By David Jessup
First I thought we were cattle ranchers. Then I learned we were grass ranchers (the cattle are merely a way to get the grass to the bank). Then at a 2010 Quivira Coalition conference, I found out we are really carbon ranchers, of all things.
Plants scrub the air of Carbon Dioxide during photosynthesis. Some of the carbon goes into the soil through the roots, where it gets stored in humus. Humus lasts a long time. It enriches the soil while removing excess CO2. Unfortunately, our chemical-heavy agricultural system is destroying it at a scary rate. “Don’t treat soil like dirt,” one speaker said.
Following the conference, Linda and I paid a visit to John Wick, a California rancher working with the Marin Carbon Project. He’s all hepped up about the potential of wrangling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in soil humus. How? By spreading a thin layer of compost on his cattle pastures. He claims that a mere 2 percent increase in the carbon content of agricultural soils in his state could absorb all the annual CO2 emissions from California vehicle traffic. Oh, and by the way, the increased soil carbon makes the grass grow taller and faster.
So you can improve your pastures and help save the planet at the same time? Sounds like a bargain.
We’re now trying to replicate some of his research here at Sylvan Dale Ranch. With some advice from John and carbon researcher Whendee Silver, a UC Berkeley professor, and some baseline soil samples taken by Rich Conant at Colorado State University, we spread compost on one side of our pasture in a checkerboard pattern to create a number of sample plots. CSU’s Center for Collaborative Conservation helped pay for some of the compost (it’s expensive!). We’ll mob-graze some of these plots with our cattle herd to see if trampling hooves and manure also enhance carbon storage. Then more soil samples. Results will be posted here as they come in (not soon, I might add – soil building is a long-term process).
In the meantime, I found some riveting internet sources on carbon ranching:
- The Carbon Pilgrim. Courtney White, founder of the Quivira Coalition, writes eloquently about carbon ranching and explains the carbon cycle in a way that inspires the same goose-pimply feeling you get when contemplating the universe. White chronicles his trip to find out whether farming and ranching could play a significant role in reducing CO2 using carbon sequestration. A book is in the works.
- The Soil Solution, a five-minute film on Youtube. Sustainable World Media visits with farmers, scientists, and educators who are exploring the connection of soil fertility to water quality, food security, and carbon sequestration.
- Peter Donovan is an educator from eastern Oregon who has created a $10,000 prize for a farmer or rancher who can convert the most CO2 into soil carbon during a five year period. During his yellow school bus trip around America, he has managed to sign up fifty takers. Maybe we’ll add our ranch to the list. All in favor, say “Aye.”
Enjoy. This is good stuff.