Challenge update December 2014: some monitoring results

Peter Donovan and Ralph Corcoran. Photos by Didi Pershouse.

Sometimes it has been lonely. Often there have been unexpected gifts of friendship and hospitality. In the 30,000 miles of travel in my school bus home, plus many thousands more by train, bus, plane, and car in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, I have glimpsed bits and pieces of a miracle: a growing interest and commitment, by many people, to growing soil and regenerating land.

Since 2010 I’ve established about 270 baseline carbon plots in the US, Mexico, and Canada. As we start re-monitoring we now get to see results, not just baselines, which means we can track the actual changes in soil carbon and plant cover over time. These can teach us, one plot at a time, what is actually possible when creative and committed people work with the most powerful and creative planetary force.

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international (and localized) competition to recognize land managers who are growing water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter. It is designed for those who are, or will be, managing for more carbon and water in their soils and enhanced ecological function, and who want feedback and accountability relative to this goal. We seek to recognize grassroots leadership, to help discover what is possible through management of the most powerful and creative planetary force, and to help build management capacity at all scales from society to individuals managing land.

Northeast Oregon: Tony and Andrea Malmberg of Union, Oregon had a 23% increase in soil carbon in the top 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) after not quite three years, following a transition from 23 years in the Conservation Reserve Program where no farming or grazing was done, to planned grazing beginning in October 2010. Above-ground plant diversity increased as well.

Peter Donovan, Blain Hjertaas, and Neil Dennis

Southeast Saskatchewan: Every one of the 5 farms with baseline plots that Blain Hjertaas and I remonitored in October 2014 showed substantial increases in soil carbon, over 40 percent in some cases (see links below to graphs and summary data for all layers sampled). These plots are in pastures, mainly smooth brome or meadow brome, and bluegrass. These graziers are all using some type of planned grazing, with fairly short times of exposure to grazing and fairly long recovery periods. In some cases, they have given their cattle access to round bales of hay spaced around the field for winter supplement. None of the plots were located in the rings of lusher grass growth that persist for some years around the location of each bale, but some hay feeding did occur over the plot SUNB1 and the surface litter there did contain hay residue.

Blain Hjertaas, who has helped a group of graziers in southeast Saskatchewan learn planned grazing and holistic management, noted the excellent growing conditions over the last three years.

Neil Dennis, one of the Saskatchewan graziers who is featured in the film "Soil Carbon Cowboys," has used high stock density and recovery periods of 80 days or longer for years on his pastures of brome and bluegrass. “As your land gets healthier, your recovery time should get longer. Everything starts changing when you get healthier land—the health of the animals, and the response of the grass. My brome hasn’t set seed in a year.”

See graphic plot summaries here.

as well as on the map.

The sampling methods are detailed in Measuring Soil Carbon Change: A flexible, local, practical method, available here.

These results mean that some dedicated land stewards, by turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon, are growing soil and soil structure. This has a large influence on water-holding capacity, yearlong productivity, profit, quality of life, and the well-being of their communities. They are doing this with the tools and resources that are already available on their farms, namely sunlight, rain, plants, livestock, countless microbes, and well-directed human management.

Notes Soil Carbon Coalition cofounder Abe Collins: "Practical, visionary ranchers and farmers are leading the way in discovering how to grow new topsoil. By tracking change in soil carbon levels via the Soil Carbon Challenge they've gained important feedback.

"We hope that soil health outcomes of these ranchers' good management also expands the sense of possibility and encourages action toward a deep topsoil future by the non-farming public.

"The Soil Carbon Coalition continues to develop and implement open monitoring and data analysis tools designed to increase people's capacity to achieve topsoil and water security wherever they live."

Carolyn and Trent Wall, Peter Donovan

The Soil Carbon Coalition will continue to help develop local interest and capacity in measuring change in soil carbon, using open data and practical methods. I’ve given workshops in Mexico, Vermont, and Pennsylvania and have more scheduled for 2015. We would like to see the Challenge be taken up (and localized) in all areas of the world, with open shared data. For those of you who are participating in the Soil Carbon Challenge, please contact me to request remonitoring or for instructions on accessing your baseline data.

Mapping power and change: an expansion of our work

Life, as the Russian geochemist Vernadsky observed nearly a century ago, is the most powerful geologic force. Yet we are ill-suited to recognize or enlist this most powerful and creative planetary force, because we generally don’t monitor landscape function. Instead we spend vast sums on predictions, models, and on mapping problems, species, and land cover, and then on research to establish best and worst practices for addressing these problems.

Big data, citizen science, and open-data technologies are coming together to create an opportunity for open, participatory, multilayered maps of landscape function and change over time that build on our mapping of soil carbon change. The Soil Carbon Coalition is looking for

Atlas of biological work

A short proposal for a fully featured Atlas of biological work, an expansion of the Map of Soil Carbon Change.

PDF here

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Buckminster Fuller

Revised January 2015

Life, powered by a mere thousandth of incoming sunlight, is the most powerful and creative planetary force. Our planet's atmosphere, its soils, its blue, white, and green colors viewed from space, even the composition of its crust and oceans, are the products of eons of life's complex chemical wizardry. This work of life, which powers carbon cycling, nitrogen cycling, and leverages water cycling, is what makes the world go round in almost every way save for the actual physical spin. We are riding a never-ending flow of sunlight captured by complex communities of self-motivated living organisms, whose behaviors and relationships reflect our own. Learning to recognize, imagine, and work in alignment with this force and power is our natural opportunity for growing topsoil, growing clean water, and growing healthier communities and economies.

Though much more powerful than all our technology, this force is mostly invisible. It's quiet, gradual, diversified, and spread out. Key processes occur underground and undersea, at ordinary temperatures and pressures. With some exceptions in agriculture, we don't map or monitor this flow of energy. Instead we map and monitor species, land cover, legal status and conservation zones, and problems of too much and too little such as pollution, flooding, or drought. We see our situation in terms of materials and resources, scarcities and threats, and hard limits to possibility. The opportunity remains camouflaged by competing solutions, positions, and advocacies such as organic agriculture, carbon offset markets, geoengineering, or some type of business as usual. In managing against what we don't want, we end up rewarding increased fragmentation, turf battles, and gridlock.

A different dynamic is possible if we can supplement the positions, advocacies, and predictions with sufficient open data on the actual, localized behaviors of this creative planetary force. We now have vastly increased capacity to acquire such data via multispectral satellite imagery, automated sensors of various types, and citizens who can and do collect and contribute field data. We can now share, view, and interpret such data,

Infiltration test

Stan Boyd of South Dakota NRCS made a great little video about doing a simple, single-ring infiltration test on three different types of management. "[Infiltration] responds very rapidly to changes in management."

Single-ring infiltration tests are part of the Soil Carbon Challenge baseline method.

Soil Carbon Cowboys: 12-minute Peter Byck film

SOIL CARBON COWBOYS from Peter Byck on Vimeo.

This short film features two participants in the Soil Carbon Challenge.

Lake Champlain, Vermont water issues

Jack Lazor, an organic pioneer in Vermont of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, recently wrote a great little article about Lake Champlain.

Cows save the planet: and other improbable ways of restoring soil to heal the earth

Judith Schwartz's new book is out (we're in it!):

From the publisher:

Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change, Bringing Back Biodiversity, and Restoring Nutrients to our Food

Cows saving the planet? Why not? An idea that sounds preposterous begins to make sense when you take a soil’s-eye view of our current ecological predicament.

In Cows Save the Planet, journalist Judith D. Schwartz looks at soil as a crucible for our many overlapping environmental, economic, and social crises. Schwartz reveals that for many of these problems—climate change, desertification, biodiversity loss, droughts, floods, wildfires, rural poverty, malnutrition, and obesity—our ability to turn these crises into opportunities depends on how we treat the soil. Where do cows fit in?

Cattle, like all grazing creatures, can, if appropriately managed, restore land and help build soil. Rebuilding soil is only one aspect of this important, paradigm-shifting book. Drawing on the work of thinkers and doers, renegade scientists and institutional whistleblowers from around the world, Schwartz challenges much of the conventional thinking about global warming and other problems. For example, land can suffer from undergrazing as well as overgrazing, since certain landscapes, such as grasslands, require the disturbance from livestock to thrive. Regarding climate, when we focus on carbon dioxide, we neglect the central role of water in soil—“green water”—in temperature regulation. And much of the carbon dioxide that burdens the atmosphere is not the result of fuel emissions, but from agriculture; returning carbon to the soil not only reduces carbon dioxide levels but also enhances soil fertility.

California Rancher to Rancher project field demo

The Rancher-to-Rancher project, which will support central coast California ranchers in setting up low-cost, risk-free learning site trials, held a demonstration April 12 on Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, where Joe Morris grazes stocker cattle.

Joe Morris explains the learning site idea where livestock are concentrated for a short period followed by a generous recovery period. In the background, the learning site has about 700,000 pounds of stocker cattle per acre.

Burleigh County, North Dakota: Healthy soil, healthy farms, healthy communities

Brian DeVore of Minnesota's Land Stewardship Project wrote a good piece about Gabe Brown and others:

Included in the article is a link to a presentation by Kristine Nichols that is a great introduction some soil health concepts from a simple, practical perspective that looks at the whole. Included in this presentation is a picture of Gabe and Paul Brown's ranch after it received 13 inches of rain in 24 hours, and there is no standing water.

Joe and Julie Morris receiving Burch award at Quivira Coalition conference

Joe Morris, of Morris Grassfed in San Juan Bautista, California, is receiving the Clarence Burch stewardship award at the Quivira Conference this month in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I am honored to be recognized by the Quivira Coalition for this year’s Clarence Burch award, and deeply appreciative to all of our partners for making this possible,” Joe said.

Grass fed beef is best

according to a recent report by the National Trust in the UK. The report uses modeling.

"Research reveals that grass-fed beef is better for people and the environment. Feeding cattle on grass throughout their lifecycle is the most environmentally sustainable way to rear beef, according to new research we've commissioned."

"The results are contrary to recent thinking that livestock farming methods must intensify further in order to lessen carbon emissions to feed an ever-increasing world population."


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