Excerpts from an interview with John Wick, Nicasio rancher and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, conducted by Bing Gong, co-host of KWMR Post Carbon Radio.  The audio of the full hour interview is archived at: wmpostcarbon.com  

Bing Gong: John, can you tell us about the Marin Carbon Project and how it got started?

John Wick: When my wife Peggy and I bought our land in 1998, we were environmentalists and “leave-it-alone-wilderness enthusiasts.” We were very confident that if we got rid of cattle and stopped the grazing, we could create a beautiful piece of wilderness. Then, over the next three years, we watched chaos on our landscape. We lost the ability to walk across our grass fields because of the weeds that came in. We started to recognize we had produced something different than what our vision was.

We were fortunate to meet Dr. Jeff Creque, who is a rangeland ecologist. He advised us to introduce grazing as a strategic event for the benefit of the ecosystem, and therefore to promote our native grasses and ground-nesting bird habitat. We did a lot of reading at his suggestion, including the book Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin.  We also studied Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and followed the Savory method very carefully, going through every patch of grass on the ranch and designing a beneficial grazing event for each one. Then, we found a herd of cattle that did not have de-wormers in them, because the last thing we wanted to do was to dump toxic piles of cow poop on our soil system. Working with the Lunny family’s herd starting in 2005, we reintroduced grazing into our system, and over the next couple of years we noticed an amazing change with the landscape. We started seeing whole fields of native perennial grasses without planting a seed. Grasses need to be grazed, and we had demonstrated that by not grazing them, the grass plants grew tall, then died and dried, smothering future grass growth and causing our whole system to start collapsing.

BG: Is this similar to the Midwest where the buffalo grazed the prairies?

JW: Yes, historically, these massive herds moving through the landscape had a significant impact. Our living systems co-evolved with that massive disturbance and learned how to thrive under it. Having watched our landscape transform into a healthy native perennial grassland system full of wildlife, we actually created the wilderness we were looking for. We did it by introducing grazing as a strategic management event in the system.  Based on that success we were able to entertain bigger thoughts. Dr. Creque, with his concern about the climate, kept referring to grass plants as “little straws” that suck CO2 from the atmosphere.

BG: That’s photosynthesis, right?  The plant takes in carbon dioxide from the air, and turns it into sugars and carbohydrates, and gives off oxygen, which we all need to breathe.

JW: Yes, it’s the carbon cycle.  There is a finite amount of carbon on earth, and it’s in one of five carbon pools at any one time. In the atmosphere, it’s in the form of CO2. When atmospheric carbon enters the biosphere through photosynthesis, it’s transformed into carbohydrates, and in the form of roots it enters the pedosphere, the soil system. As the result of natural processes, it then becomes soil carbon in one of three states in that system.  The first state is still in the roots and bodies of soil microorganisms—that’s the labile pool, which we expect to respire back to the atmosphere. As a result of processes in the soil, however, some of that carbon becomes “the occluded light fraction” because it is physically trapped inside the “crumbs” in good soil structure. This is carbon that will stay around for 100 years or more, unless plowed. Below that, or mixed in with it, is a more permanent form of soil carbon called “the heavy fraction.” This is carbon that is now chemically bonded to soil structure, and it’s not available to microorganisms to eat or burn up. This carbon will be there for millennia, unless plowed. Carbon in the heavy fraction and in the occluded light fraction holds more water. Therefore, soil that is carbon-rich holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, which pulls more carbon into the soil, which holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, and it goes on and on.

Below the Pedosphere is the lithosphere. Here carbon is found in the form of diamonds, coal, natural gas, and crude oil. The fifth carbon pool is the hydrosphere, or oceans. Carbon found here is in the form of carbonic acid.

In 2007, Peggy and I went to Darren Doherty’s rainwater harvesting seminar in Two Rock. Darren stated that increasing soil organic matter just 1.5 % in all the cropland on earth could stop global warming within 10 years. Dr. Creque, who has been the manager at the McEvoy Ranch for a decade, has increased soil organic matter at the McEvoy olive plantation from 2 to 4% through grazing management and compost application. If that happened on crop lands, what about rangelands? It turns out rangeland systems are the largest single cover type on earth, and they account for over half of human occupation. So if rangeland is the largest system on earth that is currently under management, perhaps a change in management could enhance carbon flow into the soil system. On such a vast area, a very small change would have a big effect. And that was the beginning of the Marin Carbon Project.

Dr. Jeff Creque and I went over to UC Berkeley and met with Dr. Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist. She is one of the world’s foremost soil carbon sequestration experts. We asked her whether management could add carbon in rangeland systems. She replied that there was not a lot of peer-reviewed research, and that she doubted it. The Marin Carbon Project was willing to organize an effort to fund her to find out.  Dr. Silver warned, “You may not like what I find.” We responded, “This is important and we need to know.”  Based on that, she was willing to spend her time doing the rigorous controlled experiments required to answer the question, Can management enhance soil carbon?

BG: So what you did was start with your land as a baseline, to see the results of that particular type of strategic grazing?

JW: Baselines are very important, as are controls. You always need a treatment plot next to something that you didn’t treat so you can see the difference. Without a control you can’t confidently say that your treatment made a difference, because you don’t know what would have happened otherwise. What’s really neat about Marin County is that we have this great history of cooperation between the Resource Conservation District (RCD), MALT, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and land managers. We tapped into this and identified 35 baseline sites in Marin and Sonoma that were typical of land under management. These were dairy pastures and beef pastures, and this group of agencies facilitated access for Dr. Silver and her lab to go onto the land and take soil samples.

We found a range of carbon in existing lands in Marin and Sonoma from 30 to 150 tons of carbon per hectare (2.47 acres). When Dr. Silver saw the results, she asked, “What is the history of the high carbon sites?” As it turned out, all of the high carbon sites had a history of dairy manure application. Further analysis showed that the carbon in the occluded light fraction and in the heavy fraction was just a few decades old.  This was big news to everyone. Previously, researchers assumed that it took thousands of years for carbon from the atmosphere to enter the heavy fraction.

That was exciting to us. We had found a pathway: the topical application of an organic amendment on soil had ended up enhancing soil carbon at depth. Based on that, we designed a controlled experiment on my ranch and in the Sierra Foothills Research Extension Center, which is a UC-owned 5,000 acre research ranch. We went from a coastal prairie system, which is my ranch, all the way to the Sierra foothills. And we duplicated the experiment on both sites. In December, 2008, we dusted the test plots with a half inch of compost. Unlike manure, compost is a biologically stable carbon-nitrogen complex. Adding a carbon source like straw to manure, and getting it up to temperature with thermophilic bacteria by providing air and moisture, produces a wonderful soil amendment. That’s what we put on our research plots. We then introduced grazing the following May because we wanted to see the effect of organic amendments on grazed rangelands, since they are the largest cover type on earth. At the end of that first water year, we ended up with a ton more carbon per hectare (not including the carbon added as compost). That additional ton of carbon came from the air through the plants and ended up in the soil in the occluded fraction. This was very exciting news. We are now on our fifth year of the experiment, and have measured an additional ton of carbon per hectare per year without adding any more compost. It works!

BG: Tell me a little bit more about the grazing. I know the land is intensively grazed but they don’t chew it down to the nub, and how that affected the growth of the biomass.

JW: There is a continuum of grazing. At one end, there’s no grazing, which is under-grazing. At the other end there is over-grazing. Somewhere in the middle is optimal grazing that is good for the health of the animal, good for the health of the soil, and good for the health of the vegetation. That’s what we try to target. In this experiment, we grazed all the plots to the recommended 750 pounds per acre residual vegetation and the composted plots gained carbon. But what was surprising was that the control plots (with no compost) lost carbon. So grazing alone did not sequester carbon during the first four years of measurements.

But grazing on composted plots did sequester carbon, and the only explanation I can offer is that the earth is in a degraded state and business as usual doesn’t work anymore. The analogy would be if you have a broken machine and you keep using it, it actually makes it worst until you reach a point of catastrophic failure. Our systems are currently broken. We’ve lost enough carbon from them now that they don’t rebound on their own. By simply adding a little bit of carbon back into it, it’s like oiling dry machine parts. It will start moving again, and that’s what we saw, and this was the most exciting thing: we’ve ignited a state change. The whole system is responding from that one-time event. And now, it’s producing 50% more forage, and holds 26,000 more liters of water per hectare per year. This is significant! We’ve ignited a state change in the opposite direction of the usual curve.

BG: So you just composted that first year, and not subsequent years?

JW: Yes.  A single application of ½ inch of compost was all it took to ignite a state change on grazed rangeland.  Our research has identified a mechanism. We have a treatment, which is putting on compost, and we have a soil system, which is grazed rangeland. And now the question is – what will happen if we compost cropland, or if we compost your lawn? There are more lawns in America than cornfields.  What’s exciting is that we’ve established one complete chain of carbon cycle management that’s big enough at scale to reverse global warming. Now how do we get to scale? Is there enough compost? All these questions are exciting and great opportunities, and we’re working hard to address them.

BG: Amazing! What are your plans now that you know the results of being able to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground? How are you going to get the word out to other ranchers and farmers?

JW: One of our constraints in terms of these projects was to work with existing infrastructure where appropriate, and everything we do has to be replicable, scaleable, and broadly applicable. The RCD has a national distribution system in place, so as we perfect programs here in Marin County, we’re doing it in a way that’s replicable in terms of developing procedures and protocols that anyone else can use in their system.

BG: Has Dr. Whendee Silver published reports on your research findings?

JW: A peer-reviewed paper about this research was published in Ecological Applications, a journal published by the Ecological Society of America. The full Life-Cycle Assessment of the carbon accounting has been peer-reviewed and it’s just been accepted for publication inEcosystems Magazine. We’ve had a full financial viability study done, and it was favorable. And we’ve actually completed the protocol for this particular practice soon to be submitted to the National Carbon Registry as a methodology approved by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, which would feed into AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, or local air district CEQA programs.

The Marin Planning Department understands the significance of the research, and the Board of Supervisors has granted us the money to bring the protocol to Marin’s planning process. Once we complete our work here, anybody who is doing a project who needs to mitigate emissions, and anyone who just wants to do the right thing, can look at managing their own soil to sequester carbon. This is the best possible outcome.

BG: The other added benefit is that the ranchers will have more forage.

JW: Absolutely. Also, by doing this kind of carbon management in your system, say for a lawn in a residential area, you could stop using fertilizers and reduce your water use. In gardens, it’s the same thing. It’s just a good mechanism that we should start promoting and everyone should start using

In addition to the protocol, we needed to see what these practices look like on actual working landscapes. Two years ago, we had the very good fortune of the Giacomini Dairy, the Taylor Dairy, and the Lafranchi Dairy allowing us to place research plots in the middle of their systems.  Based on those results, we are now going to scale. We are organizing three 100-acre demo projects on ranches in Marin. And we were given a $100,000 grant from the founder of Twitter and his foundation, for the planning of this expanded research and demonstration.

BG: Who should be interested in the Marin Carbon Project, and what is the message?

JW: The message is, there is every reason to be confident that we can stop and reverse global warming. That’s a great message.

BG: And we’re hitting those dangerous tipping points of runaway climate change.

JW: But the good news is our research shows the opposite possibility, where the system is exciting itself and moving in the other direction.

BG: Now we have to worry about an Ice Age.

JW: I hope so.