Healthy Soils and Carbon Farming

The Importance of Healthy Soils

Healthy soils are one of our most valuable resources providing us with fertile lands for growing crops, grazing, diverse wildlife and stunning landscapes as well as clean air and water. It is also an incredibly important tool for drastically reducing CO2 emissions and building climate resilence in local ecosystems. According to the USDA, there are five essential functions of healthy soils:

  • Regulating water – Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt, and irrigation water goes. Water flows over the land or into and through the soil.
  • Sustaining plant and animal life – The diversity and productivity of living things depends on soil.
  • Filtering and buffering potential pollutants – The minerals and microbes in soil are responsible for filtering, buffering, degrading, immobilizing, and detoxifying organic and inorganic materials, including industrial and municipal by-products and atmospheric deposits.
  • Cycling nutrients – Carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and many other nutrients are stored, transformed, and cycled in the soil.
  • Providing physical stability and support – Soil structure provides a medium for plant roots. Soils also provide support for human structures and protection for archeological treasures.
USDA (2022) Principles of Soil Health

Carbon Farming Practices

For the past 150 years, CO2 levels have continued to climb due to burning fossil fuels, clearing forests and mining soils. In fact, it is estimated that we have lost fifty to eighty percent of our topsoil worldwide with most of the soil carbon it contains returning to the atmosphere as CO2, according to the Carbon Cycle Institue.  However, there are a multitude of agricultural practices we can implement to create and maintain healthy soils while increasing CO2 sequestration and hopefully prevent further degredation.

Carbon farming focuses on opportunities for increasing the capacity of the farm system to “receive, store and release” energy with 35 different practices officially identified by the Natural Resource Conservation Service. In addition to offsetting emissions, carbon farming practices have the added benefits of restoring degraded soils, enhancing crop production, and reducing pollution by minimizing erosion and nutrient runoff, purifying surface and groundwater, and increasing microbial activity and soil biodiversity (Green America, 2022). Some examples of practices that farmers can implement help improve their soil health and offset carbon emissions include: reducing tillage and fertilizer application, increasing the production of cover crops, improving water management and eliminating bare fallows.

Sacramento County Climate Action Plan

The County of Sacramento Draft Climate Actin Plan (anticipated to be adopted in December 2022) includes Measure GHG-01: Promote and Increase Carbon Farming in Sacramento County. The measure states that the County will work with local farmers, ranchers, and land managers to promote and increase carbon sequestration on agricultural lands through the development of carbon farming plans. Set to develop the program in 2024 and reach maturation by 2030, the goals include indicators such as:

  • Application of compost instead of synthetic fertilizer to cropland
  •  Grazing management to improve irrigated pasture conditions
  •  Decrease in fallow frequency or addition of perennial crops to rotations
  •  Tillage reduced, eliminated, or changed to strip tilling

Additional Resources

For additional information, funding opportunities and to learn more about the benefits of healthy soils and carbon farming, check out these fellow resources!