Starting a Soil Carbon Challenge in your nation or region

by Peter Donovan

As of this writing (October 2016) the Soil Carbon Challenge is only functioning in North America. We think it makes sense for other areas as well. If you are interested in helping start a Challenge in another area, or a project to help develop a shared intelligence on soil health and watershed function, this page is an attempt to give some guidance and encouragement.

First, a diagram of the policy situation around soil carbon, soil health, and watershed function in the U.S. and several other countries:

Problem-oriented: When dealing with complexity, this structure turns risky. Positions and advocacies trump evidence, fragmentation is guaranteed, and there is little accountability for results. Opportunity-oriented: diversity of framings and contexts, and wider participation by both people and land, become assets to a shared, localized, evidence-based intelligence.
How can we move from a risky structure, with little accountability for results, to a more stable one based on shared intelligence and diversity?

Situation: For years, working groups and strategy sessions on soil carbon have focused hopes on a market for soil carbon credits or offsets. Even with the failure of cap and trade in the US Senate, this focus dominates policy conversations in the U.S. and elsewhere.

There is relatively little data on soil carbon change, especially from nonstandard land management strategies. Understanding of how carbon cycling works, in complex situations and with various types of management, is shaky and overly influenced by all the factors on the upper layer on the left, above.

Worst possible outcomes: this focus continues to occupy hopes and dreams, time and energy. A workable market or incentive does not emerge. Or, if a market emerges, it rewards practices rather than performance, does not use or respect the creativity and commitment of farmers and graziers, does not significantly enhance soil health, or cannot be maintained. We remain in the situation pictured on the left, above, and typically managing AGAINST what we or others do not want, such as greenhouse gas emissions.

Best possible outcomes. Strong platforms develop in terms of data and understanding, with good and improving performance in turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter that is monitored. Farmers and graziers benefit from increased soil organic matter with lower input costs and greater production. If there is a policy incentive or market, it is firmly supported by understanding and data, and may be local rather than national, with the benefits close to the costs.

Ways to foster best possible outcomes. Start at the bottom, not the top. Develop a wide-ranging and site-specific range of data and proven possibilities on soil carbon change, which is a keystone indicator of biosphere function and work on land. This data should be public and available, not secret or unavailable as is most of it now. Understanding of carbon cycling, soil health, biosphere function will probably follow, as well as performance and policy. (Learn more about positive deviance as a route to change.)

The Soil Carbon Challenge starts at the bottom. It is about managing FOR the results we want and need: more water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter. Instead of being a necessary cost, the creativity and commitment of farmers and graziers is the foundation, and the implementation is bottom up, based on this creativity and commitment. The focus is on performance, in farm-specific situations and settings, rather than on following standardized behaviors such as organic or no-till. The potential rewards are mainly internal: increasing soil organic matter can reduce input costs and increase production of salable food and fiber, thereby increasing profit margins.

To those who gravitate toward head-on, direct, top-down, or regulatory approaches, one that starts with monitoring and measurement, such as the Soil Carbon Challenge, may seem backwards or upside-down.


Third party monitoring. That is, graziers or farmers should not do the monitoring on their own land, as that raises a credibility issue. They can help choose sites and help with the monitoring, but someone else does the actual sampling, someone who doesn't have to travel thousands of miles, who is reliable, committed, good at collecting data, etc. There is benefit to the farmer in third-party monitoring also, as he is not relying on his own initiative or abilities entirely.

Permanent, replicable microsites are likely the most economical way to track soil carbon change with field sampling. If there's a better way, I'd like to hear about it, but none of the new technologies are really there yet, for inexpensive, practical, and reliable monitoring of soil carbon change. (As remote sensing becomes more available and useful, such as Google Earth Engine, georeferenced microsites with good data will be crucial.) We're using a 4 x 4 meter grid with 25 possible core sample locations, taking usually 8 samples at one time. Use GPS but don't rely exclusively on it for locating your sites. Also use a tape, compass, permanent location markers. See the guide for the whys and hows, and more detailed recommendations.

Choosing the microsites is the hard part. Representative, accessible, indicative of change, and where the farmer/grazier has the management capacity and desire to create change. Permanent locations, replicable, that will serve as indicators for management.

Basic surface ecological monitoring should be used at the same time. For example, a method that gives some quantitative view of soil cover at time of monitoring, how ecosystem processes may be functioning, photos, etc. I use the Land EKG method on croplands and pastures but others will do. This gives more immediate value to the farmer/grazier, and could enable some important correlations or conclusions down the road. I'm also doing water infiltration measurements using a single-ring infiltrometer, as well as a minidisk tension infiltrometer.

Bulk density tests are desirable, though troublesome. There are three factors that go into the soil carbon mass equation: fraction of carbon the soil contains (from the lab), volume (depth) of the layer sampled, and bulk density of soil. Like the dimensions of a swimming pool. You don't know how much it contains unless you have all three dimensions.

Elemental analysis (carbon-nitrogen analyzer) is the best, most accurate method for testing carbon content of soil. We don't care that much about which fraction is organic, and which fraction inorganic. Change in total carbon is what we're looking for, and that change is likely to occur in the organic fraction.

Number of microsites, sampling intervals. Microsites should be located strategically to reflect management, as well as variability of terrain and vegetation. More is better, but the number of microsites is always a practical question. Resampling at 3-5 years, and 10 years, is desirable but subject to practicality. Resampling should occur at approximately the same season of year as the baseline or prior sampling.

Outside or offsite carbon. We have two basic divisions or categories. One is for managers who will not be trucking in compost, hay, bedding straw, etc. that was grown somewhere else. The other allows this sort of thing, but we encourage managers to keep track of tonnage brought in (as well as keep track of fossil fuels used). In a few cases, a rancher may be feeding trucked in hay from somewhere else on one microsite, but not another.

Localization and adaptability. We encourage localized Challenges. The playing field is not level. When interest increases, subdivide according to locality and/or sectors, such as annual croppers in NSW receiving less than 14 inch rainfall, or people in district Y. Prize money and/or recognition will be more relevant. The idea is to build capacity and grow power for managing the carbon cycle, and this starts with the people who are managing the land.

Localized funding. So far we've funded our efforts through a few private donations, charging farmers nominal fees for monitoring, getting a substantial subsidy/discount from a university lab for carbon analysis, and a couple of foundation grants. Funding will be a key for sustainability, and sustainability over a 10-year timeframe or longer is essential for this kind of monitoring to have real value. Monitoring, as opposed to research, can be hard to sell to traditional funders.

I believe however that the philanthropy sector may be increasingly attuned to monitoring as they will have demonstration of performance. Prize purses, or forms of recognition to successful carbon farmers, are probably best funded locally.

I recommend that monitoring be a collaborative activity, and the possibility of enlisting volunteers or agencies is real. Or, a contract Monitor who loves the work, who is paid by the plot or microsite, and who is willing to do this as a demonstration and share the details.

I am generally able to establish and sample two to four microsites per day. This included installing and taping to permanent markers, photography and GPS, surface cover assessments, infiltration measurements, 8 core samples to 40 cm divided into three increments, and 3 fairly accurate bulk density samples using a 3-inch open-ended corer. All this was fairly easy to accomplish once sites were chosen.

Choosing sites, and driving around, is potentially time consuming.

Estimated costs

Fair cost estimate for Monitor, working with landowner, to establish and sample one microsite: US$350

In addition there is data and sample processing. Bulk density samples can be processed using air-dry on paper plates, microwave, and digital balance.

Data processing estimate, per microsite: US$50 (conversion of field notes, photographs, lab results to digital form and formatting it to show in our maps, processing bulk density samples).

Laboratory analysis estimate, per sample: US$20. The lab work may be a good opportunity to enlist a university or agency. If samples are bulked for each of three layers, $60.


To hold data, including photos and hand drawn maps of monitoring transects and microsites, we have been using a Google Fusion Table, derived from an Excel spreadsheet. The Google Fusion Table is a queryable, web-based database with a flexible permissions system, one designed for sharing and mapping data.

As of October 2016 we are transitioning to the atlasbiowork framework for data entry and mapping. This is a web app that offers easy and flexible data entry.


Mapping, using a web interface, is the primary display interface of the data. In other words, geography is the primary means of organizing data, with the ability to drill down into numbers, stories, and photos or even video.

We intend to publicize entries when data is processed. Some people may not wish to reveal their names, but geolocation on interactive maps is part of what we need to show what's possible.

The prototype is this map, which includes instances of measured change (red and green) as well as Challenge baselines (yellow) as of this writing (March 2012).

So far I have refrained from mapping what researchers call "chronosequences" and I call fenceline contrasts. The idea is you take similar conditions, but under different management, and compare. I prefer to stick with monitored change in the same location.

How the Soil Carbon Coalition (U.S.) can help

We're committed to extending the Challenge concept where there are local champions of this approach. We can process and display the data on our map and website in a consistent and transparent way. We can offer advice, connections with others, and share learning.

What I've learned so far

I've run into tremendous resistance with beliefs, but with signs of change. Many experts in the field believe that soil carbon cannot change much, that it's too hard to measure, that you can't do it, and on and on. Do not fight them. Just go around them.

And it's not about offsets.

The Challenge concept is based on positive deviance, on monitoring, rather than on research, modeling, or prediction. It is tough for some to understand the difference.

At the same time, there are a few in universities and agencies who want to learn what the innovators are doing, and are prepared to learn and help. I have been impressed with a few CMAs in Australia who have initiated farmer-centric, rather than research-centric, carbon monitoring programs.

Measurement, however faulty, is better than no measurement. Repeated measurements are better, and it has to be doable, practical.

Monitoring encourages people to do better. What you measure, you will tend to create.

Ideas do not do much to change things. Action, performance, is much better.

Good framing of the carbon cycle, the opportunities, helps. So does good facilitation. Together with monitoring, and the creativity and commitment of land managers, this will be a powerful combination for change.

What are the incentives for dividing an opportunity (enhancing carbon and water cycles) into multiple, competing problems? Can we generate momentum toward this opportunity?