This site uses cookies. See our Terms of Service and Privacy.



The Soil Carbon Challenge

1. It is possible to build carbon-rich, water-holding soil organic matter by working with the natural processes of photosynthesis and decay.

2. Change in soil carbon can be measured fairly accurately via small, fixed plots. (NOTE: It is much more expensive to measure landscape-level change with accuracy. Also, increases in soil carbon, for some complex reasons, are not equivalent to reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide.)

UPDATE AND NOTE: Due to limited capacity for monitoring we're not seeking new entrants. In addition, the top-down efforts to commodify and financialize soil carbon lack integrity. What we welcome are partnerships for localized or sector-specific monitoring efforts, and suggestions. See also, which is designed as an adjunct to local shared learning and feedback efforts, and this blog post: What I learned from the Soil Carbon Challenge.


Today we understand as never before the crucial role that soil carbon plays in biosphere function, soil fertility, flooding and drought, and biodiversity.

However, our institutions and political systems have been largely unable to take advantage of the great opportunity this understanding offers, because like most of us they focus on problem-solving, on managing against threats. For example, since 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been managing against food contamination, low prices for agricultural commodities, soil erosion, hunger and malnutrition, fire in the forests, nitrate pollution, and on and on.

Similarly, the main focus of climate policy is to problem-solve, to manage against threats. This is the framing of most recent research on soil carbon, which typically presumes that soil carbon accrual can be monetized as an "offset" to fossil fuel burning.

But we don't need to wait for this, or even agree with it.

If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction?

No, you run a race. Or a series of them.

There’s been tons of talk about soil carbon, but it’s time for motion: to show with good data what’s possible, and recognize those land managers who know how to increase soil carbon.

Where things are stuck or the way forward is unclear, a competition can supply creative and unconventional solutions. A competition can leapfrog the decades-long cycle of research, pilot projects, legislation, and incentives, and can showcase leadership based on knowhow and performance rather than on promises and predictions. A competition can tell the stories of soil carbon to citizens, governments, and farmers better than anything else. Competitions change the question from Can it be done? to How well, and how fast?

Who is it for?

The Soil Carbon Challenge is not for everyone. It is for:

  1. 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, whether you manage an urban lot or 100,000 acres.
  2. Those who have or can acquire the management capacity to benefit from the monitoring of soil carbon change.
  3. Those who have commitment. This is a 10-year monitoring program.

If you are one of these people, or you are interested in helping these people, please contact us.


The Soil Carbon Challenge measures soil carbon change with permanent plots, field sampling, and elemental analysis (CN analyzer). Our projection is that baseline plots could be resampled at years 3, 6, and 10, depending on availability of samplers, and what's practical. See the procedure and deliverables.

Recognizing that the biological carbon cycle in a field or landscape has large variability over time, and that human decisions have an enormous impact on how this carbon cycle functions, let's seek out this variability, measure it accurately, and learn from it on a case-by-case basis.

Soil organic carbon has value above and beyond the needs of present or future carbon markets for offsets to fossil fuel consumption. The Challenge is not an offset market scheme, or a blueprint for particular strategies or practices. It is a platform for monitoring, experimentation, and recognition of success, where land managers choose the strategies they will implement.

More info

Unscrambling the egg: Why we need a new policy model to deal with the "scrambled egg" of the biosphere.

Monitoring guide (older version, 2 Mb pdf file)

Monitoring guide (new version)

Occupy the carbon cycle! workshop

Procedure and deliverables

Starting a Soil Carbon Challenge in your nation or region

Can policy build soil carbon?

Short video about Challenge

Same video, subtitles in Spanish

Unscrambling the egg: (30 seconds)