Ranching With A Low-Carbon Mind-set
Free-range perspectives on grass, trees, and water
Tomales, California, is a census-designated place—and perhaps a state of mind. The Coast Miwok people enjoyed the fruits of this fertile land until contact with Europeans in the 1500s. It’s a magical place now, and surely was then. This landscape of lush meadows, pastureland, and esteros (tidal channels that flow through the estuarial bottomlands) is located just a few miles east of two uncommonly beautiful spots, Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay.
Many enlightened ranchers and dairymen—or should we say dairyfolk—run cattle in Tomales, which is where West Marin meets West Sonoma and the census-designated place of equal enchantment called Valley Ford, which is also on State Highway 1. Some of these ranchers are trying to do the right thing by lowering their environmental impact. And many of them are talking about doing this through carbon sequestration—that is, keeping carbon in the soil to begin with or removing carbon dioxide from the air and putting it back in the ground where it belongs. In fact, the Marin Carbon Project and other organizations like the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center and the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) are encouraging soil-based solutions to climate change, because plowing fields and bulldozing land for development releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Tomales and Valley Ford are 20 minutes from downtown Sebastopol, a think-tank for progressive ag. The region is filled with inspired people and inspired thinking. And it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from the East Bay, with which it has many ties and much commerce.
Fewer Inputs, Healthy Cows
A rancher of note here is Jarrid Bordessa: His family founded Bordessa Ranch over a century ago. An organic dairyman, Jarrid sells his milk to Organic Valley, a leader among large organic brands in part for its advocacy efforts. Organic Valley is highly visible at progressive events like the EcoFarm and Bioneers conferences. Today Bordessa runs 300 Holstein milking cows and 300 calves and heifers. It’s a “closed” herd (all bred on the ranch) and has been for 30 years. For Jarrid, a family man and father of two, developing a low carbon footprint has meant reducing inputs, especially medicines for the cows, and increasing soil microbial life on the pastures.
When Jarrid was a kid, Bordessa was a conventional dairy. Coming of age in the industry, he went off to study at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, then came home dissatisfied after a brief stint working at an ag bank. He missed ranching and working outside. When the family jumped on the rare opportunity to buy a neighboring ranch, Jarrid proposed trying to go organic there.
But, he thought, “What are we going to do with all the sick cows, if we can’t treat them with the medicines?” According to Jarrid, their vet warned the Bordessas, “You guys are crazy, all your cows are gonna die. You need to treat them in between each lactation.” But the Bordessas had the perfect system: Sick cows from Jarrid’s dairy would be “shipped off” a few paddocks over to his dad’s dairy. There the sick cows could join his dad’s herd and be treated with antibiotics. Problem solved.
What they actually found was that on the organic side the cows were healthier: The incidence of disease went way down, with many fewer cases of mastitis, a painful infection of the breast tissue.
Within a few years both father and son had come to the conclusion that the economics of organics was better, simply because they no longer purchased antibiotics and hormones and no longer paid their vet to come out frequently to treat sick animals. So in 2010, the Bordessas went 100% organic and have had no regrets. “Our medicine bill used to be tens of thousands of dollars every year, and it went to nothing. And all the labor and the work that goes into caring for sick animals—gone. A lot of the medicines we used didn’t work. They don’t need to be used. Some conventional ranchers in our area now are using fewer medicines, probably because of some of what we’re doing.”
Jarrid explains that it was relatively easy for the Bordessas to go organic. They had always pastured their cows—that’s just what you do in Valley Ford, a kinder, gentler place where little corn is grown and where lush grass lasts longer into the dry season than it does in, say, the Central Valley, famous for extreme high summer temperatures.
For most farmers making the transition to organic, however, the biggest challenge is learning how to pasture. Most conventional dairies in California grow corn for feed, harvest it with tractors, and bring it to the cows, which are locked in the barn. “So for them to put their cows out in their corn fields is a huge mental shift,” says Jarrid. They also have huge irrigation and harvesting costs. Tractors cost about $300,000 each and are expensive to run. Thanks to their moist, coast-hugging location, the Bordessas are able to grow grass silage for feeding cows when it’s too rainy to move the animals out of the barn. And they do it without irrigation or other inputs.
Good Bugs, Live Soil—And Greener Pastures
At Bordessa Ranch, if it’s not raining, the cows are outside where they want to be. When the weather is good and the grass is growing really strong, the cows spend their days in a series of paddocks (pasture areas defined by moveable fencing). Before the vegetation has been munched to nubs, the animals and fencing are moved to a new paddock. This lets the grass regenerate faster.
“There’s usually a two week period in April when the grass just hits its peak,” says Jarrid. “It’s exploding out of the ground. The moisture is right in the soil, the temperature is right, the days are getting longer, the roots are established, the nutrients are available, and literally you can almost watch the grass grow.”
The beneficial bacteria that are in cows’ rumens (the first chamber in the cow’s alimentary canal) are largely the same species of bacteria that are in soil. When the cows poop, the nutrients and microorganisms in the manure move into the soil, where they build microbial life and a robust soil foodweb. And healthy soils sequester carbon, allowing the ranch to reduce its environmental impact still further.
“Soil scientists used to just test for nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and other elements,” says Jarrid. “But now they’ve figured out that healthy soil has bacteria and fungi, nematodes, and all these living organisms. If you look at soil that has all the right elements but not the right biological activity, it’s less productive and less healthy than a soil that has both.”
Splendor In The Grass
Pasture determines all at True Grass Farms as well. Here, young rancher Guido Frosini runs one of the largest herds of Wagyu cows—a Japanese breed—on organic pasture in the United States. Guido crosses Wagyu with Angus and also sells pork, lamb, and blueberries. His main customer hub is the East Bay. About four years ago, the Berkeley Ecology Center chose True Grass to vend meat at the Saturday farmers’ market in downtown Berkeley. “As a new ranch, they gave us a place, almost like an incubator. Our values are a good fit,” says Guido. True Grass also sells at Oakland’s Temescal farmers’ market.
Like Jarrid, Guido manages his pasture carefully, tending about 30 species of grasses and forbs, such as California oatgrass, perennial rye, purple needlegrass, vetch, birdsfoot trefoil, chicory, arrowleaf balsamroot, plantain, sub clover, and wild oats. Depending on the weather and the season, the cows are moved to a new paddock every six to 48 hours. “We manage our animals so that we create, year by year, a layer of thatch that is in direct contact with the soil and therefore with all primary decomposers and soil microbes. With layer after layer, you start to create a small compost pile that generates organic matter. That is how we build soil.”
Rich soil holds carbon, although carbon sequestration rates are hard to measure. What Guido can say is that his methods have a net benefit for water savings. “When you look at producing animal protein out of context, it looks wasteful. It takes water and gas to grow the corn and ship the meat. But, in our case, there are no inputs—everything’s here. We take animals to slaughter in Petaluma, 20 minutes away. And the butcher is nearby in Santa Rosa. Then the meat is delivered to Berkeley. That triangle is 75 miles.”
According to many experts, herbivores—in this case, cows—are a fundamental component of increasing and improving organic matter in soil. The Rodale Institute estimates that for every 1% of organic matter, soils can hold upwards of 16,000 gallons of water per acre. Guido estimates that his soils have a very high percentage of organic matter at 5–6%. If that’s true (he’s waiting on soil tests), that would mean his grasslands can hold upwards of 96,000 gallons of water per acre.
“It takes me about five to six acres to finish an animal,” Guido says. “All the while that animal is contributing to the fertility of that soil. The water that the animal drank on the land is being released in urine back on the land, adding fertility. When it goes to slaughter, yeah, we’re going through about 150 gallons at the slaughter plant and maybe another hundred at the butcher and then whatever water it takes to make a gallon of gas for delivery, but that’s pretty much it. And so when I look at the numbers over the course of a cow’s lifetime, I believe we’re net positive with water use.”
Dance of life in the Silvopasture
There are ways to step up carbon sequestration, such as by adding woody perennials—trees and large shrubs—to pasture. In his groundbreaking new book The Carbon Farming Solution, Eric Toensmeier claims that when you crunch the numbers, pastures that include woody plants sequester up to three times as much carbon as well-managed pastures that don’t. This is because wood adds biomass and stores carbon. The roots also hold moisture in the soil, guard against erosion, and maintain a beneficial environment for soil microbial life.
Wanting to make his ranch even more ecologically robust, Guido decided to create a silvopasture on a section of his 1,200-acre property. An agroforestry system that combines livestock production with the ecological benefits of trees, silvopasture is the opposite of monoculture. Silvopastures “stack functions” (to use a permaculture term) by producing a range of valuable agroforestry products—like nuts and berries, honey, mushrooms, greens, and wild game—in addition to sustaining a farm’s livestock.
Guido’s silvopasture plan was a joint project with Jeremy Watts, a restorative agriculture planner and landscaper who recently moved his business, Edible Ecology, a permaculture design business and nursery, from Oakland to Santa Rosa. The nursery specializes in fruit trees and animal fodder crops.
Just before Christmas 2015, Guido and Jeremy co-led a workshop on how to install silvopasture. It was a rare opportunity for the 15 eco-ranching aficionados who showed up: Although agroforestry systems are gaining attention in California, silvopasture is still a well-kept secret. “I just talked to an official at the agriculture commissioner’s office in Santa Rosa,” says Jeremy. “I’m living at a goat ranch now, and we’re trying to set up a silvopasture there for the goats to get them off imported feed. I asked him if he knew of anyone doing silvopasture for goats, and does he recommend any species. He said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever heard use that word.’”
Keyline design Goes with the f low
Guido and Jeremy developed their silvopasture plan using another secret just getting out: keyline design. This revolutionary ag-land development technique looks at how water naturally flows in relation to topographical features. Used correctly, keyline design guards against land degradation problems like those at the center of recent controversy in nearby Napa County, where thousands of acres of hilly grasslands have been converted to wine grape monocultures, which has led to removal of many native oaks. This has led to erosion and run-off, with fertilizers and pesticides polluting local creeks and water sources, leading in turn to algae blooms and reduced steelhead habitat.
With silvopasture, trees are added to a production system, not taken away. The goal of keyline is to design for the eventual harvest of abundant and diverse edible products raised in a clean, healthy, balanced environment with minimal (or zero) inputs.
“There’s a simplicity and elegance to keyline. The land tells you where to put everything,” says Jeremy of this system, which aims to use every last drop of water to strategic advantage. Keyline was developed by P.A. Yeomans in the 1950s in Australia, in the face of drought.
Jeremy explains, “Keyline tells you how to spread the water out evenly on the landscape. Water and soil work together to either hydrate a landscape or to erode it. Water wants to head down to the nearest exit and take your precious topsoil along for the ride. Topsoil is where most of a soil’s carbon is. Design systems like this, with perennial grasses and trees and healthy soil biota, all serve to anchor the soil in place. With this kind of stability, the soil becomes sponge-like and takes the water in and holds onto it.”
Jeremy studied with Darren Doherty of Regrarians (Regenerative Agrarians), a master of keyline design from Australia who has helped many U.S. farmers bring efficiency, sustainability, and profit to their farms. (Last May, Doherty spoke on “Carbon Farming Success Stories” at the Sebastopol Grange at an event organized by the Permaculture Skills Center.)
Local Corks For Local Wines
Silvopasture systems come in many forms. Guido and Jeremy and the group installed dehesa, a managed or constructed landscape that is basically an oak savannah in which Quercus suber, or cork oak, is the prime species. For over 4,500 years in central and southern Spain and southern Portugal, dehesa has been producing some of the world’s finest foods, such as a prized and expensive prosciutto: the fabled jamón Ibérico.
Dehesa comes with a whole system of connected benefits, which together support a low-carbon intent. And, it’s a perfect fit for Northern California, with its Mediterranean climate, rolling grasslands, and sophisticated food culture.
Importantly, the cork oak is a pyrophyte, which means it regenerates its canopy quickly after a fire. Given the trajectory of climate change, with hot weather dramatically increasing incidence of fire, this is a resilient plant choice.
And clearly, producing cork—a renewable resource—right here in California’s most notable wine region is carbon advantageous. In Europe, cork is sustainably harvested from old growth trees and is a major source of income for dehesa owners. To boot, cork must be harvested by skilled labor, since it cannot be mechanized. Ergo, more local agrarian jobs, less heavy machinery and oil, and no shipping. Plus, hogs love the acorns. And many wine drinkers prefer cork.
Over the course of Jeremy and Guido’s December workshop, the group plotted the keyline design with a laser. By seeing the contours and “key points” of the land, they discovered the smartest place to plant each of about 75 cork oak saplings. (These had been grown from seed by Bob Cannard, whose Green String Farm has provided “beyond organic” produce to the East Bay for decades.)
“These trees will become mother trees for other species over the years, helping keep things cool,” says Guido. They will provide many benefits, says Jeremy: fog catchment, shade and protection for the pasture and animals from desiccating coastal winds, forage for livestock, habitat for wildlife, and possibly a bumper crop of chanterelle mushrooms. They may even provide living fences.
Guido hopes cork will be profitable for True Grass Farms one day, but this won’t be for 15 or 20 years. It’s an investment, albeit one on the slow side. In the meantime, the East Bay will appreciate his fine meats—and the chanterelles will be coming up roses.
Serious Sequestration: HuGELKULTUR, RANCH-STYLE
The hügelkultur bed, seen in cross section in the photo below, represents tangible carbon sequestration. Essentially, this is a man-made carbon sink.
An age-old practice in Germany and Eastern Europe, hügelkultur has become a popular permaculture tactic today. Essentially it is a way to upcycle leftover woody materials—prunings, old firewood, waste wood, and logs—which become the foundation of highly fertile raised beds. There are many “recipes” (just ask any permaculturalist and you’ll hear a litany of strong views) but, basically, soil is mounded over the wood, which decays and composts in place, thus activating a strong and prolonged booster shot of mycorrhizal activity. Plants are placed directly into the beds for a rich growing environment. Mycorrhizae are beneficial fungi which attach to plants’ roots, extending their access to water and nutrients.
In our region, hügelkultur is typically a garden-scale practice. However, True Grass Farms has built several ranch-scale hügels, perhaps dozens of feet long and wide. You can’t see where they are because they blend seamlessly into the hilly landscape: Since they are literally hotbeds for self-seeding pasture plants, the mounds are quickly covered with grasses and forbs. Also, cork oaks have been intentionally planted into the hügels.
Guido explains, “The hügel creates a space where fungal dominance can be established and more water retained in order to foster trees year round in the dry summers we have.” It’s quite impressive because wood is actually sequestered in the ground. You just don’t know it unless somebody tells. Besides sequestering carbon, the hügelkultur acts like a sponge to hold moisture during the hot, dry months. It also protects against erosion by building up biomass.
Carbon Consciousness raising
A year ago, carbon farming was hardly in the news. In a short time the subject has exploded in the news media—and in the consciousness of organic farmers and informed consumers. “Back then,” carbon farming was largely equated with happy ranchers taking a spin in their tractors spreading compost on pasture to add organic matter. The term has been slowly gaining attention through Governor Brown’s Healthy Soils Initiative and the Carbon Cycle Institute, a statewide nonprofit organization based in Sonoma County, which has been helping organize California’s Resource Conservation Districts to generate programs and funding for farmers taking the initiative on any number of environmentally beneficial strategies.
Meanwhile, I have recently started spotting bookish eco-gardeners around the East Bay toting their new, signed volumes of Eric Toensmeier’s The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Chelsea Green, 2016). The author of Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City; Edible Forest Gardens; and other books was quietly crafting this first textbook-style tome on carbon farming even as the term was only just being spoken for the first time in some circles.
With innovative information and a fresh approach to thinking about agriculture and even plants themselves, Toensmeier enumerates many strategies for farming with carbon retention in mind, drawing from global scientific data as he discusses farming strategies from around the world, including those of indigenous societies. There’s an appendix with a comparative table of carbon sequestration rates by farming practice and encyclopedic information on useful perennial crops, for example: staple crops (such as those grown for their protein, carbohydrate, or oil content) and industrial crops (such as those grown for fiber or hydrocarbons). There is also a “Global Species Matrix,” and much more.
Highly readable, this book is a must for anyone who wants a whole-systems, large-scale, well-researched understanding of carbon farming.