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Changing how we raise crops, livestock could help combat climate change

Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@theclimatecenter.org) is program manager at The Climate Center.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/powering

Responding to the climate crisis at speed and scale will not be easy.

Drought, fire and choking skies over the past year remind us that we face a crisis of unprecedented scope. Restoring climate health will require big and bold solutions. Here in wine country, one of the best solutions may be right under our feet - the soil.

Cutting our emissions at least in half by 2030 through clean mobility, renewable energy and better buildings is essential. Scientists have made it clear that we must also draw down carbon we have already put in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, and destroying rain forests, other habitat, and soil.

There are many ways to do this, some of which rely on the promise of large, expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally-questionable processes that suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, known as direct air capture (DAC).

While we may need DAC deployed in the future, it is currently in the very early stages of development and not yet available to address the challenge at scale. We at The Climate Center support the testing of these technologies while ensuring they do not negatively impact surrounding communities and the environment.

What we do have available today - with the know-how to deploy and scale it - is nature-based sequestration.

A growing number of scientific studies show that natural and working lands can sequester significant amounts of additional carbon with the added benefits of helping our state be more resilient to drought, wildfire and sea level rise while increasing groundwater supplies, air quality, biodiversity and food security.

The world’s soil contains about ten times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and scientists estimate that carbon sequestration in soil can offset as much as 20% of our annual global carbon dioxide emissions. Cropland soils typically have 30%–40% less soil organic carbon (SOC) than natural soils, due to the removal of harvested plant material, loss of topsoil, and application of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Fortunately, there are better ways to manage the soil with win-win approaches.

Farmers can leave harvest residues on the field, apply manure or compost as fertilizer, and include perennial crops, with their deeper roots, in the rotation. These regenerative farming practices help increase the carbon content of the soil.

Healthy and well-maintained soils allow for deeper and more vigorous root growth, and a vibrant community of bugs, worms and micro- and macro-organisms of all kinds. What are all those life forms built from? Carbon! That’s why some folks refer to this practice as carbon farming.

Thanks to the foresight and vision of our community in the North Bay, this innovative work is already well underway. Jackson Family Wines is a leader in this space, and has ambitious goals for emissions reductions and drawdown. Nature-based carbon sequestration is a major part of their approach.

Jackson Family Wines launched a 5-year pilot program at their 22-acre La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in partnership with the Sonoma Resource Conservation District and the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program.Their goal is to see how much they can increase soil organic content, improve water-holding capacity, and improve grape quality through carbon farming practices.

“This pioneering trial has allowed us to better understand how regenerative farming practices can reduce our impacts on the land and build soil health. It is our hope that through our commitment to the environment and passion for making great, sustainably-produced wines we can set a new standard that will help move our whole wine community forward,” said Katie Jackson, senior vice president and co-proprietor at Jackson Family Wines.

This is a huge opportunity for the environment and the bottom line. If improved soil health can improve grape quality, it stands to reason that it will also improve wine quality.

Making the best wine possible will always be the #1 goal in the industry. But natural sequestration is such a promising climate solution, it is not just wine producers who are working on it.

Local dairy producer Straus Family Creamery recently worked with one of their organic milk suppliers, Tresch Family Farms, to spread organic compost from Recology on 20 acres of pasture, with the goal of increasing soil health and drought resilience.

Healthy soil and carbon sequestration projects are part of Straus’ multi-pronged carbon-neutral organic farming model, which includes rotating cows from pasture to pasture and making the pastures more productive, reducing off-farm feed purchases.

Straus Family Creamery also uses a biodigester to convert methane from the breakdown of cow manure into renewable energy, and is exploring novel cow feeds to reduce “enteric” emissions (aka cow burps). These strategies are reducing on-farm emissions by more than 70 percent, which means the remaining dairy emissions can be offset on-farm, through soil sequestration and pasture management.

Our local organic dairy farmers are not just managing cow herds to produce milk, they are also farming grasslands. And now they can farm carbon underneath those pastures, which can benefit the farms through greater yields for grazing cows, while also providing a benefit to us all by drawing down past emissions, helping to reverse climate change.

Albert Straus with some of his organic heifers at the Straus dairy near Marshall on Tomales Bay. Straus is the first certified organic dairy on the West Coast. (The Press Democrat file photo)
Albert Straus with some of his organic heifers at the Straus dairy near Marshall on Tomales Bay. Straus is the first certified organic dairy on the West Coast. (The Press Democrat file photo)

As founder Albert Straus said, “Organic dairy farming is one of the only ways to reverse climate change, and it all starts with the soil, healthy farming land, and ensuring cows are effectively grazing pastures and feeding nutrients to soil.”

To promote this vision, Straus Family Creamery is offering funding and assistance to produce carbon farm plans for all 12 family farms that supply the creamery, which covers 8,500 total acres. Albert’s goal is to create an economically viable, climate-safe, organic dairy farming model for farmers to replicate.

These steps are part of the multi-pronged strategy required to put us on track for a climate-safe future. Whether on our ranches or in our vineyards, carbon sequestration on natural and working lands is a vital pillar of Climate-Safe California.

This comprehensive policy platform, put together by The Climate Center with scores of partners, charts an urgently-needed pathway to enable California to secure net-negative emissions by 2030, 15 years ahead of California’s current goals. It turns out that one of the most promising solutions is in the ground beneath our feet.

Powering the Bottom Line

Doron Amiran (doron@theclimatecenter.org) is program manager at The Climate Center.

Read past columns: nbbj.news/powering

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