Carbon in California

To finish off my trip to the US I have spent the last 1 and a half days in California.  It wasn’t originally in my itinerary to come this far west, but after a conversation with someone in the UK who had been to a meeting with the Carbon Cycle Institute, she persuaded me that is was a must do on my trip.  And so I arrived!

img_2360Coming from driving over the weekend along the highway in the mid west counting centre pivots (832 by the way), and sharing the road with lorries every now and again, arriving a little bleary eyed into San Francisco and being confronted with 8 lane roads absolutely choc a block with cars was a bit of a shock! Although the grid system of roads means that even a completely directionally challenged person like me can find their way around, having slip roads (or ramps as I have learnt that they are called) shooting off in all directions, is fairly stressful. Anyway early tomorrow morning, the car will be handed back (hopefully still in one piece) and that will be the end of my American driving adventure, with only one short foray on the left hand side of the road (we’ll leave that there…..).

img_2351So apart from there being a lot more people in California than I had experienced so far, it was also really green! Driving along the coast to see the beach this afternoon, I could have been at home (although it was hot and sunny in February), or in Wales. Cows out grazing grass, and the dramatic coastline was very familiar. I managed to avoid all the courting couples (its Valentines day don’t you know?)  as I went down to see the elephant seal colony, who seemed to be taking a slightly more relaxed approach to wooing the opposite sex on this the most romantic of days, and were just enjoying the sunshine.

img_2340As I alluded to earlier, the purpose of my visit to California was to see the Carbon Cycle Institute and to hear more about the work that they are doing with producers in California to re-evaluate the farming system through ‘the filter of carbon.’ The mission of the institute is to show the world that agriculture is part of the solution to climate change.


img_2325There is no denying that agriculture is big in California, the industry is worth $84 billion and it is the largest agricultural economy in the world.  As well as a growing local food movement and a consumer base which is interested in the sustainability of food production systems, there are high levels of regulation and high standards to comply with. With a growing population there are also multiple demands  on land and opportunities to sell land for development at a vast price (40,o00 acres are lost to development every year).

The regulatory framework and the new legislation that has been passed in California around  healthy soils, energy efficiency and renewable energy (assuming that they will be continued under the new administration) mean that there will be renewed focus and funding available for schemes and projects that reduce emissions (or increase sequestration) from agriculture.  There is a Cap and trade system already in place, but talking to Justin Malan from EcoConsult in Sacramento yesterday afternoon, he alluded to the fact that while this policy will remain, ultimately these reductions will have to be met on the ground, polluters can’t keep just paying the fines.

img_2339We had an interesting discussion about the scalability of some of these policies and practices and how we move the potential from small scale local food networks into commodity based agriculture. Justin explained that there is potential and the eyes of other states are on California to see what happens. There is a saying “where California goes, the nation is going to go” which is due to the scale of the Californian market. Also if there is the need to produce to a set of standards for one state, or potentially for an export market, there is the potential that companies are going to simplify operations and produce everything to the higher specification, food for thought!

The Carbon Cycle Institute is running the ‘train the trainer’ model, and teaching existing extension staff how to help their clients (farmers) to undertake carbon planning (using COMET farm planner tool to document impact). Its all about integration (a common theme during the last couple of weeks in the US), why reinvent the wheel, when we can just enhance what we have (and its more cost effective too!). The discussions were great, and need a little more processing in my head before I can make complete sense of them – I have about 30 pages of scribbled notes with arrows and lots of underlines, which I have to try and put into some sort of logical order!

So that’s it! The meetings in America are finished. Tomorrow I spend all day on 2 planes to go to Mexico for a couple of days before flying home. A chance to let it all sink in, and hopefully see some more sunshine!

Its been a full on but amazing 2.5 weeks, going through more time zones than I ever thought possible in one country, having to encounter a range of climatic conditions, meeting some great farmers and learning loads of stuff. What am I coming away with?

  • the importance of soil health – its at the centre of all that we do – full stop.
  • Diversity and managing ecosystems rather than commodities
  • managing carbon – its not cutting edge – its ancient knowledge of how ecosystems work – this is conventional ag!
  • integration – using existing delivery models but with a carbon focus
  • there is uncertainty in the efficacy of some practices but there are some where we know that we will have positive benefits in terms of carbon, GHGs, water and air – these are reducing tillage, cover crops and nutrient management.
  • the most limiting factor after water is carbon (we can’t buy it at a merchant, like Nitrogen)
  • The use of models to predict the impact of practices on GHG reduction potential – means GHGs can be considered.
  • The importance of positivity rather than negativity, climate change is often negative, – we have a chance to tell the GOOD NEWS STORIES as well as always being miserable.

Now got to go and put some of this into action at home! x



Applied research and climate forecasting

My second day in Nebraska started pretty early (things tend to get going early in America!), meeting up with the two Mikes again for another day of interesting meetings and trips. This morning we went out to visit the University of Nebraska Rogers Memorial Farm and its extension engineer Paul Jasa.

research-farmThis farm is operated as a research and demonstration farm, by the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, cooperating with several other university departments and USDA agencies. The farm is used as an outdoor laboratory for real life situations and experiences.

About two thirds of the farm consists of sloping, terraced fields and the remaining third is fairly level. The soils are mainly silty-clay loam and show evidence of past erosion. What’s interesting about the farm is that it is dedicated to soil and water conservation activities, evaluating and demonstrating both cultural and structural practices, over a long time.

pauljanaThe research going on is fantastic, and provides a comparison of tillage systems in a grain sorghum – soybean rotation, a corn – soybean rotation, continuous corn and continuous soybeans. The tillage system on these plots were established in 1981, which provides valuable data on the long term effects of tillage.  As well as these plots, other studies are run on structural practices including terraces, using riparian buffers and woodlands and stiff grass buffers. In recent years, several cover crop trials have also been established to evaluate the impact of cover crops within a no-till system in improving soil health.

Talking to Paul about getting the messages across to farmers, its clear to see that while having the data to back it up is essential, what draws farmers in is pictures and stories. “I can put up photos of plots next to each other and show the difference in terms of water infiltration, weeds, growth or other aspects. The first piece of equipment you have to change is the nut, the nut holding the steering wheel.”  Again he has impressive data on soil organic matter gain, with fields progressing from 2.2% to 5% using his system of 30 years no till and the last 10 years of cover crops.  The stress is again on the importance of having a living root, providing armour on the soil in terms of residue and having diversity of crop rotations, that are based on the needs of the soil (rather than what is financially incentivised).

After a great chat and a look around his machinery shed, where we were shown how as well as no-till he runs the fields on a controlled traffic system, we went out to look at some of the plots.  Now the good thing about visiting farmers in February is that they are not very busy in terms of field work, which means that they have time to meet with you, the downside to this is that there is bugger all to see in most of the fields as they are still too cold to be growing anything.

tillageplotsHowever the stories that were recounted about the ability of the soil under these systems to take up the extreme rainfall when it comes compared to fields under conventional tillage were evident here as well. Back in the spring last year, 5″ of rain fell in 20 minutes, which flooded the roads and a lot of the surrounding countryside, however the fields that were under no till and had cover crops were able to take all that water in (despite being fairly close to field capacity as there had been a fair amount of rain previously).  We were able to see a little of this touring the fields, where they have a tillage trial, comparing no till, no till and cover crops, chisel ploughing and conventional ploughing. The road that we were driving along was made out of white gravel. The gravel was pretty white until we drove past the plots that had been chisel ploughed and ploughed, where the gravel was brown and the road was dirty where the soil had washed onto the road. A visual demonstration even at this time of year!

Paul also told another story about a researcher that came out to test a piece of kit that would identify areas of compaction in the field and adjust the machine’s depth to put the coulter just below the layer of compaction to get rid of it. As such in order to trial out the kit, they needed to compact the soil at 3, 6 and 9 inches. Soil was scraped away to the required depth and a big construction machine brought in to drive backwards and forwards over the soil to compact at the right depth, then soil pushed back over the top. Paul explained that the soil took all the driving on it and squashing down and then raised itself back up again. It was impossible to get the soil to compact despite driving heavy machinery all over it. Now the soil wasn’t wetted before they did it, but it just shows the resiliency of soils when they are in good shape.

mikemikebeckyThe other interesting thing that we talked about was the benefits of using high carbon cover crops versus cover crops that provide more nitrogen. This echoed something that Mike Kucera had alluded to yesterday, in terms of his first limiting factor was water, and second was carbon. Paul concurred with this view, explaining “you can’t buy carbon, if I need more Nitrogen that’s easy to purchase, in this dryland system carbon cover crops are much more useful to me in terms of building soil.” It was a great visit.

lincoln-capital-hillAfter another great lunch, this afternoon we headed to the University of Nebraska to find out more about the National Drought Mitigation Centre which is based at the university and how they are using climatic data to help farmers plan adaptive management strategies to cope with these times. Brian Fuchs is a climatologist that works at the centre and he explained how their data is only one part of the puzzle. The US being such a big place, as good as the data is, there are still opportunities to miss some of the local changes, as such expert local knowledge is an integrated part of the process. He also stressed the importance of records and data, as being able to monitor, and look at what has happened in the past and the impact of management will help with future planning. He has been working with farmers to help them develop plans to cope with droughts, but stressed that these should be living plans and need to be an active document (rather than just sitting on the shelf).  Local knowledge and climatic data can enhance the usability of these plans and make them a current document.

climate-peopleAfter a good conversation my last meeting of the day was with the High Plains Regional Climate Centre, and two of their climatologists, Natalie Umphlett and Crystal Stiles. The high plains regional climate centre serves to increase the use and availability of climate data and information.   Their main function is to take the climate data and turn it into something that could be used.  One outlet for this is the Useful to Usable project, which is about to finish but has been running for the last 6 years.

Weather and climate patterns are a driving force behind the success or failure of Corn Belt cropping systems. Useful to Usable (U2U) is an integrated research and extension project working to improve farm resilience and profitability in the North Central U.S. by transforming existing climate data into usable products for the agricultural community. The goal of this project was to help producers make better long-term plans on what, when and where to plant, and also how to manage crops for maximum yields and minimum environmental damage. What is interesting about this project, is because it includes social scientists in it, they have some actual data on the impact. Early project results suggest that 20% of farmers had an understanding of the tools on offer, and 2 million acres were being managed by people who had used the tools and made decision based on the tools findings.   This is the first monitoring data that I have heard that follows it through to see whether management has been changed as a result of an interaction / education!

More research needed into this project!

footballNow, hard to believe after the temperatures yesterday, but this afternoon the weather was 70 degrees! So after the end of my meetings the two Mikes took me on another little tour of Lincoln, including the football stadium, and then left me downtown to explore.  They have both been amazing hosts for the last couple of days and have taught me a massive amount about soil health and how it impacts on resilience. Thank you to them both! Tomorrow back up to Colorado, and a chance to get up to date on a bit of homework, ready for a flight to California on Monday morning for the last bit of the trip.


Promoting soil health

A cup of tea.

So much pleasure in the simple things, but having been out on-farm all afternoon in the freezing temperatures, my fingers needed to warm up enough to type everything up about an amazing day here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

native prairie grass.JPGDriving up here yesterday from Colorado, I had a great opportunity to see the type of land and farming systems up close, 480 miles along the highway with fields on both sides pretty much the whole way. I found a couple of interesting things, firstly cattle out in the fields seemingly eating corn stalks (I almost crashed the car looking to see whether there was anything planted between the rows that they were eating) but they seemed to be eating them quite happily. Secondly the number of pivot irrigation systems that I passed, (I’m planning on counting them on the drive back on Saturday to pass the time, so stay tuned for the actual number later this week).

Today I started the first of two days being very kindly hosted by Mike Wilson (note the 1 ‘l’ in his surname) and Mike Kucera. Both of these Mikes work for NRCS, Mike Wilson as the lead on the climate programme and as a research scientist, and Mike Kucera as the main agronomist responsible for soil health and its promotion with farmers. I started the day frantically trying to remember my chemistry and biogeochemistry (which, lets face it, was pretty non existent in the first place) as I got to tour the soils lab that they have here in Lincoln.  This amazing lab, which is a myriad of corridors and very complicated bits of equipment, is home to the National Soil Survey Centre which does tests all the soil samples that make up the soil survey, and does lots of other cool things, which I can’t really start to understand. As well as that they have a basement full of soil samples which was pretty amazing.

After the tour, I got to meet with some of the people that design programmes and help farmers on the ground to implement soil health measures. Two things dominate – cover crops and no till. The big issue here in Nebraska is water management. The average rainfall for this ares is between 24 – 28 inches per year, and as such there is a need to capture and hold that water, and then use it to grow profitable crops. The way that this can be done is through minimising tillage and implementing cover crops  and residue retention to allow the soil to be in a position to hold that water and allow the crops to access it.

The impetus behind these programmes is to reduce erosion, improve water quality and all the things that we are all so familiar with, but for the programme, it is taking a view that all these things also help to develop resilient businesses, indeed by doing the right thing on-farm, the environmental benefits come along as well (its a win-win). After water, the most limiting factor was thought to be carbon (not Nitrogen) as carbon is seen as soil organic matter, and the more soil organic matter that is there, the more water that you can hold, the more ‘glue’ you will have to stick soil particles together, which will create good structure and the more food you will have for biology to work and cycle nutrients. The scientists have also worked out that for every 1% organic matter you can hold 1 inch of moisture.

To try and help get these messages across, Nebraska started last year implementing soil health demonstration farms.  By enrolling in this programme, the NRCS through their cost share programme, offset the costs of setting up cover crop trials or different management practices and then use these as ‘hubs’ for other farmers to come and see it working in their local conditions. These demo farms also offer a chance to look at the economics of some of these practices and the returns. The demos are set up for 5 years to allow for adequate monitoring and understanding, and as they are only at the end of year 1 there isn’t any data yet on their efficacy, but it will be worth a watch.

After loads more discussion with some of the staff who decided to give up some of their morning and come and hear me waffle on, after a Nebraskan lunch of a baked sandwich (which was yum) we headed out to meet some farmers.

lincolnfarmer1.JPGLarry Dedic who farms just outside of Lincoln was our host for the afternoon, kindly assisted by a couple of his neighbours, Don Jirsa, and Terry Vaverka.  We spent the afternoon talking about soil health, how they look after it in their system and the drivers that made them look at how they were doing things. Interestingly when a discussion was had about incentives, there are some of the same issues that we have here in the UK, the payments are all well and good, but there are so many hurdles that you have to jump through to get them, they aren’t always worth it (you’ve got to deal with the government, and who wants that?!).

stalks after grazing.JPGDuring the afternoon we went to see Don’s farm where he was doing rotational grazing with his cattle, and learnt more about the practice of grazing the corn stalks. One field that we went to see had been drilled as seed corn, and then when that had been harvested, at the same time, a cover crop of tillage radish had been broadcast. The cattle went in and grazed the left over seed corn and the radish as it came up.

lincolnfarmers 1.JPGWinter kill is something that is used here to terminate some of the cover crops, as the cold temperatures and the snow and ice can knock them right back so that they don’t need spraying off. Cattle were grazing these corn stalks quite happily and they provide a great source of magic manure back to previously continuous arable rotations (adding organic matter, biology and all the other great stuff that comes from the use of livestock in rotations). Grazing these stalks (when they are managed well) also leaves enough of a residue on the soil to provide the benefits of soil armour and cover as well as a feedstuff.

delfrikeAfter this we went to visit another farmer Del Ficke. A proponent of mob grazing, stacking enterprises and focusing on soil health, Del is pioneering a system of restoring soils.  He explains, “healthy soil is the foundation that productive and resilient agriculture depends on. When we focus on feeding out soils with living roots in the ground and cover above, our soils will behave just like they were designed to and act as living sponges that store water and cycle nutrients efficiently and effectively. By adding cover crops into your operation, you put yourself in a situation in which you are able to feed your soil and provide a premium forage for livestock, all while making nutrients available for your next crop. Time to farm smarter, not harder.”

soil-lincolmHis efforts were paying off. One of the things that Del was grateful for was that they had always taken soil samples, as such he had a baseline from which to measure. He has managed to improve his soil organic matter percentage in one field from 2.6% to 6.9% in a decade. Digging a hole in one of his fields, I saw some of the nicest soil that I have seen for a long time, and when the temperature was a bit warmer, he alludes to finding 125 earthworms in one spadeful, (we found 2 even in the freezing temperatures).


If I was to write down everything that I have learnt and discovered today, this blog would go on for ever, but I learnt a lot, saw some great farmers who were doing fantastic things, and took time out to talk to a crazy English girl about sustainability and carbon, and finished the day seeing some buffalo, and a stop on the Oregon trail (just another day on this mad adventure that is Nuffield!).

Talking metrics with COMET farm in Colorado

Yesterday I spent a great day at Colorado State University talking to the people that have created a carbon management and accounting programme for farmers and advisors. COMET farm (standing for Carbon management and evaluation tool) is a whole farm and ranch planning programme that can be used to assess GHG balances across operations.

img_2204The calculator works using the DayCent model, which was designed by the very clever people here at the university. What’s interesting about this model, is that it is the same model that compiles the greenhouse gas inventory reporting that the USA does to report it’s emissions to the UNFCC.  As such they have managed to use a model which will pick up changes in farm management practices and as such, reflect farmer’s efforts up the chain at national level.

What’s also interesting about the tool is that it has a couple of parts. COMET farm is a full on in-depth carbon management programme, which allows farmers to scrutinise business performance and future plan management up to 10 years in the future. A couple of great things about this programme, include:

  1. once you set up your farm on the software, the soil classification maps that are generated from the web soil survey dataset are pre populated into the tool. (I’m pretty much in awe of this, as its something that would be incredibly useful in what we do).
  2. As you have to map where you are, the programme pre-selects regional crops, practices and other bits and pieces that are relevant to you, again helping the farmer see the relevance of it and access data that has meaning at the farm level.
  3. There are also pre populated versions of the tool so if you don’t know your data you can use the data that most fits your system to get an idea.

The other tool that has been developed is the COMET planner. This is really integrated. The COMET planner tool has been designed to help the NRCS agents (Natural Resources Conservation service) who are out in the field helping design programmes and activities that farmers can engage in, assess the impact on GHGs of implementing these practices.

So for example a farmer may go to their local NRCS office to find out about the opportunities open to him in terms of grants, programmes etc. When they are sitting down with the adviser to talk about current farm management and the opportunities to change things and improve environmental or resource protection, the adviser can also highlight to the farmer the impact of those proposed decisions on greenhouse gas emissions. Integrating everything together. Its a great idea. And it works because they have the financial incentive programme that farmers are coming in to find out more about.

We had long discussions all afternoon about the idea of payment for practices, and whether it was a way to drive behavioural change in the long term (for example after the payments have stopped). The team are also working with a few suppliers who are interested in being able to show the environmental impact of their products and this is one thing that was considered to be what will drive this process forward.

In order to make these things truly sustainable, we need to be able to tie a market signal to the greenhouse gas reduction programmes. When a leader emerges in that space, the process will be driven a lot quicker.”  When the consumer starts asking for the information, then the wheels will be put in place to move it forward.

I also asked them about the reliability of using modelling data rather than actual farm data. They spend some of their time verifying the models and updating them as new research emerges, but Mark Easter explained, “When you look at where we are now, and compare the risk from climate to the risk from using models, the risk from climate far outweighs it, we have to start using these models to inform practice and focus attention on those practices that we know work and will benefit not just carbon and greenhouse gases, but also air quality and water quality, for example reducing tillage, using cover crops and reducing fertiliser use.”

img_2205-1So all in all it was an interesting day. A chance to share ideas, ruminate on potential delivery opportunities and focus on what needs to happen next. As always I came away from the day more confused than when I started, but there are definitely opportunities to implement some of the COMET management lessons into UK policy. Watch this space.


colostateSo packing up this morning and heading off to Nebraska to talk to NRCS and see their work out on farms.  Thank you so much to Mark Easter, Keith Paustian, Amy Swan and Matt Sterner for their amazing hospitality and giving up their whole day to talk carbon.




The Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition

As is often the way with Nuffield, the best quote of the day yesterday came from someone who I wasn’t even supposed to meet! At the Vermont farm show which we stopped in at I came across Brian Kemp, who is a beef farmer and chairman of this farmer coalition.  During the earlier farm visits I had heard about the issues that were starting to come along in terms of phosphorus and water quality in the lake and the threat of regulation of practices, that was looming.

This farmer led organisation was set up a year ago, to try and work together and provide leadership and a unified voice for farmers to proactively protect water quality in Lake Champlain. They have set up as a not for profit organisation to make sure that farmers voices are heard and farmers views and actions are heard by the general public, the policy makers, other farmers and regulators.


Brian explained, “We are a group of farmers in the Lake Champlain Basin who have taken a leadership role to show that farm economic resiliency and a clean lake can work together. We are primarily a farmer based corporation that exists to be a unified voice for farmers who are proactively addressing water quality.”

Educating the general public includes hosting school groups, holding farm breakfasts, and holding open days for people to come and see what these farmers are doing to not just produce food but protect water quality.  Practices that are being advocated include the use of cover crops, conservation tillage, minimising compaction and making buffer strips alongside watercourses to stop run off.

They use the extension team at the University of Vermont to leverage in research funding and to provide the secretarial function for the group, but it is strictly by invitation only for non-farmers! The opportunity to do farm based research allows them to show the benefits of adapting these practices, and gives an opportunity to try innovative practices.

I asked Brian what the plans were moving forward for the group.  Membership is growing rapidly with 80 paid farmer members and more joining every week. Brian sees the value to new farmers as an opportunity to see these new practices working and talk to farmers about the practicalities, “extension is great, but as a farmer, you don’t change what you do until you see it working.”

A great example of farmers working together to show the positive things that they are doing to integrate profitable farming and resource protection. Inspirational stuff.


Farming in Vermont

After the drive up yesterday from New York to Burlington, today I have had an amazing day touring farms and finding out more about the Vermont Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and the work that they do under their Farming and Climate Change program.  The project co-ordinator Joshua Falkener was incredibly kind and took me out to meet 4 different farmers, as well as a quick stop in at the Vermont Farm Show, so all in all its been pretty busy.

The mission of the farming and climate change program is to:
1) provide technical assistance to farmers, agricultural service providers, and policy-makers regarding sustainable strategies for adapting to, and mitigating the impact of, climate change, and

2) seek innovative and effective research-based solutions to climate-related challenges facing the region’s agriculture.

To meet that mission, we strive to provide educational opportunities and consultation to producers and other stakeholders, be a resource hub and knowledge outlet for research-based information, work closely with state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations, and perform relevant applied research.

Current research topics of particular interest include:

  • Increasing resiliency of farming systems to moisture extremes
  • Reducing soil and nutrient loss during intense storms
  • Reducing negative impacts of flooding in farmed floodplain/riparian areas
  • Subsurface drainage management and its impact on flooding and water quality
  • Distributed on-farm watershed storage approaches for flood and drought risk mitigation
  • Innovative uses of various biomass materials for livestock heavy-use areas

It soon became pretty clear that water management in one form or another was a big andy_intervale.JPGconcern for farmers.  What was also interesting to find out, is that as well as being a big dairy area, Vermont also has a growing local food movement, connecting consumers with the farmers, makes Cheddar Cheese, runs great Community Supported Agriculture projects and has the highest percentage of organic dairy farms of all the states in the US.  As well as the local food opportunities, Vermont’s location allows it access to a lot of urban affluent populations including Boston and New York, making the prospect of adding value, or producing something with a ‘story to sell’ a good business proposition.
The first farm that we went to see was a community supported agriculture scheme producing organic vegetables to over 800 members throughout the year.  Running a winter box scheme where members can come to the farm and collect every fortnight, and a weekly collection through the summer provides a complex business to manage for Andy Jones, who has helped Intervale grow into the largest community farm in Vermont.

intervaleAndy has invested in polytunnels to help control pest and disease issues for his tomato crops in the summer, but also to allow him the opportunity to grow more winter crops and satisfy consumption throughout the year.  Fertility building is a key concern when growing hungry veg in an organic system, but Andy uses a fertility building phase in his rotation as well as compost applications and a cover crop mix which includes legumes during the year to try and match crop demand.



lorenz whitmarsh.jpgAfter visiting Andy, we ventured south to visit Lorenzo Whitmarsh and his dairy cows.  The North Williston Cattle company milks 300 cows in a continuously housed system through 4 robots. Manure and slurry management are a big concern for this farmer, especially with the threat of looming regulation due to phosphorus issues with the Champlain river.  Mandatory testing of slurry and manure, as well as soil testing, and adaption of management to include buffer strips, cover crops and min till are all proposed by the authorities as best management practices and decisions on how ‘strict’ they are going to be are being discussed at the moment (a move from AAP (accepted agricultural practices) to RAP (required agricultural practices). There are discussions at the moment on this farm about installing an AD system as a manure management tool,  and the manure solids, once they have been digested are commonly used as a bedding material.

outwinter-beltiesThe afternoon started with a (very cold) visit to a new set up, which is in the early stages of designing an integrated system. Belted Galloway cattle are outwintered on a woodchip pad with a bedded pack system within the house. After the cattle are turned out for the spring and rotationally grazed, the pigs come into the ‘pack’ and turn it over effectively helping it break down and compost.

pigsThe composted material will then be (this it the first winter) spread on the veg fields, which will be sold in the (being built) farm kitchen and restaurant which will serve the home produced goods. Outwintering on woodchip is just starting here in the US and they are waiting to see what the impact of the freezing winter temperatures will be on the woodchip (and drainage management).

sam_shelburneThe final visit of the day was to Shelbourne farm, a truly integrated estate, including a commercial dairy herd, beef cattle, sheep, veg, maple sugar production, an educational facility that hosts 150,000 visitors per year, a cheese making plant making 160,000lbs (72574kg) of cheddar cheese annually, and environmental schemes to encourage birds and other biodiversity.  Sam, the farm manager here was truly fantastic ambassador for sustainable farm management, even with a host of different enterprises and often conflicting management needs, and it was a great way to finish the day.


An amazing day meeting great people, all who were open to new ideas, proving things by allowing farm based research, looking for opportunities to add value and innovate, and staying ahead of the threat of regulation.

Policy, practices, and progress with the USDA

So to kick my trip off in style, and to help me try and jump into this trip with both feet, yesterday I spent the day in Washington DC talking to the team at USDA that run the climate hubs project.

uasdaI was interested in finding out more about this initiative as it is looking at dealing with providing regional information, and targeted resources for farmers to help them adapt their businesses and understand where they may focus efforts.

These Hubs were set up in 2014 to “deliver science based knowledge, practical information and program support to farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and resource managers to make climate informed decisions in light of the increased risk and vulnerabilities associated with a changing climate” (USDA, Climate Hubs Factsheet).

capitol-hillIn the morning I met with  Bill Hohenstein, who heads up the Climate Change programme office for USDA. co-ordinating climate change programme s and activities across a load of different work streams, and then Dan Lawson, who works for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services, which seems to be like Natural England, but also dealing with soil, water etc), and Rachel Steele who co-ordinates the climate hubs.

Putting to one side at the moment the potential for change with the current administration, the US is similar to the UK in that agriculture has voluntary targets.

The main policy aim is to integrate climate change mitigation efforts into broader conservation efforts, and to make this more meaningful, they have come up with 10 building blocks for climate smart agriculture. These are:

  • Promotion of wood products
  • Stewardship of Federal forests
  • Livestock partnerships
  • Grazing and pasture lands
  • Conservation of sensitive lands
  • private forest growth and retention
  • Urban forests
  • Nitrogen stewardship
  • soil health
  • Energy generation and efficiency


nathistoryWhat really stood out to me was that this was a collaborative process. The hubs include USDA, NRCS, the Agricultural Research Service, Universities, extension providers and others to provide coordinated action which is adapted to regional conditions and priorities. What also helps is that there is funding (or cost sharing) for farmers to take up certain things under these building blocks. By bringing everyone together round the table, not only do you provide consistent messaging to farmers (everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet) but you include everyone who is talking to farmers, which increases the chance that you are including everything in the discussion.


The other area that I was keen to find out more about was how they were monitoring the success of these programmes. As in the UK, budgets are being squeezed and there is a necessity to demonstrate the value of programmes, in terms of what they are actually doing with farmers, rather than just providing resources, which may (or may not) change farmer’s actions.  This is something that they are starting to look at, looking to find quantitative methods of assessing the impacts of these programmes, and embedding measurable targets in the goals and objectives at the start of the project. They are looking to pull data from surveys that are already underway, to gather information on what farmers are doing and which practices they are changing. It will be interesting to see what develops!

Talking in stories

I then had lunch with Randy Johnson, who was part of the team that set up the climate hubs, but is now the director for Global Climate Change for NIFA (National Institute for Food and Agriculture).  He provides leadership and funding for programmes that advance science. A great character, we spent an hour discussing how to solve the issue, and what he was doing to try and help.  He shared with me his two messages that he had learnt so far:

Facts don’t change beliefs, experiences change beliefs

For every number (or statistic) you give, you have to tell a story. 

He told me about some interesting work that he had commissioned looking at farmer networks, and emphasised that we need to include social scientists in future research to address the very question of behavioural change. He explained, “there are 3 ways you can get farmers to do something, you can regulate, incentivise, or teach.   By tapping into trusted networks, and understanding the social networks that exist you make the job a whole lot easier.”

He also emphasised the need for co-ordnation, but stressed the importance of including farmers in the mix as well. “It’s got to be a team effort, and include co-production of knowledge, if you do that you are halfway there as you are all invested in the solutions. We can’t deal with this big stuff in isolation, we have got to co-produce and work together.”

How do we make it work?

After lunch, and a slightly interesting moment where I was considered a security threat as I was walking around without an escort and had to be named and shamed over the loud speaker, I finished the day meeting with Joel Larson, who also works at USDA. Joel’s focus is on looking at how to use voluntary programs to encourage practices to reduce emissions. We had a great hour discussing how to make these things work in practice, and came up with some interesting conclusions.

Its hard to make the transition – when monitoring of projects has always been done in traditional ways, in terms of number of people trained, number of publications disseminated, its hard to move to a more social system.

It takes flexibility and understanding by the policy makers – monitoring and especially true monitoring that follows farmers up long term is difficult to build into funding proposals because it costs more and is less measurable, and (shock horror) might not deliver. But until we start to try some of this stuff, we are never going to move past the level of understanding that we have now.

The use of technology – sharing information to make it easier. There are a large number of data sets out there, which surely could work together, to avoid duplicate data entry and make everything easier? I know its not without its issues especially around privacy and government agencies having information, but there must be something possible!

So as is normal from a Nuffield trip, head is full up already and its only day 2.  Off to Vermont today to see some farmers, and their annual show (which I am very excited about!) and to visit their Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.


And, we’re off again!

Hello again! All has been fairly quiet on here, since the dim and distant past of 2016 and the Australian experiences, which all seem a long time ago now.  Anyway, the blue bag came out again, and it was time for another Nuffield trip!

This one, over the last couple of weeks, has (if I’m honest) caused me loads of stress. It’s been mental busy at work. Launching a new website and a couple of campaigns for FCCT, spending a fair bit of time teaching which I love but needs preparation, and getting my literature review and methodology, and survey written for my Masters to name but a few things that needed doing. Let’s just say its been busy.

It probably all started from the fact that in the heady early days of enthusiasm and excitement when we were naieve new scholars, I had made some contacts and got some meetings sketched out for the America leg of my trip. I had always known that I had wanted to come and see what they were doing, explore a bit more about their extension programme and how it works on-farm, and also see how climate change was affecting American farmers (and more importantly what they were doing about it). In my head therefore America was done and organised.

To cut a long story short, it is only thanks to the fact that my mum stepped in at the last moment (2 days to go) to help me sort my arrangements out that I am here and still in one piece (thank you mum xx and I know that now I am 35 you didn’t think that you would be having to do this!).

Anyway by (very late) Sunday night, all was packed ready, and after a (tearful) goodbye to the children and husband (which hasn’t got any easier yet), I intrepidly set off on another adventure.

I’d booked a cheap airfair with Wow Air who were offering bargain deals and flying from Bristol to New York at an amazingly cheap rate. I was feeling quite proud of myself, until I read the reviews on Trip Advisor. FFS. All elation drained out of me as I read the pages and pages of feedback about the terrible time that everyone had had with Wow air. I had nightmares for two nights about the fact that I would be stranded in America with no bag, no clothes and no help.

But do you know what? It was fine! Bag didn’t get lost, border patrol let me in and I’ve just completed day 1 of meetings in Washington which meant finding a bus station at 2.30am downtown NY and managing to get there without incident (no mean feat).

And as I write this now, on the bus back to NY after an amazing day, I’ve realised that all that stress and hassle is so worth it. Nuffield  gives me access to the most amazing people (spend the day with some proper big wigs in USDA),  gets me into interesting situations (being ‘detained’ by the police in the USDA today) but also has made me stand up tall, realise I bloody can do it, and get on with it. And that’s the magic of this amazing (but slightly crazy) journey that I’m on.

Bring on tomorrow, I’m attempting travel by car tomorrow, watch out!





Beef production in Queensland

I was lucky enough to meet 5 amazing beef farmers while I was in Queensland, and spend time talking to them about their businesses and the issues and opportunities that there are within this sector.

img_0566Firstly, although it’s a cliché, I was blown away by the scale of these operations, each farm averaging a size of 40,000 acres. These are big farms operating over some challenging country.

The second interesting thing was the forage that these cows were eating, the farmers called it grass but it was very different to grass that we have in the UK, it was very fibrous material with a lack of green. There was a running joke as we were driving around with either Steven or Natalie, pointing out the best fields, and comparing them to the UK.

Make no mistake, this environment is tough, its dry, unforgiving terrain that the cattle and the farming system have to adapt to if they want to survive.

I picked up a couple of common threads through all the visits.

The importance of looking after your pasture and soils.  All of the farms that we went to see were practicing rotational grazing to a greater or lesser extent. Some (including one organic farmer) were running a long rotation, and some had completely altered their operation to move the cattle very frequently and allow the grass long rest periods. All of them had grazing charts, knew exactly how much grass was in each paddocks and what was going on in terms of the next movement.

Attention to detail. Even though these are big operations they aren’t run by loads of staff, even at this size, the farms only have one or two people that are doing all the day to day tasks.  However, everything is managed and budgeted in terms of animal movements, grass performance and markets. The cattle were used as a tool to manage their grass, and the grass was managed so as to improve production.  One farm had managed to increase the carrying capacity of their farm by 7. They could get 7 times the amount of grass growth, and kg of beef produced, just by managing their grass and moving to rotational grazing.  This attention to detail also includes matching the climatic conditions and soil conditions to cow numbers.  All farmers have plans that include the level of grass growth that requires them to sell stock, and the level that needs them to increase production.  This adjustment of cow numbers, to match conditions, allows them to fully utilise their paddocks, but also destock early (potentially before the market is flooded with other cattle).

Understanding where and why to spend money.  Shifting to rotational grazing over these large areas isn’t cheap. The farm that had managed that great increase in productive capacity had to invest $2.4 million in fencing, water pipe and other infrastructure to make it work.  This is big money, but has provided big returns.

A willingness to learn and adapt. All these farmers had had some initial inspiration moment, either through attending a course, travelling and seeing other systems working (through Nuffield), or by trying something different and adapting it until it fits. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 7 years,” commented one, “I’m still learning, and fine tuning it to make it better.  You never stop learning, and the more you can see and share experiences with others, the easier it is to refine.”

Plan based on the worst case scenario. Talking to farmers, asking them how they manage to keep their businesses going through such variability and change in markets, and the climate, and talking to other projects here, there was a common thread that farmers had to remain optimistic.  However talking to these farmers, their business and management plans were not based on optimism.  They were based on the worst case scenario, and then anything above that was a bonus.

An awareness of their costs of production.  In such hard conditions, it is absolutely essential to know the costs of production. These farmers had these figures at their fingertips, were flexible in terms of market opportunities and were open to other ideas.  Because they knew their costs, they were able to react to the market quickly.

Thanks to all the farmers who made me feel so welcome and discussed their businesses and management so openly. The magic of Nuffield strikes again!


Digging Deeper into Carbon Trading

So one of the things that I was really keen to look at while I was over here in Australia was the whole issue of payments for sequestration. It was something that we are nowhere near in the UK, and Australia is leading the way in terms of having a methodology that is approved by government and accessible by farmers.
The person who is leading the way in this is Terry McCosker, and his company Carbon Link. Carbon Link has been set up to help farmers navigate their way through the (incredibly complicated) process of becoming a trader in carbon.
Here in the UK soil carbon is a fairly contentious issue, with scientists for the most part yet to prove a conclusive link between management practices and an increase in sequestration rate. The science is pretty conclusive if you convert an arable field into long term grassland (the soil carbon goes up) and the same happens if you convert a grass or arable field into growing trees. However where there hasn’t been agreement, is the impact within your production system (for example arable or grassland) of changing management; of whether there is a link between no till systems and building soil carbon, or whether if you practice rotational grazing or plant diverse pastures, you are sequestering carbon at a greater rate.
When I asked some of these questions to Terry, he was completely clear on his position. “There are two issues,” he explained, “firstly, farmers are way ahead of the scientists, in terms of what they are doing.” He has farmers who (like some of ours in the UK) are seeing a complete revitalisation of their soils by changing management practices. “The soils are completely alive, “ he explains, “the improvement comes not just in the increase in organic matter content, but also in helping the biology in the soil do what it was put there to do.” Secondly, the issue is that we aren’t measuring to the correct depth. “Most research, stops measuring at 30cm,” he explains, “and the changes happen much deeper than that, we need to be measuring down to 1m or 1.5 metres to see the impact.”
The deeper depth of the measuring comes at a much higher cost to the farmer, as to enter into the scheme, baseline monitoring needs to happen. This baseline monitoring involves taking a soil sample every 5cm down the soil profile to either 1 or 1.5 metres and assessing bulk density and soil organic carbon measurements. Each field has 9 sample sites within it which are GPS logged. Once the baseline of the farm has been measured, the farmers can start sequestering carbon. Every5 years the fields are measured again, and after each 5 year period, the farmer needs to change management again.
The basic process is:
Year 0 – complete baseline measurements, and contracts etc
Years 1 – 5 – farm as normal, including the management that you are doing to improve the level of sequestration (there is a list of practices that you can choose from in terms of what you want to adopt).
Year 5 – soils are retested, and you are paid on the amount of carbon that you have gained.
Year 6 – you adopt another management practice for the next 5 years.

And so the cycle goes on, at the moment the agreements lock the farmers into doing it for 25 years, and the payments is guaranteed for 10 years (and then renegotiated).
It’s a fairly complicated process and one that costs a lot to get involved in, with no payments being received by the farmer until year 5. I was also interested in how you take the risk out of a biological system, where the rate of carbon that’s sequestered can go up as well as down (especially in the varied weather conditions in Australia). I also wanted to know, how he was recruiting farmers to enter into this given the inherent level of mistrust of the government and its policies by most farmers.
Here is where it got interesting. Terry McCosker also runs a consultancy firm called RCS, which delivers the Grazing for Profit course (which Charlie Arnott, who I wrote about in an earlier blog, explained was what caused the paradigm shift in his management).
I asked Terry whether he thought that there was a link between RCS and its success at helping farmers make the most of their grass and understand business management and the uptake of farmers into carbon trading and the new schemes. “Absolutely,” he explained, “these farmers are my clients and they trust me, I’ve delivered results for them in the past. As such, although it is still a big leap of faith in terms of investment and a level of trust in the policy systems, they trust me.”
Some of the other farmers that I spoke to that weren’t in the trading scheme, were watching this space to see what happened with some of these early agreements. They were of the opinion that it was progressing, it would definitely be part of future policy and that they would be including land in the future.
It also may provide a favourable option for those who are looking to invest in farms, if they can buy farms that have fairly degraded soils, the use of management to improve them, could prove pretty lucrative. And this also works in reverse, those that have been involved in safeguarding and building their soils for a few years, those pioneers in this area, miss out on the payments, as they are further down the line so can’t see such a big improvement in the levels sequestered.
But, according to Terry, here’s the secret, there is no limit to the amount of carbon that you can sequester, its all about how you measure it. Traditionally here in the UK, we have always reported carbon in terms of a percentage soil organic carbon (which is subtracted from the soil organic matter percentage). However, apparently this is the wrong way to go about it, is all about tonnes of carbon sequestered. As such, you never reach an equilibrium, once you have filled the top 30cm, you start building more stable carbon deeper in the soil, and when that is full, you build it on top.
This is completely different to the way that I have conventionally thought about it, and it blew my mind slightly! Certainly the rest of the world’s focus is on Australia over the next 5 years, and these farmers who are pioneering the system. The scientists are also watching closely, with (from what it seems to me) a secret hope that it doesn’t work and they are proved right!
All of them also understand the wider benefits that building soil carbon has. One of the research organisations here worked out that the carbon price is $12 a tonne, but the value in terms of the wider ecosystem services of that carbon is more like $200 a tonne. As such, even if the scheme doesn’t work in terms of its current methodology and process, there is a benefit to these farmers, I just hope they see it, (and also I hope the methodology does work).