News From the Farm | June 6, 2016

Guest Contribution  –  Soil as a Carbon Sink

Due to climate change, scientists predict that California will experience weather extremes that will put a huge strain on our communities and on agriculture. Farmers and ranchers are among the first to experience the effects, including erratic weather, pest pressure, drought, yield decreases, and heat waves that impact worker safety and comfort.

California’s farms and ranches produce two potent greenhouse gases: methane (mainly from livestock) and nitrous oxide (from fertilizers)—as well as the ubiquitous carbon dioxide from fossil fuel-powered equipment and pumps. Farmers can reduce emissions in a number of ways: replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with organic materials such as compost or manure; improve water use efficiency so less energy is required to pump water; produce on-farm renewable energy; and more. There’s more good news: on-farm management practices can draw down carbon dioxide from the air, where it causes climate change, and store it in soil, vines and trees, where carbon is needed as a building block of life.

Techniques to build soil include the use of compost, cover crops, reduced tillage and crop rotations. Certain grazing management strategies also can improve soil health and forage quantity. Conservation planting of hedgerows and other buffers adjacent to rivers and streams stores carbon in the woody plants. As demonstrated on Full Belly Farm, many of these practices also provide additional environmental and health benefits, such as improved air quality, habitat for pollinators and wildlife, improved water quality, and flood control.

Governor Jerry Brown understands the potential of farms and ranches to store carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has launched a Healthy Soils Initiative that proposes spending $20 million in the coming year, using funds from the state’s cap-and-trade program, for grants to farmers and ranchers shifting their practices to include building soil and storing carbon in the soil. Hopefully the legislature will agree with him and fund the Initiative as they finish next year’s budget negotiations in June.

To learn more about the climate benefits of organic and sustainable agriculture, go to this summary. Go here to read about the Healthy Soils Initiative.

This article was provided by the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), a coalition of sustainable and organic agriculture organizations focused on climate policy. To sign up for a monthly newsletter.