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It was the best hay crop dairyman Steve Perucchi had seen in his 60 years in Sonoma County. After he mowed the grass on his neighbors’ sheep ranch, it lay in thick, honey-colored rows deep enough to lose a child in.The hay belonged to Bodega Pastures, a lamb and wool producer in the town of Bodega that had added compost to its field for the first time in 2019 when growing food for its animals. The results inspired Perucchi, who mows and bales as a side business, to apply for a grant to do the same on one of his pastures. “When you see it over there, it makes you think more about it,” said Perucchi, a thick-armed man with a silver goatee, as he greeted visitors at his family’s dairy, which supplies organic milk to Clover Stornetta. A black-and-white Holstein bellowed loudly behind him and an employee used a forklift to stack bales of hay in an old red barn.
A second-generation farmer whose father founded Perucchi Dairy in 1952, Perucchi had stumbled into regenerative farming. Also called carbon farming, it involves agricultural methods that remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil, such as managed grazing, planting perennials and cover crops, and adding compost to farm fields or rangeland. If done at a wide enough scale, regenerative farming could more than just offset the greenhouse gas emissions from farming — it could fight climate change overall.
“There’s tremendous potential to help dairy and and beef cattle producers to be part of the solution as opposed to just part of the problem,” said Whendee Silver, professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at UC Berkeley, who studies the carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission rates of different soil amendments. “But that involves giving them the opportunity to make the investments that they need.”
Clover grows in the arable soil on the farm’s hayfields. The farm uses regenerative techniques to sequester carbon in the soil, which helps reverse the effects of climate change.Alvin A.H. Jornada / Special to The Chronicle
President Biden has supported creating a carbon credit program that would give farmers incentives to follow regenerative farming practices, and the Senate approved a bill last week to create a certification process for such a program. The Bay Area has been a forerunner in the movement since the founding of Marin Carbon Project 10 years ago. The consortium of ranchers, NGOs and biotech funders, with Silver as lead scientist, coordinates carbon farming initiatives on Marin ranches.
“California is a global innovator in connecting agriculture and climate as a climate change solution,” said Kathryn Lyddan, director of conservation at Marin Agricultural Land Trust, a partner in the Marin Carbon Project.
Carbon farming is becoming more widespread in California with increased funding. In 2017, the state Department of Agriculture launched a program that provides incentives for climate-friendly farming practices and has distributed $41.5 million in grants to farmers.
Other sources of funding include Zero Foodprint, a San Francisco nonprofit founded in 2015 that raises money via a 1% charge added to customers’ bills at 65 participating U.S. restaurants. It has awarded $550,000 in grants to farmers for climate-friendly farming practices, including $25,000 to Bodega Pastures and $25,000 to Perucchi Dairy.
The main carbon farming practices include:
• Adding compost to the soil. Replacing manure or synthetic fertilizer, which release nitrous oxide, with compost prevents the emission of that potent greenhouse gas and increases plant growth, which sequesters carbon.
• Planting perennial crops. Perennials capture more carbon than annual plants because they don’t die back each year and they develop a more complex root system that holds onto carbon longer.
• Adding cover crops. These plants encourage the growth of bacteria and fungi that aid in carbon capture.
• Managed grazing. Moving livestock from pasture to pasture gives plants and soil time to recover, though its ability to sequester carbon hasn’t been widely studied.
• Reduced or no-till farming. Tilling, or turning over the soil, encourages the release of carbon back into the atmosphere.
Bodega Pastures, a cooperative ranch of several families who live and work on 990 acres, has been awarded grants from Zero Foodprint and Fiber Shed, a nonprofit that supports producing animal and plant fiber locally to implement changes spelled out in the farm’s own 45-page carbon plan, including buying compost.
Cooperative member Hazel Flett, 72, slight and apple-cheeked, waded through the grasses in a wool sweater and rubber boots during a tour of the ranch last month. She stopped when she spotted purple needlegrass. The native plant with a lavender tinge and pointy tips is a perennial that is usually crowded out by invasive Mediterranean annual grasses, likely introduced when the ranch was first settled in the 19th century.
Flett hopes more will grow back when they implement more managed grazing.
On one ridge, growing lambs were trying to nurse despite being as tall as their mothers. The animals don’t produce enough waste, said Flett, which is why the grants are helpful.
“What looks like a lot when you muck out the barn is very little on 10 acres,” said Flett, a native of England.
Long-time Bodega Pastures shepherd Hazel Flett talks with other community members at the cooperative pasture-raised sheep farm in Bodega. Bay Area farmers have been forerunners of regenerative farming to help trap carbon in the soil and fight climate change.Alvin A.H. Jornada/Special to The Chronicle
Perucchi Dairy normally uses its own cow manure to fertilize its pastures, but this fall, Perucchi, joined by his father, Henry, 92, and his son, Josh, 33, will use its grant to buy compost for a 70-acre ranch and to seed it with perennials like clover and rye. They used their own money to buy a no-till seeder.
Even if the world manages to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions significantly, “carbon sinks” like regenerative farming are considered essential in facing the climate crisis because they sequester carbon dioxide that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
While newer technologies for carbon capture include injecting it into rocks and storing it deep underground, land management is a time-tested approach. Plants absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making forests, farms and rangelands some of the world’s biggest natural depositories of carbon. When managed with regenerative practices, they can sequester even more.
In a 2020 report, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory included carbon farming among the practices the state will need to reach its goal to become carbon neutral by 2045. The report estimated that using such practices on the majority of the state’s cropland, along with minor emissions reductions in farming, could remove 10.6 million metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually.
Regenerative farming has other benefits that have taken on additional importance with the historic drought. The added carbon structure allows more water to infiltrate soil so it retains more moisture. Increased plant growth is vital when farmers are having to cut back on planting or buy alfalfa for their animals because of the drought. This year, Perucchi Dairy’s cattle ate through the grass on its pastures two months early because the farm got only 25% of its usual rainfall, which increased feed costs.
While it’s also done in vegetable farming, the amount of sequestration from animal agriculture is higher, said Karen Leibowitz, executive director of Zero Foodprint. The organization estimates the projects its grants support will sequester the equivalent of 18,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide total.
“Dairies and ranches are a good return on investment,” said Leibowitz, whose husband, Anthony Myint, co-founded the organization. The couple behind blockbuster restaurants like Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, they now focus full time on the organization, which won a James Beard Foundation award in 2020 and has new affiliates in Asia and Scandinavia.
Some critics say claims about the potential of regenerative farming to reverse climate change are overblown, that the term is too loosely defined. But Silver said long-term, peer-reviewed studies have clearly shown the benefits, particularly of compost.
For example, UC Davis researchers found that applying compost to soil and planting cover crops on farm fields increased carbon sequestration by 13% over 19 years.
Silver’s team collects soil samples from farms to compare the use of different types of compost and other amendments. In her lab at UC Berkeley, on one table were white instruments the size of waffle makers used to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the field. In another room, a student sifted through a spoonful of soil to remove tiny pieces of rock and roots. The pieces would next be ground into fine powder and run through an analyzer that measures how much carbon they contain.
Silver’s models show that the effects of one application of compost on rangeland could potentially last 85 to 100 years. That’s partly because some of the carbon gets trapped in the soil and stays there. The other factor is that there’s a positive feedback in that there is more plant growth. “All you need is more carbon going in than going out,” said Silver. “The more plants grow, the higher the probability soil will sequester carbon.”
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @taraduggan
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