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Reversing climate change one step at a time


Carbon is the basis of all life. Plants, animals, humans and everything living is made up of the element, but carbon once combined with oxygen becomes carbon dioxide, the excess of which is the primary cause of global warming.

In fact, just recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced 2016 as the hottest year on record. As in the hottest year since modern record keeping began in 1880. 2015 and 2014 made the same record in their time.

Although President Trump has previously said global warming is a “hoax” created by China, and the climate change webpage has now been removed from the White House’s website, an overwhelming consensus of scientists disagree.

In California, a large contributor to CO2 emissions is agriculture, accounting for more than 8 percent of the emission in the state, and globally accounting for roughly 16 percent. This is due to a number of factors like tilling and the manure and gas of livestock. California being one of the leading agricultural states in the nation, took action with the passing of a climate law in July 2016 to regulate cow methane, which requires the reduction of methane emission coming from dairy farms by 40 percent by 2030.

So what are farmers doing? Or maybe the better question, who is helping these farmers understand sustainable agriculture practices and how to become part of the solution, not the problem?

This is the ambition of Torri Estrada, environmental scientist and co-founder of the Carbon Cycle Institute in Petaluma. Its mission is to stop and reverse climate change by advancing natural, science-based solutions that remove atmospheric carbon. For the Carbon Cycle Institute, it’s all about the soil.

Estrada is working one-on-one with local farms and ranchers throughout Sonoma and Marin County to start the conversation of what healthy soil can do, not only to help sequester carbon, but to increase the producer’s productivity, nutritional content of their products, create a longer growing season, reduce feed cost for livestock, the list is very long.

In simple terms, Estrada’s goal is to, “take agricultural soil from being a net emitter to being a net sink for carbon,” he said.

Estrada explained that the more carbon the soil can hold, the less carbon is being emitted into the atmosphere.

Estrada, former senior policy fellow with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, has been on the ground at farms like Strauss Family Creamery in Petaluma making assessments about which of Carbon Cycle Institutes’ 34 carbon sequestration practices can be implemented. Strauss was one of the first farms to start on this journey as a participant of the Marin Carbon Project.

The project, which started back in 2007, is a collaborative effort among producers in Marin County, university researchers, county and federal agencies, and the Carbon Cycle Institute.

The project was sort of a trial run for carbon sequestration practices like rotational grazing, not tilling soil, planting more trees, compost, windbreaks, feed management and more.

And the result was a huge success. In sample plots where some of these practices were implemented, it was found that one ton of carbon was stored in 2.2 acres of land. And remember, the more carbon being held in the soil, the less is emitted into the atmosphere.

Albert Strauss, founder and CEO of Strauss Family Creamery in Petaluma said, “There is more and more benefit economically as well as sustainable environments like soils, plants and improving the whole system,” he said. “This is exciting, it’s positive and something we can all work toward as a farming community and revitalize our farms and rural communities.”

Estrada and those at the Carbon Cycle Institute, want to create a model that they can use to go to other producers and say, “hey this worked, and this can possibly work for you.” Because for Estrada, it is about reversing climate change and bringing back natural landscapes, but it is also about meeting with farmers, educating them, and in turn improving their business.

“Ranchers and farmers are open to this because they are able to be a part of a different story. They won’t be part of the problem, but part of the solution,” Estrada said.

Estrada, who is currently working with more than 20 farmers in Marin County alone, said there are more farmers interested in this, than he and others have the resources to implement carbon sequestration practices.

All of this takes major support Estrada said, federally and locally.

“We have to create incentives to create that change,” he said.

Although there is some support like the USDA’s announcement in July 2016 of the distribution of $2.5 million to nonprofits, associations, universities, and foundations in California that will provide training and information on agriculture best practices, there is a lot of work to be done.

Another plan for incentives Estrada talked about is working with industries who rely on agriculture like the fiber and clothing industry. Right now, Estrada is working with mid-scale fiber producers like Rebecca Burgess, executive director of Fibershed, who now sources her fiber from farms that are implementing carbon sequestering practices.

Estrada also thinks the public should be contributing as well. Why? Because sustainable agricultural practices have major public benefits like more nutritionally dense and natural food, water conservation, less fertilizer runoff, improved habitats and more.

“These farms cannot thrive without investment,” Estrada said. “We are relying on these people to grow our food, but what are we giving back?”

Estrada and the other organizations he is working with have high hopes for the future.

“My, goal statewide is that every county have a functioning carbon program,” he said.

In ten, 15 and maybe even 20 years, Estrada hopes that all farms in Sonoma and Marin counties have implemented some of these carbon sequestration practices.

As for President Trump and his policies, Estrada is hopeful and feels these carbon sequestering practices will be looked at not as climate beneficial practices, but as a boost to the rural communities and simply a more intelligent and efficient way of farming.

(Contact Alex Madison at alex.madison@arguscourier.com.)