As the impacts from climate change continue to worsen and spread, there is an urgent need to accelerate adoption of mitigation solutions and act promptly. Agriculture sits at a crossroads where impacts, causes and solutions of this global problem merge but can also be shifted to achieve favorable outcomes. While agricultural practices have historically contributed to global warming through a progressive net-loss of carbon from the large planetary soil pool (mainly because of soil cultivation), carbon farming offers an opportunity to reverse this trend and restore balance by shifting management to achieve a net increase in farm-systems carbon.
Carbon farming takes carbon from the atmosphere where due to its excess it has become a harmful greenhouse gas and puts it into plants and soil where it is helpful. Though often taken for granted, carbon is the keystone to nutrient cycling, water balance, and soil fertility in all farming systems.
Carbon farmers act as climate heroes by reviving centuries-old techniques to improve soil health, reduce erosion, save water, and enhance wildlife habitat while increasing the productivity and resilience of their lands.
How does it work? Carbon farming makes farms and ranches a part of the solution to too much carbon in the atmosphere while restoring and improving soil health.
Through photosynthesis, plants remove carbon from the air and store it in their leaves, stems, and roots to produce food, fiber, fuel, and flora. But plants also transform carbon into sugars that are released through their roots to feed a vast microbial food web and enrich the soil. As these root exudates enter the soil, carbon becomes bacteria, fungi, protozoans, nematodes, insects, etc. And as these microbes multiply, thrive, and die, nutrients get recycled and stable carbon can accumulate in the soil. So, moving excess carbon from the atmospheric pool to the half-empty planetary soil pool is a win-win that addresses the climate change problem and augments farm productivity and resiliency.
Whether soil carbon within a farm system stays and accumulates in the soil or it is released back into the atmosphere largely depends on management decisions and actions. Carbon farming applies centuries-old agricultural solutions to the modern problem of excess carbon. Techniques such as windbreak and streamside plantings, carbon-rich soil amendments, rotational grazing, and manure and tillage management create healthier soils and help store carbon for a long time.
Healthier soils hold more water and are less susceptible to heat and drought. This reduces irrigation costs and local water demand. Managing plantings, grazing, tillage, and waste to store more carbon and nutrients can increase productivity, as well as provide wildlife and pollinator habitat. By preventing erosion, and even catastrophic property loss, these practices also protect the land. Combined, these investments mean a more resilient farm or ranch, both now and in the face of future changes.
Carbon Farm Planning places carbon at the center of the planning process and views carbon as the single most important element, upon which all other on-farm processes depend. Following the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s conservation planning approach, Carbon Farm Plans identify and guide strategic adoption of practices that can directly benefit farms and ranches by improving:
Carbon Farm Plans can be developed for natural and working lands including rangelands, forests, croplands and orchards.
How the RCD can help. We can support producers and landowners to conduct conservation planning on their working lands through a carbon lens, and provide a broad array of services and resources to help them meet their goals related to carbon farming including:
The RCD is part of a statewide carbon farm planning network involving multiple RCDs, the Carbon Cycle Institute, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, land trusts, and support organizations such as Fibershed across California. These organizations are at various stages of working with landowners in developing and implementing carbon farm plans and activities.
Conservation benefit: Increasing carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing demands on local water sources, and enhancing wildlife and pollinator habitat
California Association of Resource Conservations Districts
California State University Chico (Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems)
CalPoly Swanton Pacific Ranch
Carbon Cycle Institute
Natural Resource Conservation Service
San Mateo Resource Conservation District
California Association of Resource Conservation Districts
California State Coastal Conservancy
CalPoly Swanton Pacific Ranch
RCD Contact: Sacha Lozano