A Q&A with Byron Palmer published on the Resource Conservation Network via Sonoma RCD

When the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced the Healthy Soils Program, Byron Palmer knew he wanted to participate. The Healthy Soils Program promotes the development of healthy soils on California’s farms and ranches. It aligns perfectly with the goals of the Sonoma Mountain Institute (SMI), where Byron works as a Grassland and Grazing Manager. However, for busy land managers like Byron and his colleagues, the barriers to submitting and managing a grant of that magnitude can be overwhelming. That’s where the Sonoma RCD comes in. Over the course of three years, the Sonoma RCD partnered with the SMI to spread more than 3.5 million pounds of compost across 53 acres, a practice known to improve soil health and sequester carbon on SMI’s land. The project seeks to demonstrate carbon sequestration on a working rangeland through compost application.

The benefits of this partnership extended beyond the land in Petaluma, where the demonstration project took place. Together, SMI and Sonoma RCD hosted three demonstration field days to invite other agricultural professionals to view their progress and learn about their project protocols. Kari Wester, Project Manager at Sonoma RCD, summarized the importance of gathering on-site to share lessons learned: “During demonstration events, we provide updates on these projects. But we are also bringing together farmers and ranchers so they can share their stories. They can have their own conversations and ask questions among themselves in a comfortable space.” These conversations can be a critical springboard for farmers and ranchers to engage in carbon farming practices and connect to the resources to make it possible.

Beyond a daunting grant with rigorous data collection requirements, the two organizations had to navigate relationships with contractors, coordinate delivery of truckloads of compost shipments, administer project management oversight and quality control, and everything in between to bring this project to life. It took diligence, creativity, hard work, a good sense of humor, and humility. Kari says she leaned on Bryon as much as he says he relied on her, “I probably learned more from Byron from this project. He is a powerhouse of knowledge and reviews and reads everything. We [the RCD] brought a technical part, navigating the grant requirements and accessing the funding, but we really learned a lot together throughout the process.”

Our interview with Byron Palmer captures the energetic spirit he brings to his work at the Sonoma Mountain Institute as he reflects on his experience working with the Sonoma RCD.

Tell us about yourself:

My name is Byron Palmer, and I’m a Grasslands and Grazing Manager for Sonoma Mountain Institute, a nonprofit based in Sonoma County that was founded in 2003 to discover effective restoration methods for our ecological context. We regeneratively manage land, ranches, and open space for ourselves, neighbors, partners, and private organizations.

How did you first get connected to the Sonoma RCD, and how has your work with the RCD evolved?

I got connected to the Sonoma RCD when they started going through the carbon farm planning process, and we worked together to design that plan. The focus of that planning effort was to use compost as a tool, which was great because that was the technique that seriously changed my career trajectory. I followed the work of the Marin Carbon Project very closely and was massively inspired by the results they got through carbon farming, especially with compost and grazing as a tool. Fast forward to a few years later, I worked within the matrix that the Marin Carbon Project established to use compost spreading and grazing as a tool to hopefully sequester carbon. When the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program came along, we were excited to partner with the Sonoma RCD to get the support necessary to implement that program.

Describe your Healthy Soils Demonstration Project.

This project set out to demonstrate carbon sequestration through compost application and grazing on a working rangeland. In particular, we were interested in comparing soil carbon content in areas that received compost application and grazing versus areas that did not receive compost application, but were still grazing, and comparing soil carbon content annually after additional treatments.

To explore these questions, we set up field treatment and control areas within an actively grazed rangeland at the Sonoma Mountain Institute. Our treatment areas would receive annual applications of compost and control areas would not. All other management on both treatment and control areas would be kept the same (i.e.grazing management).

Would this project have been possible without the Health Soils Program?

Never. Even if the compost is free, the shipping cost alone is prohibitive. There is also no way that we would have been able to apply without the technical assistance of Sonoma RCD. It takes a lot of time to chase down forms, track details, and manage all the information. Technical assistance is vital. Nobody that’s in my position that is on the land has any time.

The RCDs in this area are key because they are a hub of information; they know what’s going on in terms of funding and support. The sheer amount of information out there is too much for most people to follow who are also trying to make good land decisions. The RCDs are an absolutely essential partner in these local communities. They are the local fixer. They know the programs, the people, and have the necessary stamina to put their shoulders into the bureaucracy to make it all happen.

Read the full interview here: https://medium.com/resource-conservation-network/spreading-knowledge-and-compost-with-the-sonoma-mountain-institute-cfb9f21735af 

The Resource Conservation Network gathers and shares the stories and ideas from its partners and colleagues. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the RCDs managing this publication.