Carbon farming for climate health

This "Looking Forward" editorial by Jeanne Sparks was published in the Santa Maria Times on Nov. 17, 2016: and in the Lompoc Record on Nov. 17, 2016:

In the 1930s, farming techniques that created soil erosion, combined with drought, created the Dust Bowl, a catastrophe that disrupted the lives of many and took years to recover from.

We are facing a global crisis today brought on by our own actions. Climate change threatens us more than the Dust Bowl. Yet, just as people took action back then to reverse the damage, we can do the same now.

In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt took action by creating the USDA Soil Conservation Service, which recognized that "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands … is a menace to the national welfare." In 1937, FDR encouraged states to create soil conservation districts to extend cooperative efforts and conservation assistance to more farmers.

Later, the Soil Conservation Service became the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the local soil conservation district became the Cachuma Resource Conservation District (CRCD). Their efforts helped reduce soil erosion, increased water retention and led to many beneficial practices.

These agencies now work with other governmental and non-governmental organizations, landowners, universities and private foundations to help get carbon back into the ground where it belongs.

As much as one third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere comes from practices such as grazing, driving a tractor and tilling the soil. Carbon farming can remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it long-term. The amount of carbon sequestered can exceed the amount emitted into the air through conventional farming practices.

According to experts, if we increase the quantity of carbon contained in soils by 4 percent a year, we can halt the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and can limit the average global temperature increase to the 1.5°C to 2°C threshold. In addition to helping meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, carbon farming can significantly improve the water-holding capacity of soil and increase percolation – important benefits during an extended drought.

Demonstration projects have shown applying just a quarter-inch of compost on grazing land will greatly improve water retention and plant growth, making the land more productive and enriching the soil. Through photosynthesis, plants take carbon out of the air, convert it to plant material and deposit it in the soil through their roots.

The Community Environmental Council is one of the leaders in the local effort. They are looking at the potential for improving soil health, water-holding capacity, carbon-storing capacity and plant growth that are compatible with ranching. They are also looking at ways to incentivize good stewardship that ranches already are doing.

According to the CEC, if a quarter-inch of compost is spread, with landowner approval, over 15 percent of the rangelands in the county, it could offset all the county agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. If that amount of compost was applied to 40 percent of the rangelands in the county, it could offset the gap in the County Climate Action Plan.

A pilot Rancher-to-Rancher trial began on the Ted Chamberlin Ranch in Los Olivos in 2014 to demonstrate and share best practices among ranchers. Partners include CRCD and NRCS.

We applaud these efforts and encourage more of them. The more quickly we can implement these and other types of efforts, the sooner we can reduce the effects of climate change while improving soil health and water retention.

Jeanne Sparks is associate director of Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN). She can be reached at [email protected]. Looking Forward is a progressive look at local issues.