dirt. "That was the meeting that led to the whole project, and it really didn't seem like it was going to be much at first, but [in retrospect] it's pretty much a no--brainer," says Silver of the compost experiment that got MCP where it is today. After the initial 2007 testing, the San Francisco Department of Environment got involved, providing the MCP with most of its compost, and the USDA provided additional funding. The results were published in the Society for Range Management, a peer--reviewed journal in year 2010, and in 2013, the MCP's protocol for carbon capture was officially sanctioned by the American Carbon Registry. This designation means ranchers across the country can adopt the MCP's methods and, in places where carbon markets have been established, like California, receive incentives in the form of carbon credits. As Silver, Creque and other researchers worked on the science, Wick was busy with outreach to policymakers both in California and abroad, efforts that have led to the introduction of state and federal legislation that earmark conservation dollars towards carbon ranching programs. "It's the low--hanging fruit. It's not going to reverse climate change nothing will," says Silver, ever the sober scientist. "But as we sit around, still dependent on fossil fuels, it's something we can do in the meantime that we know is positive." Scaling up is the challenge now, and it's not as simple as putting compost just anywhere. Silver's lab is working to fully understand what negative impacts compost could have in certain lands such as how much greenhouse gas compost creates and figuring out how different practices work together. Since soils differ from place to place, managing for soil carbon will call for locally adapted strategies rather than one--size--fits--all prescriptions.
"We're at a point now where we are trying to roll out our carbon farming process across a variety of land types vineyards, orchards, row crops but all managed landscapes," Creque says. "And the beauty of soil carbon is people don't even have to be thinking about climate change to reap its benefits, in increased fertility and water--holding capacity. That's just the added bonus for everyone. " IV. The Need for Cows Before the advent of modern agriculture, the U.S. was home to towering grasses and deep, fertile soils several feet thick--soils created by the same carbon cycle John Wick is trying to recreate on his ranch. The grasslands were grazed by all kinds of large ruminants, and did just fine. But today, just three percent of North America
's tall grass prairie remains. After decades of tilling, fertilizing and overgrazing, topsoils have been depleted and a massive amount of carbon has been leached into the atmosphere. Instead of being carbon storage "sinks," these once fertile grasslands have been converted into croplands that store far less carbon than they once did--or still could. The benefits of grazing are still difficult to show scientifically. How the practice increases soil carbon still isn't agreed on or even understood by ranchers and scientists. "We're still not exactly sure what mechanism it is that is increasing the carbon," says Creque. "But we have lots of examples of deep carbon that has evolved under grazing, like the Great Plains and buffalo, and we can see land coming back today under the presence of grazers." When Creque helped Wick repair the disastrous effects of his hands--off rangeland management, he put aside his need to collect data and started with a history lesson. Agriculture has been a fixture of coastal California for centuries. Coast Miwok Indians had begun altering the land thousands of years ago, and the expansive coastal prairie of West Marin was most likely the byproduct of burning, weeding, pruning and harvesting over two millennia. Cattle, brought over by Spanish settlers, further established West Marin as a grazing zone. The 1849 Gold Rush brought an influx of agriculturists to the area along with capitalists and merchants, and dairies flourished here from the 1850s on, but animals were here long before that. Most of the lands where livestock roam now were grazed long before we ever domesticated animals for their meat, milk or hides. In North America, mammals like deer, elk, bison and even mammoths grazed our grasslands long before humans arrived. But due to the force of predators and the need for water, they never stayed long in one place, so the land had a chance to recover. Not only was the land rested at regular intervals, it was also fertilized by manure, and the soil was aerated by the
hooves of the animals. They stimulated plant growth when they munched on the grass tips, and their trampling of weeds kept invasive species at bay. What you see aboveground, in the stalks of grass, mirrors what is going on below in the roots. The ecosystem surrounding the roots is the rhizosphere, a microscopic trerritory where root secretions meet soil microorganisms. (If you were to pull a plant out of the ground, roughly, by the roots, the rhizosphere would come up with it.). If ranchers allow the grass to grow out, the animals will eat the top portion of the plants and leave the bottom alone, preferring to move on to the next patch of lush green growth. Not only are the tops of the grasses easier to reach, they likely taste better because of the higher concentration of glucose at the tips, and the animal is just as shameless as any of us, looking for the tastiest stuff first. By confining animals to a small area, rotational grazing forces them to eat more of the plant mass, with important implications for what happens underground When the grass plant is grazed, it seeks to rebalance the ratio of its leaf mass to root mass. It does this by shedding, or pruning, a portion of its roots, which then decompose as the denizens of the soil eat them--first the earthworms, then the nematodes and finally the microorganisms, following a food chain that ultimately deposits the carbon that was in those roots into stable soil carbon. Creque cautions that it's still tough to know exactly what's going on when animals are present. "We know herbivory is a natural dynamic of rangelands, but we're still trying to answer a lot of questions based on biology and theory," he says. The salutary impact of animals on land was the first thing Wick needed to understand to shift his thinking about cattle. He wasn't the only one. Most of us assume that the impact of cattle on land is inherently negative. But progressive ranchers across the world have seen the benefits of grazing by watching and mimicking the patterns of wild herd animals. The key to turning cattle from a scourge into a blessing is how many animals are on the land, and how frequently the rancher is alternating periods of rest and periods of grazing. Andrй Voisin, a French biochemist and farmer, first described these practices and gave them a name: "Holistic Management." In his landmark 1957 book Grass Productivity, Voisin observes that overgrazing isn't a function of the number of animals on a plot of land, but the amount of time they spend there. The question is no longer whether to intervene or not, but rather how best to intervene. The reason cattle have been blamed for environmental destruction was the fault of ranchers allowing them to over--graze. When animals stay too long, come back too soon, or graze too soon after dormancy, the grass can't catch up. Grass that is short is still growing off carbohydrate reserves rather than from active
photosynthesis. It isn't yet hosting the miraculous feeding frenzy of decomposing nutrients and microbes that help grow deep roots. It's like running a car on gas fumes. It works, sure, but not for long, and the results can be painful. The soil gets beat to hell, and the shallow roots continue to lose carbon dioxide as the bare soil is exposed to sun. In Marin, the migratory patterns of the Tule elk endemic to the area had gotten the land accustomed to brief cycles of heavy grazing, followed by rest, as the herds moved on at the behest of predators. Upon hearing this, Wick's first idea was to contact the National Park Service
, which shares borders with the historic pastoral zone of Point Reyes National Seashore. In 1978, the NPS began reintroducing the elk, which had all but disappeared from the area before they became a protected species. By 2009, the herd was at 400 strong. While many ranchers have a contentious relationship with the elk and the NPS Wick had a different take. "I was ready to bring the elk back," he says. "I wanted to have them here, on my property as grazers. The National Park didn't go for it." Wick was afraid of working with cows at first he was still new to ranching at that time but today he is a regular cowboy, single--handedly herding groups of 250 at a time. He walks with the cows, encouraging them from spot to spot in order to mimic the migratory pattern grazing of wild ruminants. The rancher, in effect, plays the role of predator, urging the ruminants not to remain very long in any one spot. There's no getting around the fact that cows still emit methane. But figuring out the correct ratio of cattle to land plot in quantities where soil carbon is still increasing provides hope that a portion of the methane is offset. Joe Morris, a rancher working about 120 miles south of Wick, in San Juan Bautista, raises his 800--head of cattle on grass using methods he developed with the Soil Carbon Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing carbon storage. Over three years (which included the drought years between 2011 and 2012) he established soil carbon monitoring sites on three plots of his pasture. Grazing 800 cattle, he saw an increase in soil carbon even at the deepest measured levels (around 40 centimeters), but virtually no gains on the plots that he left ungrazed. "This is not only great news because it's been a very serious drought, and we're building soil carbon at depth," says Morris. "This is giving us very real feedback about management. We know how to plan now." These days,"Holistic Management" has become a somewhat loaded term. Zimbabwean biologist Allan Savory adopted it in the 1980s, expanded the definition to including the idea of increasing the amount of livestock on all rangeland. Savory began given his trademarked Holistic Management workshops around the world, and has become something of a celebrity in recent years. The uptick in hype undoubtedly owes to the moment he started throwing climate change into the mix
of his message. His Holistic Management prescription earned him the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Award, and he's been showered with praise from the likes of Prince Charles
and progressive ranchers such as Joel Salatin. Savory drove home the climate implictions of Holistic Management in a 2013 TED talk that catapulted him to notoriety, both good and bad. "Livestock is the only solution to reverse climate change and stop desertification," he says, obviously perfectly at home with hyperbole. It wasn't long before critics began pointing out the evidentiary holes. For the claim that holistic management is reversing desertification around the world, he provided no peer--reviewed literature, just pictures and stories. He also extrapolates that regenerating half the world's grasslands through HM could return us to pre-- industrial carbon dioxide levels, without any supporting data. "He has no business making these claims," says Silver, sounding a note of exasperation. "If he is going to be factually inaccurate, then his work doesn't help anyone. Especially not Silver, for whom the jury is still out on grazing. She says the prodigious methane from cattle even small herds is enough to concern her. Moreover, she notes that most people touting the wonders of grazing are often employing other adaptive techniques like soil amendments or irrigation overhauls. "I just don't see the data to support what people are claiming," she says. "If you are doing some magical thing that doesn't take into account everything else that is happening with cattle, then maybe then I could be convinced." V. Moving Forward California's abundant natural resources, geographic location, weather and innovative ethos have set the stage for countless industrial booms, and agriculture has been one of the most enduring. Some 78,000 farms collectively produce over 400 food and fiber products, representing almost every crop produced in the United States and generating about $43 billion. When you see the year--round variety of produce in our markets or drive through some of the most beautiful farmland in the world, California agriculture seems unshakeable. But the state's four--year drought has put has put climate change at the center of every conversation about the future of California agriculture, and caused many to wonder if it has one. In late 2014, a Stanford University
study demonstrated that the drought is linked to climate change. While the state is no stranger to drought, scientists say this might be the worst we've had in over a thousand years, and may portend a future of increasingly hot, dry years for California.
"The drought is visible to everyone, even those who aren't sold on the fact that climate change exists," says Creque. "But it's not just about the water. We need soil just as much." But the carbon has to be there before soil can act like a sponge, soaking up water and holding it long enough for plants to make use of it. Since agriculture already uses about 80 percent of what we have in our reservoirs, this water--holding capacity provides protection against the inevitable droughts to come. Additionally, building the carbon content of soil enables it to hold firm during the sporadic but potentially more severe rain storms that would otherwise erode land. When rain hits weak, degraded soil, it does little to quench the land's thirst. Instead, the water washes away in the runoff. In conversations about the drought, however, most conversations stay firmly on water only. Even as appreciation for the many benefits of soil carbon is gaining traction, most ranchers have little idea how much carbon they have in their soils, let alone how to increase it. Peter Donovan, who serves as an amateur soil specialist, is there to fill the gap where science, ranching and policy haven't quite come together. In year 2011, he started the Soil Carbon Challenge, a nonprofit that educates ranchers who are looking to beef up their soil carbon content. Driving around the country on a converted school bus, he sets up monitoring plots to get ranchers acquainted with their land. Since 2010, he's traveled 30,000 miles in his bus (which he also lives in), on top of thousands more spent on train, bus, plane and car in the U.S., Mexico and Canada. "It gets lonely, but it's incredible to see the growing interest and commitment that people have for soil and restoring land," says Donovan. It's spring and he's inside his school bus, in San Juan Bautista. The dйcor is spartan cast--iron pots and pans, a wood--burning stove and maps of the United States. Out front, his itinerant home is marked with a sign reading, "Soil Carbon Monitoring AND Piano Tuning." Donovan, 62, has straight, wheat--colored hair and light blue eyes, and a square, compact build. He's sorting through the soil samples from test plots in Tehama County, about three hours north of the Bay Area. Colorful plastic plates are spread across his countertop, nearly overflowing with soil. He paws through them bare-- handed, pausing every few seconds to pick out rocks. He'll send the samples to CalPoly to test for the soil carbon content, then establish a plan at the soil's source to either build more, or, if it's already strong, keep up the good work. His bus affords a 360--degree view of the vast farmland outside. One of the ranches we can see from here Joe Morris's cattle ranch is, in January, lush and green, with stately valley Oaks dotting the hills. Four years ago, Morris learned about pattern
grazing from Donovan, and is an active participant in the Soil Carbon Challenge's "Rancher to Rancher" workshops to help farmers set up grazing plans. The other ranch we can see is typical over--tilled farmland: dry and the color of cardboard. Donovan traces a hand through the air, gesturing towards the two farms outside the bus. "That's the difference between being connected to the carbon and being oblivious," he says. While Donovan loves the fact that more government agencies
and academic institutions are getting onboard with the soil carbon conversation, he doesn't think new policies are necessarily the answer. "There are a lot of ways you can go about this, but we have to remember that ranchers have been left out of this conversation for a long time," he says. "So we have to be careful about the way we spread the word. We want people to be interested first, rather than just coming in there from a stance of, `You dumb son--of-- a--bitch, don't you know you are killing your soil?'" As he writes on his blog, "To find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, or do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction? NO. You run a race. Or a series of them." As Donovan sees it, there's a lot of talk about soil carbon. But instead of waiting for a policy or federal program to develop over time, ranchers and ecologists should just get out there and collect data. From there, he says, we should give recognition to the land managers who have figured out how to increase soil carbon. The good news is that projects like Donovan's are helping us get to the point where that kind of monitoring is the reality. And even though he's not convinced policy is the way to go, work like his is spurring the government to develop plans to encourage more ranchers to act. In Governor Jerry Brown's State of the State speech in January, Brown outlined goals for climate change and water management
that were refreshingly direct. "We must manage farm rangelands so they can store carbon," he stated. These were words Jeff Creque thought he'd never hear. "That was an historic moment that might have gone unnoticed," he says. "But it really represents the work we've been doing on our ranches." In March, the California Climate and Agriculture Network hosted its fourth annual summit. Held in the farming hotbed of the University of California, Davis, the topics ranged from drought to carbon to policy, and the mood was surprisingly optimistic.
"A lot of us have spent many years geeking out on soil biology and soil health relatively alone, and now we're part of a state--wide, national and international conversations we haven't seen before," said Kellyx Nelson, who works with the San Mateo County Natural Resources Conservation District. Renata Brillinger, executive director of CalCan, called the summit the "collective brain trust" of agriculture. "Research is making it clear that agriculture has a real role to play in climate change," said Brillinger. " Projects like the MCP are instrumental in those cases, building on climate policies established by AB 32, California's landmark, 2006 cap--and--trade program. The work of the MCP led to the successful passage of a bill in early April that directed $50 million from cap--and--trade money to fund pilot project
s around the state, and a similar bill just past the State senate that focuses on increasing soil organic matter in farmland. "We still have to fill in the holes of our understanding," Silver says. "Most of these are good practices anyway, but we still have a lot of studying to do. What really is the potential impact, globally?" Projects to build soil carbon won't always be as neatly packaged as the MCP not every rancher has the benefit of John Wick's resources. To educate and set up the tools each rancher will need be it planned grazing, compost, or planting cover crops---- most projects will require funding and supervision. But as Wick sees things, the possibilities are endless. Back on the ranch tour, the happy warrior is working merrily away, spreading compost, moving cattle. We crest the hill and he chats exuberantly about his latest interest a project that involves looking into a new type of compost fertilizer. As we get to the top, he sweeps his hand across the impressive view of coastal valley, gold and green all the way to the Pacific. "This THIS! Is what farming looks like!" His voice is practically breaking. He sets the brake and bounds out of the vehicle, heading towards a large, cubical structure, hollow in the middle, comprised of straw bales stacked in graduated heights. He climbs up and removes the dark green tarp covering the top, releasing the thick scent of mulch as he sits onto one of the bales. I peer in at what looks like store--bought potting soil
as he thrusts his arm up to the elbow into the dirt and pulls out a thermometer. "It's from the SF Sewage Department," he says. "At this point, now that it's 85 degrees centigrade, we know that the pathogens have been destroyed. It's all clean."
As Wick gamely puts the compost ---- made from the decomposing waste of humans, into his mouth,----he looks out into the fields, past the horizon and, far into a future of farming the rest of us haven't even imagined yet.