What’s a Carbon Farmer? How California Ranchers Use Dirt to Tackle Climate Change

Scientists believe that simple land management techniques can increase the rate at which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in soils.

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Stewardship Carbon Project - M Woolsey_650.jpg

For many climate change activists, the latest rallying cry has been, “Keep it in the ground,” a call to slow and stop drilling for fossil fuels. But for a new generation of land stewards, the cry is becoming, “Put it back in the ground!”

As an avid gardener and former organic farmer, I know the promise that soil holds: Every ounce supports a plethora of life. Now, evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

Evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

“I think the future is really bright,” said Loren Poncia, an energetic Northern Californian cattle rancher. Poncia’s optimism stems from the hope he sees in carbon farming, which he has implemented on his ranch. Carbon farming uses land management techniques that increase the rate at which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in soils. Scientists, policy makers, and land stewards alike are hopeful about its potential to mitigate climate change.

Carbon is the key ingredient to all life. It is absorbed by plants from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and, with the energy of sunlight, converted into simple sugars that build more plant matter. Some of this carbon is consumed by animals and cycled through the food chain, but much of it is held in soil as roots or decaying plant matter. Historically, soil has been a carbon sink, a place of long-term carbon storage.

But many modern land management techniques, including deforestation and frequent tilling, expose soil-bound carbon to oxygen, limiting the soil’s absorption and storage potential. In fact, carbon released from soil is estimated to contribute one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Ranchers and farmers have the power to address that issue. Pastures make up 3.3 billion hectares, or 67 percent, of the world’s farmland. Carbon farming techniques can sequester up to 50 tons of carbon per hectare over a pasture’s lifetime. This motivates some ranchers and farmers to do things a little differently.

“It’s what we think about all day, every day,” said Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch on California’s central coast. “Sequestering soil carbon is essentially creating more life in the soil, since it’s all fed by photosynthesis. It essentially means more plants into every inch of soil.”

Carbon released from soil is estimated to make up to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Calhoun’s ranch sits in fertile, rolling California pastureland about an hour’s drive east of Monterey Bay. She intensively manages her cattle’s grazing, moving them every few days across 7,000 acres. This avoids compaction, which decreases soil productivity, and also allows perennial grasses to grow back between grazing. Perennial grasses, like sorghum and bluestems, have long root systems that sequester far more carbon than their annual cousins.

By starting with a layer of compost, Calhoun has also turned her new vineyard into an effective carbon sink. Compost is potent for carbon sequestration because of how it enhances otherwise unhealthy soil, enriching it with nutrients and microbes that increase its capacity to harbor plant growth. Compost also increases water-holding capacity, which helps plants thrive even in times of drought. She plans to till the land only once, when she plants the grapes, to avoid releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Managed grazing and compost application are just a few common practices of the 35 that the Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends for carbon sequestration. All 35 methods have been proven to sequester carbon, though some are better documented than others.

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 Photo courtesy of Paicines Ranch.

David Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension, says the techniques Calhoun uses, as well as stream restoration, are some of the most common. Lewis has worked with theMarin Carbon Project, a collaboration of researchers, ranchers, and policy makers, to study and implement carbon farming in Marin County, California. The research has been promising: They found that one application of compost doubled the production of grass and increased carbon sequestration by up to 70 percent. Similarly, stream and river ecosystems, which harbor lots of dense, woody vegetation, can sequester up to one ton of carbon, or as much as a car emits in a year, in just a few feet along their beds.

One application of compost doubled the production of grass and increased carbon sequestration by up to 70 percent.

On his ranch, Poncia has replanted five miles of streams with native shrubs and trees, and has applied compost to all of his 800 acres of pasture. The compost-fortified grasses are more productive and have allowed him to double the number of cattle his land supports. This has had financial benefits. Ten years ago, Poncia was selling veterinary pharmaceuticals to subsidize his ranch. But, with the increase in cattle, he has been able to take up ranching full time. Plus, his ranch sequesters the same amount of carbon each year as is emitted by 81 cars.

Much of the research on carbon farming focuses on rangelands, which are open grasslands, because they make up such a large portion of ecosystems across the planet. They are also, after all, where we grow a vast majority of our food.

“Many of the skeptics of carbon farming think we should be planting forests instead,” Poncia said. “I think forests are a no-brainer, but there are millions of acres of rangelands across the globe and they are not sequestering as much carbon as they could be.”

The potential of carbon farming lies in wide-scale implementation. The Carbon Cycle Institute, which grew out of the Marin Carbon Project with the ambition of applying the research and lessons to other communities in California and nationally, is taking up that task.

“It really all comes back to this,” said Torri Estrada, pointing to a messy white board with the words SOIL CARBON scrawled in big letters. Estrada is managing director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, where he is working to attract more ranchers and farmers to carbon farming. The white board maps the intricate web of organizations and strategies the institute works with. They provide technical assistance and resources to support land stewards in making the transition.

“If the U.S. government would buy carbon credits from farmers, we would produce them.”

For interested stewards, implementation, and the costs associated with it, are different. It could be as simple as a one-time compost application or as intensive as a lifetime of managing different techniques. But for all, the process starts by first assessing a land’s sequestration potential and deciding which techniques fit a steward’s budget and goals. COMET-Farm, an online tool produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can help estimate a ranch’s carbon input and output.

The institute also works with state and national policy makers to provide economic incentives for these practices. “If the U.S. government would buy carbon credits from farmers, we would produce them,” Poncia said. These credits are one way the government could pay farmers to mitigate climate change. “Farmers overproduce everything. So, if they can fund that, we will produce them,” he said. While he is already sequestering carbon, Poncia says that he could do more, given the funding.

Estrada sees the bigger potential of carbon farming to help spur a more fundamental conversation about how we relate to the land. “We’re sitting down with ranchers and having a conversation, and carbon is just the medium for that,” he said. Through this work, Estrada has watched ranchers take a more holistic approach to their management.

On his ranch, Poncia has shifted from thinking about himself as a grass farmer growing feed for his cattle to a soil farmer with the goal of increasing the amount of life in every inch of soil.


 

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Sally Neas wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Sally is a freelance writer and community educator based in Santa Cruz, California. She has a background in permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and community development, and she covers social and environmental issues. She blogs at www.voicesfromthegreatturning.com.

Eat at Summer Thyme’s Restaurant and Money is Donated to Wolf Creek Community Alliance

By Don Pelton (Board Member of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance)

Dear Friends of Wolf Creek:

Logo_ThumbHere’s a great way to have some fun and trigger a contribution from Summer Thyme’s Restaurant to the Wolf Creek Community Alliance (without spending an extra cent of your own)!

Drop by Summer Thyme’s Restaurant at 231 Colfax Avenue in Grass Valley and have something to eat, ask the cashier for some wooden nickels when you order (you’ll get one “nickel” for every $5 you spend) and drop them in the donation box below the Wolf Creek Community Alliance poster (see picture below). Based of the number of “nickels” in the donation box, Summer Thyme’s will donate a percentage of their profits to WCCA.

This offer is good for every visit you make to Summer Thyme’s from now through June.

Wooden Nickels (in front of register):
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Poster:
Posters

Yum!
Latte_and_Chocolate_Croissant_Thumb  Salad_Thumb  Quesadillas_Thumb  Sandwich_Thumb  Southwest_Turkey_Wrap_Thumb

Here’s the Complete Summer Thyme’s Menu:  http://www.summerthymes.com/menus/


Community Meeting: Peabody Creek Restoration, Stormwater and Flood Management

By Don Pelton

The Wolf Creek Community Alliance  (full disclosure: I’m on the board) received this today from Trisha Tillotson, Senior Civil Engineer/Deputy Director of Public Works, City of Grass Valley.
Peabody_Flyer_w_Plans_Page_1

 

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Lawsuit Filed to Block Permit for Blue Lead Mine

Blue_Lead_Vicinity_MapA new local non-profit, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund (BYWDF), filed a lawsuit on June 3rd to block Nevada County from issuing a use permit for the Blue Lead Mine. The suit, according to the BYWDF press release (below) is based on the contention that Nevada County, as the lead agency, violated CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act), because “it did not adequately address water quality issues due to the presence of mercury on the Blue Lead Mine site, a legacy mining site.”

Here’s the press release in full:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
June 13, 2015

Non Profit BEAR YUBA WATERSHED DEFENSE FUND Established

A non-profit organization established to protect the two watersheds in this area was formed last month and is launching a fund-raising campaign to fully fund its first project and continue ongoing as an environmental defense organization specifically for the Bear and Yuba watersheds.

Filling a lawsuit on June 3 naming the County of Nevada, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund is asking the court to set aside the April 28 decision of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to approve, without a full Environment Impact Report, a use permit for the Blue Lead Mine, which was permitted as a 20-year, open-pit gold mining operation, located approximately 3.5 miles east of the Nevada County Air Park and adjacent to Greenhorn Creek.

In fact, the momentum to found BYWDF was launched after communications among area young people, the millennial generation, who typically asked…”what can we do to stop the Blue Lead?” And thus, the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund found its reason to be.

In consideration of next generation’s concern for our water and to protect the watersheds, BYWDF filed this lawsuit contending that the County as lead agency violated CEQA, a State environmental law, because it did not adequately address water quality issues due to the presence of mercury on the Blue Lead site, a legacy mine site; nor did the County adequately address water quantity issues with knowledge the Blue Lead Mine will use copious amounts of water. The Blue Lead as designed will pump during dry years two groundwater wells, 24-7, 365 days all year to obtain enough water to operate this open-pit placer gold mine (see Water Study at link following).

It’s about the water…let’s NOT be stupid” is the mantra of the Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund.

When a governing agency circumvents laws intended to protect our home lands, sometimes We, the People must resort to using the law–to test and force compliance with any State or Federal laws. Approval of the Blue Lead Mine is one of those times; and the founding directors of BYWDF along with several individuals and organizations in this area who are already aligned with the efforts of BYWDF thank everyone, in advance, who can contribute any dollar amount towards this grass roots effort to protect our watersheds, and thus our home lands, from water-hogging projects and projects which threaten exposure of toxic or hazardous materials.

Learn More About It

• The Bear River Watershed is Number 76, and the Yuba River Watershed is Number 77 on Watershed Maps from the California Department of Conservation:

http://www.conservation.ca.gov/dlrp/wp/Documents/CALFED_Watershed_Map%5B1%5D.pdf

• For the effects of Mercury and methylated mercury on your health read Diagnosis: Mercury, Money, Politics and Poison by Jane M. Hightower, M.D.:

• For background documents including the water study on the Blue Lead Mine, a search on “Blue Lead Mine” at: http://www.mynevadacounty.com/search/pages/Results.aspx?k=Blue%20Lead%20Mine

• For an education about the effects of legacy mining in the Sierra go to the website for The Sierra Fund at: https://www.sierrafund.org

For additional information contact:

Bear Yuba Watershed Defense Fund
P O Box 262
Chicago Park, CA 95712
BYWDFInfo@gmail.com


Keep It California: “Please Come to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors Meeting on May 12th at 12:30 PM”

Flyer for NC SOJ presentation May 12, 2015


Keep It California on KVMR Wednesday May 6th at Noon

I hear from Margaret Joehnck (with Keep It California Nevada County) that she and Kevin Hendricks, who headed up the successful Keep It California campaign to defeat the State of Jefferson ballot initiative in Del Norte County, will be interviewed by Lee Oborne on his show (Random Rants) on KVMR at 12 noon tomorrow (Wednesday, May 6th).

For more information, see the Keep It California website.

Keep_it_California_Banner


West Coast Port Slowdown Impacts Nevada County Businesses

west_coast_port_slowdownBy Don Pelton

When we arranged with the local tree experts and altogether good people at Trees Unlimited to fell about a half dozen large ponderosas on our property and have them trucked to a mill, we scheduled the work to be done on Friday the 13th, disregarding all the silly supersitions about that date.

It turned out to be an unlucky date for us, though.

They had to cancel the job due to a work slowdown at the container ports on the West Coast. The mills can’t ship any more lumber to these ports (for the Chinese market, among others), because of a labor-management dispute between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the ports’ management (the Pacific Maritime Association).

And we can’t have the trees just felled and remain on the ground until the dispute is resolved. That could be weeks, or even months. By that time, the trees would no longer be marketable.

The work slowdown affects many more industries besides our local tree people.

It’d be interesting to know the full impact of the slowdown on Nevada County’s economy. We know that it’s affecting a lot of tree work here in addition to our own.

In the meantime, there’s no doubt that the slowdown is affecting businesses in neighboring California counties:

World Ag Expo impacted by West Coast port slowdown”

On Friday, the California Assembly Republican Caucus issued a press release begging the union and the port management to quickly resolve their dispute, calling attention to the harm already being done to California’s agricultural economy:

“The ongoing West Coast port labor dispute is having a devastating impact on our economy. Farmers and ranchers in particular are having a tough time shipping perishable food to customers worldwide. It is unacceptable that California’s economy is essentially being held hostage to a labor dispute,” said Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, of Modesto. “I am calling for action from President Obama and the federal government to intervene and secure a resolution so we can get our ports fully operating again.”

“Farmers, small business owners, retailers, truckers, consumers and nearly every Californian are being impacted by this ongoing dispute that has brought our ports to a virtual standstill,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Nicolaus). “I call upon both sides to come together to resolve this dispute without delay. President Obama and the federal government must also use every power at their discretion to bring the parties together to reach a settlement.”

“As we speak, precious fruits and vegetables are rotting in shipping containers that are bottlenecked at our West Coast ports,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Porterville). “Our Central Valley has already been hit hard by the ongoing drought. The agricultural products our communities managed to produce despite the lack of water have been thrown to the wayside due to this disruptive labor dispute. We cannot allow these exports to sit for one day longer.”

The labor dispute at the West Coast ports has waged on for nine months. On Wednesday, it was announced that port operations will be suspended for four days as a result of the current labor dispute. According to one estimate, it could cost the country $2.1 billion per day if the ports shut down entirely for 10 days. Worse, congestion at West Coast ports could cost retailers as much as $7 billion this year alone.

According to the following business report, the President could force a cooling-off period under Taft-Hartley if the slowdown were to become a full-fledged strike or a complete lockout. In the meantime, the daily dollar cost of the slowdown is probably in the billions nationwide.

2/12/15 – Why the West Coast port slowdowns are cracks in the foundation of the U.S. economy

2/10/15 – West coast port dispute slows movement of bales 

2/9/15 – Port of Oakland updates operating status, waterfront labor talk

2/9/15 – West Coast port closure could cost $2.1 billion per day

2/9/15 – ILWU locked out on West Coast for 2 days

2/7/15 – Bitter shipping battle continues at Oakland port

2/6/15 – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy wants federal mediation of port dispute

2/6/15 – Port trucking companies take stand against rising fees

2/4/15 – PMA President James C. McKenna issues a statement regarding the state of contract negotiations

2/3/15 – CRRC letter to Governor Brown requesting suspension of regulatory penalties

1/30/15 – Letter from members of Congress to the ILWU and PMA urging resolution

1/30/15 – WCRRC letter to regulatory agencies requesting suspension of penalties

 


From Nevada County Sherriff’s Office: “Good Morning Nevada County!”

OK, we had some “fun” this morning. We got an automated call from 866-419-5000 on our Magic Jack home phone (an Internet phone). I did a quick Google search for that number (since I was sitting at my computer when the phone rang) and — to add some extra confusion to the morning — the search results included complaints about spam and nuisance calls from that number.

But listening to the message, I heard this:

“This is the Nevada County Emergency Call Center. Stay inside your residence. There is a subject shooting a rifle in your area.

I walked around and looked out all the windows in the growing pre-dawn light. I saw nothing. Heard nothing. Very quiet.

I called 911 and the answering operator said, “Disregard that call. It was a computer glitch. The message was meant for the Kingvale area. Gotta go, I’ve got more calls to answer.” (I could hear the phone ringing off the hook in the background).

Boy_Who_Cried_WolfWow, I was wide awake then, as I imagine everyone else in our neighborhood was this morning.

About a half hour after all that, we got another automated call from the same emergency service with the same caution about staying inside, but referring to a shooting in the Truckee area!

I hope this emergency system doesn’t turn out to be a modern day version of crying wolf.


Best Headline in Today’s Union

Best headline in today’s Union:

“Nevada City woman arrested for stealing friend’s car, evading police under the influence”

I don’t steal cars, but I agree that it’s best to avoid drunk cops.


Fringe Climate Skeptics Wield Undue Influence on Rural Public Policy

By Steve Frisch

I have been thinking a lot about our regional climate change skeptics in the Sierra Nevada and their impact on public policy. Occasionally I do my share of getting into debates and doing a little warming myself though I know it simply empowers their position at times.

I do however have a couple of observations about how they make their case and the consequences.

Rarely do they get into the actual scientifically peer reviewed papers and make their case based on the efficacy of the science itself.

The case I hear is that any science wholly or even partially funded by the government or private foundations done by agencies, academic institutions, professional groups, or individual scientists is inherently flawed due to their source of funding. Then I hear that any science using past data funded by any of these groups is inherently flawed due to confirmation bias. Next I hear that the peer review process itself is inherently flawed due to dependence on government funding. Then I hear that when the aggregate data and multiple proof points indicate a significant change occurring we should be giving more weight to the outlier data proving the opposite, as though the very small percentage of those valid peer reviewed reports should be given some weight that contrary data is not due. Finally I hear that if there is some evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring the cost of doing something about it is prohibitive.

It is as though climate skeptics do not wish to even understand or acknowledge the peer review process and the critical role it plays in vetting data and its analysis.

I guess this would not be an issue if the consequences of being wrong were not so high.

The impact of a changing climate on California’s water supply alone is measured in the tens of billions of dollars in economic impact annually. Worse, because we live in a state where the vast majority of people do believe climate change is a real threat, and our state has adopted policies to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change through laws like AB 32 and SB 375, the low carbon fuels standard and the renewable portfolio standard, much of our state is rushing ahead with adaptation and mitigation strategies, strategies funded through a combination of our state general fund budget, surcharges on electricity, and revenue derived from the Cap and Trade program. Those revenues are being used to adapt our infrastructure, like water delivery systems, roads, bridges transportation networks, and wastewater treatment. Those revenues can also be directed at solving the seemingly insurmountable problem in the Sierra Nevada of long-term forest management and wildfire management, establishing a link between forests, mountains, watershed management, and water supply that is the number one commodity export of the Sierra Nevada and the source of much of our states wealth.

The problem we face is that distribution of revenue is controlled by a political process; our state budget voted on by legislators annually. In a political process funds don’t get distributed to regions and legislative districts where the elected representatives don’t acknowledge a problem is occurring and actively obstruct solving the problem in other areas of the state. Consequently the Sierra Nevada and its climate related issues do not receive their fair share of state funding which is being paid for by all of the taxpayer of the state, even us rural residents.

The stakes are very high indeed; by 2020 more than $5 billion per year will be distributed to adapt to climate change in California. Where will that money go? Who will benefit from the public works, construction, community improvement and middle class jobs related to implementation?

We are allowing the voice of a small minority of climate skeptics and their ability to influence our local politics by being the ‘loudest voice in the room’ to deny our region the funding we deserve, relegating our local communities and economies to a permanent backwater and underprivileged status.

The Onion may be parodying this phenomenon, but our communities are living it, we are watching as billions of dollars a year are collected from our residents and going to urban districts where the populous is more amenable to climate adaption and mitigation strategies. If I were a rural legislator I might listen to the skeptics, but I would not deny my regions the fruits of their taxes, surcharges and fees.

At some point pragmatism has to take over.

I only wish I knew where that point was so I could push to reach it.


Steve_FrischSteve Frisch is President of the Sierra Business Council and one of its founding members. He is a dedicated project manager with over 20 years experience managing people in a highly competitive environment. Steve manages SBC’s program staff and programmatic development. He also manages sustainable business and building projects to encourage the adoption of socially responsible business and development practices.

Prior to joining the Sierra Business Council, Steve owned and operated a small business in Truckee, California and was president of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association. Steve has served on the Nevada County Welfare Reform Commission, the Town of Truckee redevelopment agency formation committee and as an advisor to the California Resources Agency’s California Legacy Project.


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