‘Carbon Farming’ comes to Santa Ysabel

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Flowers, avocados, citrus, tomatoes and strawberries are leading San Diego County crops.

But carbon?

Apparently so. Carbon Farming, a whole-farm approach implementing on-farm practices that increase the rate at which plants transfer carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere to the soil, is about to meet its maker at a Santa Ysabel farm.

San Diego Food System Alliance (SDFSA) this week announced a grant that paves the way for establishment of a collaborative carbon farming project at Montado Farms in Santa Ysabel, operated by Kevin Muno. This would represent the southernmost carbon farm among 17 sites across the state where compost application research is being expanded by scientists of Marin Carbon Project.

“We are thrilled to announce the launch of a new collaborative project to catalyze carbon farming in San Diego through a generous $25,000 grant by the The San Diego Foundation’s Climate Initiative,” said Elly Brown of SDFSA. “This is a collaborative project between the San Diego Food System Alliance, Batra Ecological Strategies, Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County, and County of San Diego.

“The funding by The San Diego Foundation enabled the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County to receive $10,000 from Jena and Michael King Foundation to develop San Diego County’s first carbon farm plan at Montaodo Farms,” Brown said.

Carbon isn’t the crop, quite the opposite actually. Carbon farming is an agricultural growing technique designed to remove carbon from the environment and help fight climate change. The process involves removing long-stored CO2 gas from the soil and into rented soil and vegetation rather than the atmosphere.

Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil and grazing, result in the return of CO2 to the air.  As much as one third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere driving climate change today has come from land management practices that cause loss of carbon, as CO2, from our working lands, according to the Marin Carbon Project.

On the other hand, carbon can be stored decades to centuries, or more, in soils in a process called “soil carbon sequestration.” Carbon farming involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter.  Carbon Farming is successful when carbon gains resulting from enhanced land management and/or conservation practices exceed carbon losses.

A study conducted by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Silver and Dr. Ryals of the Marin Carbon Project demonstrated that building healthier soil through a one-time application of a 1/2 inch layer of compost on grazed rangeland increased long-term carbon storage by 1 ton of carbon per hectare and increased forage production by 40 percent to 70 percent. The practice also led to increased water holding capacity to 26k liters per hectare, according to SDFSA.

After taking soil samples, researchers spread one-quarter inch of compost over one half of a one-acre site marked off on a hillside to show the levels of carbon sequestration. Over the next several years, the soil will be regularly tested to compare results against the original two study sites by Marin Carbon Project, which have still shown positive results for all of the noted benefits eight years after the single compost application. More on Montado Farms pilot test here.

San Diego County is uniquely positioned to encourage these Carbon Farming practices, with the largest number of small and organic farms in the country. There are over 5,000 small farms in the county and 208,564 acres of rangeland. Permanent crops, such as San Diego County’s top food crops, citrus and avocados, are already effectively storing carbon. Farmers in San Diego County currently have in excess of 3 million trees, which sequester approximately 48 pounds of carbon per tree per year.

Based on estimates by Marin Carbon Project consultants, costs and feasibility aside, the diversion of organics from landfill and application of compost on 200k acres of rangeland could mitigate and sequester a total of 3,065,988 MTCO2e of additional carbon, approximately an amount of carbon equivalent to the entire 2014 emissions for all of the unincorporated area of San Diego County. Carbon Farming is a promising and practical solution to address climate change.

This exploration project for San Diego County involves two parts:

Part I: Assessment of the opportunities to sequester carbon, fund carbon farming, and synergize with other programs in San Diego County: 

  1. How much net GHG reduction can be achieved through carbon farming in San Diego County?
  2. What funding mechanisms exist for conversions to carbon farming? What financial incentives might be employed to maintain carbon farming as an economically viable activity?
  3. What state and local policy synergies exist that are compatible with the goals of carbon farming?

Part II

The goal is to complete both parts by end of June to inform the County of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan process and to prepare for CDFA’s Healthy Soils funding available in July.

The State is ahead of local jurisdictions in recognizing the potential of Carbon Farming. In an effort to further the vision of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), Governor Brown identified key climate change strategy pillars to reduce emissions and meet the 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target.

One of the six pillars includes “managing farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.”

To support with the implementation of this goal, the State recently funded the Healthy Soils Initiative, a collaboration of State agencies and departments led by California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), to provide resources for farmers and ranchers to increase carbon stores in agricultural soils.

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