What is “carbon farming” and how it can help your operation

Written By: Keith Abeles, soil and water specialist from the Sonoma RCD
Published: December 2, 2018

Carbon Farming is a suite of agricultural practices that captures and stores carbon in plants and soils, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The key practices include applying compost on fields, planting cover crops (especially perennials), reducing or eliminating tillage, and planting perennial woody plants outside of crop production areas, such as installing fence line hedgerows. Long term carbon storage in plants and soils can be achieved through proper implementation of these practices. As organic matter builds up in the soil through these activities, soil health and structure improve, and water infiltration and water holding capacity of the soil increases. Fortunately, this set of activities improves soil fertility and crop production while increasing carbon sequestration, diminishing greenhouse gas emissions and benefiting the climate. While many benefits are achieved through carbon farming, we focus our discussion on improving soil health and increasing crop productivity, because this is where producers derive the most direct benefits for their operation and bottom line.

Along with the benefits mentioned above, these soil health practices promote increased underground biological diversity, resilient crop systems, erosion control, and potential for greater groundwater recharge. In many cases these practices offer direct economic benefits through reduced labor needs and costs, and reduced tractor passes and fuel usage.
Carbon is the backbone of life and is found in all living organisms and ecosystems above and below the ground. Cover crops, compost application and reduced tilling all serve to increase carbon in the soil. Woody plants increase carbon capture in the plant as well increase biological activity in the root zone. As carbon levels increase and beneficial soil organisms multiply in the soil, the system becomes self-reinforcing, creating greater levels of beneficial soil biological activity, with greater diversity and productivity. This fosters healthy plants, with more vibrant root systems and greater availability of plant nutrients in the soil. The end result is more resilient crops, and increased productivity and quality.

While a lot of information is available on the benefits and management of cover crops and compost application, there is still much to be learned. Locally, research is being done at working vineyards and rangeland operations by the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI), at the Santa Rosa Junior College Shone Farm, and at multiple RCD demonstration study sites on private lands in Sonoma County. At Sonoma Mountain Institute in Petaluma, trials have been established to determine the impacts of applying compost over large areas of rangeland to see what short and long term effects it has on productivity and carbon levels in the soil beyond the carbon in the compost itself. At Jackson Family Wine’s Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor, we have begun looking at impacts of compost on soil health in side by side trials with similar management, with and without compost, over a 5-year period. Additionally, we are comparing differences in soils over this 5-year period in tractor rows managed with full tillage, no tillage and alternate row tillage. At the MacLeod Family Vineyard in Kenwood, we are comparing the effects of these 3 tillage systems on soil health parameters as well as tracking differences in soil moisture. These projects build on ongoing research CCI has been doing for several years at ranches in the region. The RCD looks forward to sharing results at workshops over the next few years.

There are still many questions to be answered. For instance, how much does tillage impact the soil and how do we balance the need for tillage to control weeds and competition for water with the soil health benefits derived from reducing or eliminating it? What circumstances can we reduce or avoid tillage versus situations where it is more beneficial to till?

These studies allow us to answer questions specific to north coast growing conditions and compare results to what is being found in research in the central valley, other parts of the state, and beyond.

How do producers integrate carbon farming techniques? Developing a carbon farm plan and/or taking advantage of CDFA’s Healthy Soils Incentive Program are two opportunities available to producers. Through the development of a carbon farm plan, producers can look at current management techniques and identify opportunities to integrate new practices or alter existing ones for greater benefit. A plan will identify a discreet set of activities and timeline to implement it, while quantifying the carbon sequestration benefits of each activity. Rangeland carbon farm plans have been developed by NRCS, RCD’s, CCI, Fibershed and MALT. RCD’s have begun developing their first plans for vineyards. Contact these agencies to find out what type of cost share and planning assistance may be available to you. For instance, the Sonoma RCD can provide 85% of the cost to develop a plan.

Keep an eye out for CDFA’s Healthy Soil Program Incentives Program. Cost share funding will be available to implement these practices. A round of assistance was given in 2017 and a second is planned with applications due in January or February of 2019. RCD staff can help with applications if contacted in a timely manner. Management activities identified in carbon farm plans may be more likely to receive awards from the CDFA and/or other programs offering competitive funding.

Demos and workshops. Follow us to stay up to date on workshops and other educational opportunities offered by the RCD and other groups. Sonoma RCD will be offering yearly tours/workshops at their rangeland and vineyard demo sites, and quarterly field and indoor events will be offered as part of their vineyard soil health series.

We have seen a great deal of interest in our soil health workshops and program work. It is a great time to get involved as there is greater funding and support available for planning and implementing soil health practices than ever before. It looks promising for this type of funding to continue for at least the next few years. Grape growers can log onto the North Coast Soil Health Hub, www.soilhub.org, to learn more about soil health practices, demonstration sites, upcoming workshops, and find relevant articles and resources. To find out more about services available to producers, contact Keith Abeles at kabeles@sonomarcd.org.

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