As a leader of CEC’s regenerative agriculture efforts, I spend a lot of time walking through fields of grass and thinking about the carbon underneath my feet. For a lot of reasons, carbon gets a bad rap, and I feel a need to set the record straight. We obviously do not want any more carbon in our atmosphere, but we desperately need it elsewhere – in our soils.
There has been a lot of attention recently to the power of soils. At CEC, we have been working to improve soil health to both mitigate climate change and help us adapt to its impacts. Carbon-rich and life-rich soils improve our land’s ability to capture and store water, grow nutrient-dense food, and preserve the biodiversity in our ecosystems. All of these benefits help us bounce back and bounce forward from climate disasters. And, let’s face it – our society has never needed this kind of resilience more than in this moment.
Reclaiming carbon for good
Over the last few centuries, the globe’s cultivated soils have collectively lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, meaning our land’s ability to cultivate resilient plants and tasty, nutrient-dense foods has been dramatically depleted. This loss of carbon also means a loss of the beneficial soil critters that feed on carbon – the same critters microbes and fungi that keep the ground under our feet alive. At the same time, we are literally throwing carbon away. Organic materials, such as paper, yard trimmings and food (which are absolutely perfect for composting), are the largest component of landfilled municipal solid waste in the United States. In 2015, those materials made up more than half of the waste produced, causing a plethora of climate, water, and community harm.
The good news is that we have an abundance of carbon in our communities. We just need to do a better job of capturing and using it.
One of the principles of regenerative agriculture is to mimic the processes we witness in nature. Composting, or the natural decomposition of organic material, is nature’s way of recycling. The rich soils in the prairies across the midwestern United States – considered some of the most fertile areas in the country – were built over centuries of nature-based compost application. Bison and buffalo, through their digestive tracts, recycled dead grass and dropped it in the form of manure, reinvesting organic material in the same system it was chewed from. At a recent visit to Casitas Valley Pastures, I got to witness this firsthand. Jeronimo grazes his ducks and chickens under trees as a way to fertilize the tree crop, feed his animals, trim back the weeds, and keep his animals cool. A win for the trees, a win for the animals, and a win for Jeronimo.
There is no waste in nature
Composting, whether at your home or at a municipal scale, mimics that amazing process. At CEC, we are exploring how to dramatically increase the practice of small-scale compost production. We are also working with a variety of project partners to pilot other regenerative agriculture strategies that focus on education, demonstration, and research:
- Vermicast on berry crops: In partnership with Wild Farmlands Foundation and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, this new CEC project experiments with on-farm worm compost (called vermicast) production and application on berry fields. With vermicast, we are building soil health, recapturing food waste, and reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers. We are only about 10 months into this project, and we are excited to see what results from our research. Watch this video to learn more.
- Compost on rangeland: At the Ted Chamberlin Ranch, our California Healthy Soils Field Trial continues. This year, we made this video in lieu of a live field day to share the learnings from this project . We are still working to understand all the benefits to soil, but we have already found up to a 20% increase in grass growth following compost application, which benefits both the ranch owner and the climate. Watch this video to learn more, and stay tuned for additional data and results toward the end of 2020.
These projects continually remind me that there is no waste in nature. One organism’s waste is another organism’s food. To me, that idea is revolutionary, just like the idea of reclaiming organic material through compost and distributing it for the betterment of our community. The thought that we could mimic this waste-free model as humans feels, at minimum, empowering, and at best, magical. In this time, many of us are seeking change that is revolutionary, empowering, and perhaps even magical – and though it might sound a bit geeky, composting is all three.
Ready to dig in?
- Read The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmier and visit CEC Environmental Hero Paul Hawken’s Project Drawdown website to learn more about land-based strategies for climate change adaptation and food security.
- Read about the benefits of vermicomposting in The Worm Farmer’s Handbook.
- Review Getting to Neutral, a 2020 report that discusses how California can reach its carbon neutrality goals by changing its land management and organic waste practices.
- Check out White Buffalo Land Trust’s Campaign for Jalama to see how they are working to develop a local regenerative agriculture center in Santa Barbara County.
Actions you can take:
- Compost at home – even applying compost to your garden plot helps pull carbon out of the air on a small-scale and diverts your food waste from the landfill, keeping methane (one of the most potent greenhouse gases) out of the atmosphere. See these resources for regional composting programs and subsidized worm bins for your home:
- Practice carbon farming in your garden. Mow or trim weeds instead of pulling them out, and compost instead of landfilling yard waste and food waste.
- Support policies and political leaders that advocate for sustainable agriculture, land conservation, and composting of organic waste.
Allegra Roth is CEC’s Food and Climate Program Manager and has a background in environmental and water policy as well as a passion for food system work. Before joining CEC, she worked for the California State Assembly, both as a District Representative in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, and as a Legislative Aide in the State Capitol. Working for state legislators allowed Allegra to develop specialized skills in policy analysis and development, group facilitation, and multi-stakeholder outreach.