Image Credits: A person holds soil from Nuestro Huerto Community Farm in Worcester, Mass. in 2016. In addition to climate benefits, carbon faming can improve soil health. Photo by Green Fire Productions.
Audio Editing by: Xu Wangyuxan Blurb by: Amanda Neslund Script by: Marie Hogan
What is Carbon Farming?
Carbon farming refers to a wide range of agricultural practices that increase carbon sequestration in soil, vegetation, and forests. Conventional agricultural practices often release carbon, but traditional farming practices, permaculture, agroecology, regenerative, and organic farming practices can instead create carbon sinks. As plants photosynthesize, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon above ground and below ground (in roots) as biomass throughout their lifetime. Dead organic matter can store carbon in the soil for several decades. Carbon farming practices also sequester other potent greenhouse gasses such as methane and nitrous oxide which further helps mitigate climate change.
Examples of carbon farming practices include using mulch, compost, and perennial crops in agricultural fields. As California ramps up its composting in response to goals set by 2016’s food waste bill SB-1383, using compost on farmland could have even more benefits. In addition to potentially increasing the carbon sequestered in soils, diverting compost to agriculture would also put all the extra compost to use. But many farmers are wary of using the new compost on their land, UC Staff Researcher Cole Smith told Civil Eats in 2022. Climate Break guest Ian Howell says building collaborative and voluntary carbon farming plans with farmers and ranchers can help overcome their hesitation.
Carbon farming goes beyond compost, and can encompass a variety of practices, many of which also offer water quality and productivity benefits. Returning leftover biomass after harvest to the soil instead of burning or disposing of the material also increases carbon sequestration. Replacing traditional tillage practices with conservation tillage or no-till farming can help reduce soil erosion. Planting cover crops in the off-season instead of leaving crop lands bare, and rotating crops and growing diverse crop rotations instead of monocultures all support soil health and carbon sequestration.
Carbon Farming in California
The U.S. EPA reports that the agriculture sector accounts for 11% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and land use and forestry account for 13%. In California, the Healthy Soils Program pays farmers and ranchers to adopt policies that better sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative began in 2017 and is funded by California Climate Investments (CCI) cap and trade program. The Healthy Soils Program has received $40.5 million from CCI which has helped fund over 600 projects across the state. Many Resource Conservation Districts – like the Alameda County Resource Conservation District – also offer carbon farming programs, working with farmers and offering grants for more sustainable land management practices.
Future of Carbon Farming
Despite increased research and funding to support carbon farming, implementing these practices on a global scale still faces roadblocks. However, countries across the world have shown support for carbon farming as at the 2015 Paris Agreement 100 nations signed the French “4 per mille” initiative. The “4 per mille” initiative calls for a 0.4% increase each year in carbon soil sequestration, which will stop annual increases of carbon into the atmosphere. In September, 2022 California passed AB 1757 (Garcia and Rivera) which requires state agencies to set targets for natural carbon sequestration and emission reduction on natural and working lands by 2024. AB 1757 therefore supports California’s carbon neutrality goals and can boost carbon removal through natural climate solutions like carbon farming.
Ian Howell has supported voluntary restoration and enhancement projects at the Alameda County Resource Conservation District for over five years as a resource conservationist. He has managed several grant-funded programs including Alameda Creek Healthy Watersheds, Rangeland Resilience, and Carbon Farming. Ian also coordinates the Alameda Creek Watershed Forum and collaborates with public agency partners and private agricultural producers on land management topics. He received a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012.
- Alameda County Resource Conservation District: Carbon Farming Factsheet
- EPA: Trends in Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Agriculture.
- Bill Text: AB-1757 California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006: climate goal: natural and working lands
- The Climate Center: AB-1757 Explainer
- CA Department of Food and Agriculture: Healthy Soils Program
- EPA: U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks
- PNAS: Soil carbon sequestration is an elusive climate mitigation tool
- UC Davis: Biological Carbon Sequestration.
- Green America: What is Carbon Farming?
Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind and this is Climate Break — climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: reducing carbon emissions from farms by using techniques like cover crops, compost, and sustainable grazing practices. All of these methods can help farmers and ranchers sequester more carbon in the soil. We spoke to Ian Howell, a resource conservationist with the Alameda County Resource Conservation District, about how he works with farmers to put these techniques into practice.
Ian: Carbon farming, in a nutshell, it’s nothing new. This is really just a new way to talk about good agricultural management practices.
Ian: There’ve been a number of studies that show that, you know, using cover crops in combination with other soil management practices can really increase the soil biomass and therefore soil carbon. So it’s good for the crop system, it’s good for the farm operation – it can also be very good for carbon sequestration and management as well.
Ethan: Howell builds relationships with farmers and ranchers, providing support as they incorporate carbon farming into their practices. But he says more outreach and funding are needed to make carbon farming widespread.
Ian: It’s really a dialogue. What are they trying to get out of their operation? What are their long-term goals? If we’re developing a carbon farm plan, well, I’m taking all that input they’re giving me, and then we’re trying to craft an actionable plan that is aspirational. That personal experience that agricultural producers have goes a long way towards future projects and outcomes.
Ethan: To learn more about the science behind carbon farming and how resource conservation districts can help farmers put it into action, visit climatebreak.org.