John Wick & Calla Rose Ostrander: Carbon Farming

John Wick is the co-owner of the Nicasio Native Grass Ranch and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, which aims to improve carbon sequestration in rangeland, agriculture, and forest soils through applied research and implementation.

Calla Rose Ostrander joined John and the Marin Carbon Project after nearly 20 years of working to transform climate problems into solutions for large, complex city systems in Aspen, Colorado, and San Francisco.

Both Wick and Ostrander are excited about the future of (and science behind) soil carbon sequestration. As our atmosphere becomes increasingly laden with carbon dioxide, shifting agricultural practices to facilitate the drawdown of carbon back into the soil is becoming a very real focal point for solutions. Beyond sequestering carbon, which is a massively necessary endeavor, large scale application of carbon farming techniques has the potential to transform agriculture in many other ways, increasing productivity as well our relationship to the land. We were honored to host them at the 2017 National Bioneers Conference to share their hopeful and compelling discoveries. Below is a video and edited transcript of their keynote on the extraordinary possibilities of carbon farming.

John Wick & Calla Rose Ostrander:

JOHN: First I have to make an embarrassing confession: I love concrete.

I worked for a couple of decades in this area of building, doing projects. In the early ‘90s, I went to school to become a project manager, and I had this dream of working on very large projects, in particular the Three Gorges Dam in China. I thought that would be a very spectacular achievement for a career.

Fortunately, life happened, and a wonderful thing happened. My wife became very successful. She created a best-selling children’s book, Good Night, Gorilla, that won the Caldecott award, and then as a family decision, we chose to put my energy and enthusiasm into her career.

Now, I have a large personal space and that requires a bigger studio than we had, so we bought a barn. This barn that we bought was on a ranch twenty20 minutes west of here in Nicasio, and we went about our work creating children’s books, with no regard to the ranch surrounding this barn. The ranch is 540 acres of coastal prairie system. Our approach to managing this landscape was to leave it alone. It was our assumption that nature would heal itself, and we could create wilderness by basically just watching. But that didn’t happen.

Over a few years, the system went into chaos. We had encroachment of weeds from places other than here. The coyote brush took over the landscape. We had sudden oak death. And being who I am, I looked to technology and equipment, and started to try and manage this system as a construction guy. Everything I did made it worse.

It was spinning out of control and it was then that we actually sought professional help. That help came in the form of a PhD rangeland ecologist, Dr. Jeffrey Creque. Jeff suggested that we learn what this system was and that was a big education for me. These are leaky, juicy systems. They’re not hardscapes like I’m used to and it required a complete different approach.

Working with living systems required observation and a more benevolent participation. So, we introduced intentional disruption in the form of an occasional grazing event, we did very light touches on the landscape and started to see spectacular results. We started to actually see whole systems of native plants appearing on their own without planting a seed. This became really exciting to us.

Dr. Creque got more and more excited because around 2006-2007, there was more and more concern about the climate crisis. It was Jeff’s thinking that if, in fact, we were creating conditions for the deeper-rooted native, perennial plants to express themselves through photosynthesis, we were probably significantly increasing durable soil carbon and we needed a way to measure that.

Around 2008, we were able to create the Marin Carbon Project, which brought together scientists, policy makers, practitioners, advisers, and explored the question of the role of carbon in managed natural systems upon which we rely for food, fuel, fiber, and flora. Over the next 10 years, we actually developed a new insight into these managed systems. It’s a very exciting time for us.

We now know that through managing for carbon, we can actually increase the system capacity to hold even more carbon, and once you do it, the system on its own starts to do it on its own.

We first experimented with compost. By putting this beautiful, biologically stable molecule—carbon, nitrogen, and life—on the soil, the soil knew exactly what to do with it. By applying a thin dusting of compost, once, on our grazed rangeland system, it was like putting medicine on this poor soil. It quickly became healthy and, on its own, started to promote more plant growth, which sequestered more carbon, which held more water, which promoted more plant growth. And it goes on and on.

We’ve measured this ongoing self-feeding carbon sequestration phenomenon for five years. Our computer modeling shows that, per hectare, a single application of compost, one time, will result in a ton of carbon from the atmosphere ending up in a stable form in the soil for 30 to 100 years. This is incredibly exciting.

Now, there are a lot of questions around that. Is there enough compost? What can we make compost from? And if you’re familiar with the Project Drawdown list, number three is food waste. So we have a tremendous amount of resources available to us to make compost with. But our scaling challenge is important and quite a challenge.

Learn more about Project Drawdown in this excerpt about plant-based diets from Paul Hawkens’ book.

Before I introduce Calla Rose Ostrander, who’s helping with that scaling challenge, I wanted to point out one thing. I put compost on this field 13 years ago one time and grazed it for about eight hours, once a year. I took this picture last Monday during the height of the wildfires to show that these deeper-rooted native, perennials are green year round. I’ve never watered this. There’s evidence that California was green year-round and is fire resistant. I’m very excited about this.

I also know that the sheep that graze this kind of land produce wool, like this shirt is made of. One pound of this climate-beneficial wool removed six pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. The more clothing I produce—this is organic cotton from Capay Valley, wool from a carbon farm—we can actually clothe ourselves and eat food and enjoy renewable fuel, all derived from restorative agricultural that removes more carbon from the atmosphere than is re-released. So, it’s nice.

Our scaling challenge is really important, and that’s actually taking this 10 years of science and demonstration to the adoption phase. So it’s a great pleasure for me to introduce Calla Rose Ostrander who I met while she was at the City of San Francisco Department of Environment, who helped me understand how we could actually take this science and demonstration to scale.

CALLA: I was so pleased to meet John, and when we talked about this presentation, we decided that we weren’t going to tell you all the science. We weren’t going to go into all the laws that we passed because we really wanted to share a personal story with you about this evolution and what it takes to do what we’re going to all need to do. (Note: All science and policy mentioned here is available on the Marin Carbon Project website.)

I met John in the city and county of San Francisco, actually, first over the phone. He called me up and I answered. I was the climate change coordinator. And he said, “I’ve got this project, and we’re going to graze cows, and we’re going to reduce carbon, and we’re going to sell carbon offsets.”

And I said, “That’s nice, call me back when you have a protocol and you’ve proved additionality and you’ve got all these things.”

Five years later, he showed up in our office, thanks to our great colleague Kevin Drew, and he said, we did the science. We showed that the soil actually responds and sequesters carbon with a single application of compost because it makes the whole system healthier. We got a biogeochemist to do it. Here are the 12 papers, here’s a protocol, here’s our policy base. By the way, we’re working with the USDA and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and we’re here because we need more compost. And I said okay.

Then I had a personal experience where I had just finished writing the city and county of San Francisco’s climate strategy with a number of people who were a part of that project. I went on a surfing trip and I dove into the ocean and I got a brain injury. I couldn’t read or write for about a year, and in that time I was about on the same wavelength as the trees. They were about my speed.

I sat on the back porch and I listened to trees and I listened to birds, and what I realized in that time was that so much has happened so much faster than we thought. It was my job every day to read the climate science, to recommend what we were going to do for policy. While I was inside, reading the climate science and recommending policy, the outside world had shifted faster than any of us had predicted.

This was the beginning of the drought, so the birds waited for the rain. In November, they all went quiet, and they started to go inside. Their little goodbye songs. And the rain never came. In December, it was quiet, and the birds were quiet and the rain never came. In January, the birds were quiet, and then the first magnolias started blooming, and the birds were kind of like, Should we come out? Should we start chirping? And they did but their song wasn’t happy. It was confused.

In this time period, I experienced such grief because the flowers had been forced to bloom without any water. The birds were coming out not having had any rest. At that point, I realized, you know, we’ve got to play this game differently. I can’t go sit down for eight hours a day in the office and look at my computer and say I’m working on climate change.

That’s not to say that we don’t often have to sit on our computers because we do have to communicate with each other. But I was witnessing a culture that just got up and got on the BART and got in the car and went and sat, and got up and went back and sat and went to bed. And it was like, no, the world is changing now, and in that we also have so much freedom.

So, what did I do with my freedom? I quit my job with my pension and my Social Security and all those really great things that you get when you work for the city and county of San Francisco, and I went to work with John in the Marin Carbon Project. Best decision I’ve ever made.

I love my colleagues at the city and county of San Francisco, we continue to work together, and that’s what I’m going to talk about now.

What the Marin Carbon Project did, which is so phenomenal, is they created pieces that all fit together to form a working model. Instead of saying we have a theory of change and the theory of change looks like this and now you have to account for carbon everywhere in the supply chain—thank you very much, Kyoto Protocol, and no thank you, because that’s a point-source pollutant response, and carbon is not a pollutant. It’s the fundamental building block of life on our planet, and it’s an element, it cycles.

What they gave us was not a framework that we had to fit into to create a cap-and-trade or an offset, although they did create a protocol for offsets. What they gave us were pieces of a new working system. I saw pieces including the Fibershed project and the work of these districts called Resource Conservation Districts, out on the landscape. Theodore Roosevelt created them post-Dust Bowl to solve for the Dust Bowl.

It turns out there’s this great infrastructure all over the United States in the form of technical assistance to ranchers and farmers on the ground. The Marin Carbon Project said: we’re going to work with those guys, existing infrastructure. We’re going to create and fund Fibershed to create regional fiber economies. We’re also going to create a model for compost at the dairy next door. So, we’re going to create our own compost. We’re going to do the science. We’re going to get the protocols right and then we’re going to take it to scale.

When we talk about scale, we often think about little house, big house. Little module, big modules. Many factories. What the Marin Carbon Project did is gave us a working model for a fractal. It’s something that’s repeatable in multiple variations across multiple systems. It was specifically designed for the United States, so I’m not going to say it’s going to work everywhere, but carbon works everywhere, so I’m pretty sure we can figure it out.

So with this model we were then able to go out and scale up to California.

What did we do with a coalition of people? We passed the Healthy Soils Initiative, which is funding for carbon farming in the state of California. For those of you who are worried about it not being funded this year, it’s because no legislator showed up and said, “This is my priority.” Your homework, if you live in California, please, is to call your legislator and tell them this is a priority for us, because when we show up, change happens.

We were able to get that program passed. We were able to pass the first bill on short-lived climate pollutants in the world that regulates methane and black carbon. Also a really amazing accomplishment, we were able to pass maybe four other laws that regulate and help incentivize the compost market. We were able to create carbon farm planning projects with the help of the Carbon Cycle Institute, the California Climate And Agriculture Network, and the California Resource Conservation Districts in 33 districts in the State of California from North to South. In three years, we took a working model and we scaled up to the state. It’s pretty impressive.

JOHN: I have a question for you. During the Kyoto Protocol, when we didn’t sign up for it as a nation, what was the response from the US Council of Mayors?

CALLA: Oh, right. So John really loves cities, and so do I. So you all know that when the US didn’t ratify Kyoto, the mayors stepped up and said we’re going to do this ourselves. And that’s really where this action is at.

The woman who spoke earlier on renewable energy, that’s coming at the city level. You want composting? That’s coming at the city or county level. It really is these structures of power that we need to identify that we can utilize to create the change that we want to see in the world. People will often ask, “Well, how do we create the change?” It’s this huge problem. It’s this huge problem and what I learned by watching the Marin Carbon Project is they found out what worked and then they kept supporting what worked.

Oftentimes in our jobs or in our lives we fight what’s bad and we spend a lot of energy fighting what’s bad. We have to find what works and support what works, because where our attention goes, there our energy goes. Cities are one of those things that really work because they are responsive to people’s power at the local level.

JOHN: For me, one of the big personal discoveries was in the beginning of the Marin Carbon Project we were clearly told that if the state and federal agencies were going to participate, everything we did had to be replicable, scalable and broadly applicable. That made sense to me. I get it. Turns out though that that’s the wrong approach.

What I’ve discovered, and what we’ve actually put to practice, is first to scale something to the natural boundaries within which it’s occurring, and therefore replicate it again within the natural boundaries, and that’s how you broadly distribute something. So for me local governance, the participation of us as citizens with our assemblymen, mayors, board of supervisors, this is the scale within which we can actually change the world. This is our community, and working within our community, with each other, we maybe can actually address this issue of otherness.

CALLA: Yeah, we have to address it all the time. People ask, “How did you guys get this done? It’s so impressive.” Or, “What do we do next?” And honestly, 80 percent of it is communication.

We have to state what we need. We have to state what our goals are. We have to state what we share. And we will find out what things we don’t share, and we will find out these things that are different in our needs.

I wanted to say to everybody in this room: There’s been such incredible, inspiring talk this whole week, but what I hope you take forward with you is something that the Dalai Lama once told me, “This action starts at home.”

It starts with you. It starts with the people you interact with, and it starts with your community. And if we can’t communicate with each other, if we can’t say, “this is my need, this is where I’m coming from,” then we’re never going to get there. And if we can’t apologize, if it’s about who’s right instead of where we’re going, we won’t get there.

So this argument over what’s the right framework or what’s the right way to do things, it’s not the conversation to be having. People say, “Oh, so soil is the single thing that’s going to save the planet.” We say, “No, no, no. You’re missing it. How we exchange energy with each other in the form of carbon, and how we use that energy is probably what’s going to help save all of us.”

In this time, when this problem seems so overwhelming, just know that there’s this beautiful solution which is photosynthesis. It’s built-in everywhere around us, and the plants are giving us all energy that we can exchange with each other. Our job as humans in this role with the plant community is to give back. We have to give back to them. And that’s why compost (I love it so much!) is also one of these things that is so simple but it works so incredibly well.

JOHN: What we’ve discovered is that rather than competing for depleting resources from extractive approaches, that by managing for life and managing for the conditions for life to occur, we can actually create conditions that are self-feeding and create abundance. Where else can you do something where the more you do of it, the more resources you gain to do even more? Only with living systems.

CALLA: I’d include people in that living system.

JOHN: Yeah. So as much as I love concrete, I actually love life more.

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