[permaculture] Carbon Ranching/Dec 10 NPR All Things Consider/Scientists Help Ranchers Wrangle Carbon Emissions by CHRISTOPHER JOYCE/

Wesley Roe and Santa Barbara Permaculture Network lakinroe at silcom.com
Thu Dec 10 22:41:46 EST 2009

Scientists Help Ranchers Wrangle Carbon Emissions

December 10, 2009
Listen to the Story
All Things Considered NPR


As the world's climate negotiators meet in Copenhagen to discuss how 
to curb global warming, some people in Marin County, Calif., may 
already have a partial solution. They call it "carbon ranching."

The idea was hatched by scientists who are trying to coax carbon 
dioxide out of the air and into cattle pastures. Proponents of the 
idea say if it proves effective, the practice could be used around 
the world.

When dee Silver is a soil scientist at the University of California, 
Berkeley. If soil is the earth's skin, then Silver might be 
considered its dermatologist. Silver is steering a jeep up a hill as 
steep as a ski slope in Marin County to get to plots of pastureland 
she is experimenting on.

"What we're interested in doing out here is figure out how much 
carbon is added to the soil and how much carbon is lost," she says.

Plant Food
Soil and the plants that grow in it depend on carbon. Essentially, 
carbon dioxide is plant food and Silver wants them to eat more.
To encourage the uptake of carbon dioxide, Silver has spread compost 
over these plots of pastureland. The compost is a mix of plant 
clippings and animal manure, the same kind you might put on your 
garden at home.

The compost, she says, "increases plant growth, it actually also 
lowers the temperature a little bit, so the soil doesn't get quite as 
hot, it doesn't stimulate as much microbial activity."

Her experiment seems to be going well. The grass here is visibly 
taller, which means there is more carbon in the plant, which also 
means more food for cows. Ranchers like that part.

But those microbes she mentions complicate the process. Soil is full 
of them, and when they eat plants, animals and bugs, they emit carbon 
dioxide into the air. So Silver's composting has to work a balance 
between supercharging carbon-consuming plants - without beefing up 
carbon-producing microbes.

"What we're really trying to do here is understand what makes the 
microbes go and what makes the plants go," says Silver.

So far, the grass in the composted plots grows so well that it 
captures 50 percent more carbon from the air than grass in the 
untouched plots.
And the soil is taking up almost all the carbon in the compost - 
carbon that likely would have gone up into the atmosphere if it 
hadn't been added to the pastureland. Silver is now measuring exactly 
how much that is.

To do that, her team pounds plastic domes into the ground that 
capture the greenhouse gases seeping up from the soil. But Silver 
says just the extra grass from composting could make a big dent in 
greenhouse gas emissions, especially in this part of California.

"Grasslands, because they are in these dry regions, have really, 
really high root biomass, and it tends to go pretty deep, these 
plants are looking for water and that's what builds that dark, 
organic rich soil and that carbon-rich soil," says Silver.

Turning A Profit
Silver thinks composting could work for thirty years before the soil 
is saturated with carbon. During that time, Silver says ranchers 
could see a payoff of sorts for their work. "Hopefully, they'll be 
able to participate in a carbon market, where we can quantify how 
much carbon is being stored on the land, and we can sell that as a 
carbon offset," she says.

That idea intrigues John Wick, a rancher who owns grazing land where 
Silver is conducting her experiments for the Marin Carbon Project. 
"Now I think about carbon in everything I'm doing, and it's 
completely changed my life. This whole ecosystem down there, is 
alive, I mean up until this point it was just dirt to me, something I 
pushed around with my bulldozer," says Wick.

Some farmers are a little more skeptical, though. Bob Giacomini owns 
a dairy farm in Marin County. Silver is trying to persuade him to try 
composting to see if his pastures will grow better, as well as store 
more carbon.
But Giacomini is worried about the costs of these experiments. "You 
know all these things sound good, but you have to look at the cost of 
them all and see what the payback is."

Giacomini says he's interested in finding out that answer, but not 
sure how much time and money he has to invest in figuring it out for 

Creating A Market
That's where a carbon market comes in. If a climate law is passed, 
industries will be looking for ways to reduce their carbon 
"footprint." Paying farmers to soak up carbon in their pastures could 
be one way to do that.

As for the time and know-how, there's a new office in the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture in Washington designed to create a market 
for exchanges like that. "The potential for landowners is huge" when 
it comes to carbon ranching, says Sally Collins, director of the new 
USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets.

Land that stores carbon would generate extra income. Actually 
measuring carbon in soil and plants isn't easy, though. Collins 
acknowledges that a market won't work unless the buyers and sellers 
know exactly what they're getting.

"We have got to figure out how to have one set of scientifically 
based, credible standards," says Collins.

These standards would measure exactly how much carbon stays in the 
soil and the grass. And even what happens to it after microbes and 
cows eat it. This all sounds complicated, and it is. But as 
negotiators at the Copenhagen climate meeting struggle with ways to 
reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, storing carbon in soil and 
plants may start to look like an attractive option.

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