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April update


The 2011-2012 Soil Carbon Challenge baseline tour has come full circle. I arrived back home in northeast Oregon's Wallowa County on the last day of March 2012, after 250 days on the road and 12,137 miles in the converted school bus as well as several side trips by car, plane, and train. It was a fantastic trip, and I'm deeply grateful to all those whom I visited for their participation and hospitality.

So far, over 60 people have participated in the Challenge, with baseline plots to measure soil carbon change, from California to Vermont, Mexico to Canada. I expect to be able to post the remaining baseline data on the map shortly. Here's a newspaper article about the last plot on this baseline tour.

Later this year I will be venturing out to do more baseline plots, monitoring demonstrations, and workshops. Advance notice, publicity, and scheduling are things I hope to improve.

Though the baseline tour has ended, the Challenge has forward momentum. It is open to additional participation, localization, and adoption. The monitoring and design are open-source and can be adapted and localized. As Joe Morris in California has recognized, the Challenge is a movement, or the beginnings of one.

Through the presentations and workshops I've done, it has become even clearer that there are multiple and diverse concepts of what carbon cycling does, and why it's important. For some, carbon cycling is an unfamiliar idea, one that they cannot describe, or understand in relation to the circle of life stages of birth, growth, reproduction, death, and decay. Others understood carbon to be bad, as some kind of pollution. Still others thought carbon was a hoax to rob people of free will and ensure world government.


Some were primarily interested in soil carbon for its potential carbon credits, or "offsets" to fossil fuel burning. Others see soil carbon, or carbon cycling, through specific tools and practices, such as no-till, biochar, keyline, composting, forestry, or cover cropping, and trying to evaluate the relative effectiveness of these tools. In general, people are focused on one or two of the "pieces," and often at various stages along some kind of path or journey, perhaps toward recognizing the carbon cycle as a whole, the circle of life, and what makes the world go round for living organisms such as ourselves.

Toward the end of the workshops I usually mentioned that our institutions and organizations were not well-suited for managing carbon cycling effectively. Then I ask, What are the reasons it is impossible for our institutions to manage the carbon cycle effectively?

Here are some of the answers I heard.

We don't understand it. Carbon cycling doesn't fit into any one of our traditional scientific disciplines, or silos of knowledge. Or the part that we do understand (such as fossil fuel emissions) has little leverage over the whole.

We look to experts and peer-reviewed science for guidance, because they seem to have the power and the funding, but too often they are connected with institutions that are rule-based, not entrepreneurial, and so the incentives don't match what we want and need in terms of managing the carbon cycle.

The Koch brothers, right-wingers who cast doubt on good science, are blocking change with their money and influence.

We don't know what works. We don't understand how to opt out of the systems that are mismanaging the carbon cycle. We lack monitoring data on the alternatives and alternative pathways, so we must rely on predictions and hype. The alternative pathways aren't well trod, signed, or simply available.

Lack of education on the carbon cycle.

There isn't currently a market for soil carbon credits in the U.S.

All these are beliefs, not facts. Even the last one--the lack of markets--is a belief, because increased soil carbon can be marketed internally to a garden, farm, or ranch in the form of lowered input costs and higher production, quality, and resilience.

If these are our beliefs, they can shift, especially if we're in motion, or part of a movement.

Congratulations to all those who have participated in the Challenge so far! I've been amazed by the diversity, by the commitment and interest, and the depth.

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Thanks for this carbon challenge. I was inspired by John Wick when I heard him speak at the Quivira conference, and later paid him a visit at the Marin Carbon project. We're now trying to replicate some of his carbon research at Sylvan Dale Ranch in Colorado. With some advice from Whendee Silver and some baseline soil samples taken by Rich Conant at Colorado State University, we spread compost on one side of our pasture in a checkerboard pattern to create a number of sample plots. We'll mob-graze some of these plots with our cattle herd to see if that also enhances carbon storage. Results will be posted on my blog (

Is your contest still open for signup?

By the way, some critics accuse grass-fed beef ranchers of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions because cows belch methane. Bill McKibben had a good answer to that, which I describe in an article in the Stockman Grass farmer. (Git Along Little Microbes -

David Jessup, Sylvan Dale Ranch, Loveland, CO

Hello David

Thanks for the comment and links. Very few people are measuring methanotrophy in soils, or soil carbon change for that matter, so much of the "footprinting" of cattle raising lacks real data.

I will probably be in Colorado in early fall but robust, REPLICABLE monitoring in the same place with good plot design also qualifies for the Challenge. This requires the establishment of a locatable plot, more than GPS preferably. If you can get data from Rich Conant . . .

Also I'm interested in your water quality challenges as referenced on your blog. Are you considering biological solutions as well as technical ones?



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