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



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