Agriculture, Climate, Land Protection, Ranching

My Love of Soil: From the Desk of MALT’s Soil Scientist

March 12, 2019

From the desk of Jonathan Wachter:

I love Marin’s rolling farmland, undeveloped landscapes, and epic scenery. Since I joined MALT in February 2018, I’ve gotten to know many of the family farms you’ve protected. With each visit, I come away with a deeper appreciation of what we have in Marin.

My love of soil

My true passion lies below all the beauty and bounty of West Marin.

I’m a soil scientist. What fascinates me is the hidden layer of earth that’s elemental to everything we treasure above ground. Our natural ecosystems, Marin’s spectacular foods, and the livelihoods sustained by farmland… all these things depend on the living soil beneath our feet. Soil is where sky meets earth. It’s also where human interests intersect with the needs of the environment. Often, these forces work against one another.

But in Marin, it’s a different story.

HEALTHIER SOILS

Growing within our agricultural community is an openness to the latest ideas and pioneering practices in managing healthier soils, from rotational grazing and nutrient management to the exciting potential of carbon sequestration.

Local landowners aren’t just willing to hear out scientists like me. They’re eager to put the health of their soil at the center of their plans and implement these innovative practices on their grazing lands.

CARBON FARMING

To understand my work at MALT, we need to begin with carbon farming.

When you look at a pasture, you’re seeing the perfect place to store carbon. Each blade of grass acts like a straw, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the soil, where it can remain locked away for centuries.

Carbon farming is what we call the suite of agricultural practices that lock up as much carbon as possible into plants and into the soil.

Back in 2007, MALT and a small group of like-minded organizations began experimenting with carbon farming on a few Marin farms. They knew the theories. It was time to see if they would work in practice. The results since have gotten attention throughout the state and the country.

As the term implies, carbon farming techniques remove heat-trapping gasses from the atmosphere. And they’ve also been shown to improve land productivity.

For example, applying compost to some rangelands provides a stable source of nutrients to the plants and acts like a mulch on the soil surface, allowing more grass to grow, depositing more carbon into the soil, and allowing the ground to hold onto water later into our hot, dry summers.

That’s great news for Marin’s cows, goats, and other grazing animals. When they can eat fresh grass later into the summer, ranchers save the high cost of hauling animal feed in from elsewhere. Margins are tight in farming. Boosting productivity and cutting operational costs can make a big difference to the family farms I’m working with.

THE TOLUMA FARM CASE STUDY

Late last year, I stood with one of these farmers in a gently sloping field a few miles west of the town of Tomales. Tamara Hicks owns Toluma Farms and we were there on her ranch to witness the latest stage of implementing the carbon farm plan she and MALT developed.

Tamara and her husband were first-time farmers when they bought the property 15 years ago. Their dream was to learn to work the land and produce award-winning cheeses.

But the soils were poor, discarded tires clogged the gullies, and the ranch was in a degraded state. After working hard to turn around their 160-acre property, Tamara wanted to make sure their land would remain in agriculture forever.

In 2010, MALT protected Toluma Farms, and Tamara credits MALT members like you for allowing their family farm to take root. As you know, MALT’s involvement with a protected farm doesn’t end with an easement. We’re also here to help farmers become the best land stewards they can be, which is where carbon farming comes in.

Working together, we developed a three-year implementation plan to replenish and nourish the soils on Toluma Farms. That bright sunny day in the field, a spreader truck was laying down a layer of high-quality organic compost. A few weeks earlier, we’d taken soil samples from her grazing pastures to figure out which fields would benefit most from compost. A year from now we expect stronger and greener grasses, a longer grazing season, and happier, plumper goats and sheep.

Carbon farming is a whole-farm approach.

It’s rarely one project, rather a combination of carefully tailored techniques that work together to: improve soil health, plant shrubs and trees to restore creeks, create windbreaks, and provide wildlife habitat, and make farms more resilient to a changing climate. Healthy soil is a farmer’s friend in times of drought.

It behaves like a giant sponge, soaking up precious rainfall and holding it on the land. But wind is nature’s blow dryer. It wicks away water and dries out pasture.

On Toluma Farms, we found that certain parts of the property are very exposed to ocean winds blowing off Bodega Bay. So we are planning windbreaks in strategic locations to prevent the soil losing its valuable moisture. When they’re fully grown, they’ll look very different from the historic windbreaks you see today, those tall lines of cypress and eucalyptus trees. We now know that a variety of native trees and shrubs growing to different heights will do a better job of blocking out the wind, providing resources for our pollinators, and creating habitat for our local wildlife species.

A GROUNDSWELL ACROSS THE COUNTY

All over the county, landowners are starting to put these practices to work. Some are replacing invasive plants on their land with native species like purple needlegrass, which grows deep extensive roots and stays green late into the summer. Others are planting trees along their creeks to help slow down water flow and prevent erosion. Others are using new water troughs to distribute grazing pressure, allowing compacted soils and overgrazed areas to recover.

Farmland might appear to never change. But it does. From the ground up.

Healthier soil means farmers can stay in business growing healthy, tasty foods. Healthier soil supports our natural ecosystems and wildlife habitats. Healthier soil offsets carbon emissions and makes agriculture more drought resilient.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

This is soil’s moment. There’s a lot in the pipeline. In fact, we have a record number of projects slated for the year ahead. That’s partly a result of MALT’s accelerated pace of farmland protection. We now have 85 farms and over 53,000 acres of farmland to cover!

But it’s also because the farmers and ranches we work with trust the science. They see the transformation at Stemple Creek Ranch, Straus Dairy and the many other places we’re working. From Washington State to Australia, I’ve travelled the world hoping to turn agriculture’s greatest ideas into reality. Finally, I’ve found fertile ground in Marin.

I hope you can see what I see in carbon farming.

HELP US LEAD THE WAY

Carbon farming is agriculture’s new frontier and MALT is leading the way. With your donation today, you’ll help us protect more farmland in 2019 and expand pioneering practices that will keep it productive and beautiful for future generations.