Rancher John Wick talks like a man convinced he’s on to something—something big. His words exude confidence. His demeanor comes across as “can’t you see how great this is? To me it’s plain as day.”
What Wick and his wife, children’s book author Peggy Rathmann, are confident they possess is a tool to combat global warming. “As far as we’re concerned, the days of hands-off environmentalism are over,” he says. “Just as humans are part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution.”
Wick’s approach involves cattle, West Marin grasslands, and employing them together to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) — a leading ingredient of greenhouse gases, the culprit that causes climate change — from our air. It’s part of an effort called the Marin Carbon Project that also involves agronomists from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Cooperative Extension, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin Resource Conservation District and Marin Organic.
“Our earth has three ‘reservoirs’ or ‘sinks’ that absorb carbon dioxide,” Wick says, setting out to explain the endeavor that now occupies much of his time. “The atmosphere, the oceans and the land.” Obviously, space and the seas are beyond his purview; however, his 539 acres of land are not. “You could say I’m a carbon farmer,” he says. “I want to get as much carbon dioxide as possible out of the atmosphere…and into the land.”
This is where Wick’s grasses come in. As Biology 101 teaches, trees and shrubs draw CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in their leaves, branches and trunks—with a portion going into roots. As Wick points out, grass also takes carbon dioxide out of the air. “However, with grass, almost all the storing is done in the roots, and from roots CO2 enters into the soil.” Furthermore, he reasons, if a ranch’s grasslands could remain viable for longer periods of time, increased amounts of carbon dioxide could be drawn into the land.
Here is where cattle enter the picture. “Typically, grass-fed cattle graze for long periods of time and leave pastures looking like barren ground,” Wick says. Once that happens, the grazing acreage is plowed up and reseeded and, after a few weeks, the grasses reappear.
With carbon farming (“carbon sequestering” is the official term) as practiced by Wick and other eco-oriented ranchers, cattle feed on a small plot of grass for only half a day; then they’re moved to an adjacent piece of land. “They only have time to eat the top half of the grasses,” Wick says, “so the grasses continue to grow and land doesn’t get trampled.” In the meantime, carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere.
When time to reseed does arrive, a “no-till” plow that thinly slices into the land rather than abruptly turning it over is used. “This is when we put compost on the land,” Wick says, “so a more nutrient-rich grass develops.” The cattle are healthier and the drawing of CO2 from the air continues almost without interruption.
Under normal circumstances about half the organic matter in topsoil is carbon. Wick says that if that carbon content were bumped up by as little as 1.6 percent throughout the world’s agricultural land, global warming could be solved. In the near future, through the process known as cap and trade, it’s possible that “harvesting” measurable amounts of carbon dioxide will become a viable agro-business in itself.
To learn more about the Marin Carbon Project, go to marinclimateinitiative.org.