Select Page

Carbon Farming & Watershed Restoration

California’s enlightened state legislature “created a $7.5 million fund to establish a set of protocols providing clear direction to farmers and ranchers.” (Gili 2017)   The News Deeply piece,: “Carbon Farming: California Focus on Soil to Meet Climate, Water Goals” (Gili 2017) provides a great overview.  After this page was initially published, more insight into how the legislature became “enlightened” became available in the excellent New York Times article, Can Dirt Save the Earth? (Velasquez-Manoff 2018).

California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program offers modest grants for innovative farming and ranching practices that capture more carbon (and water) in the soil.   While options for agro-ecology practices are highlighted in the New York Times piece and on the program’s website, the Healthy Soils Program may actually support the holistic ecological restoration approaches proposed on this site, given that the US Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Silvopasture Conservation Practice Standard Code 381 is among the practices acceptable to the program, according to the downloadable Guihua (Grace) Chen, Ph.D. presentation on the program.

Most educated observers would agree that increasing woody and perennial root biomass is among the ways to rapidly expedite development of carbon in the soil.  But recent scientific evidence informs us that the organic components establishing / distinguishing “soil” (from inorganic rock) can reach much deeper (tens of meters) than generally, previously assumed and often beyond the reach of vascular plant root hairs themselves.

Another hidden soil component responsible for long-term, resilient soil carbon storage was only identified in the last decade of the last millennium.  

Mycorrhizas encompass the symbiotic soil fungi associations with root systems of woody and *perennial* native (even nonnative) plant species we’ve been learning about since Verna was a “baby botanist” in the 1970s.  

Increasing awareness and attention over those decades had identified roles of mycorrhizas in associated plants’ phosphorus and water relations, along with their potentially keystone role in ecological restoration.  Mycorrhizal hyphae significantly extend the reach of associated vascular plants’ root systems well beyond their own limitations.  

In the 1990s United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers enlightened what may be an even more critical keystone role in not only ecological restoration, but moreover, restoration of watershed detention functions conferred by soil aggregation, among the soil functions responsible for macropore development.

Glomalin, or glomalin-related soil protein, a soil protein class associated with mycorrhizas, is apparently the primary “glue” responsible for soil aggregation.  USDA researchers identified glomalin on hyphae (hair-like projections) of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) in the early 1990s.

Glomalin-related soil protein was found to be an incredibly resilient form of soil carbon, persisting in the soil long beyond the life of the organisms involved, well beyond the lives of individual roots and root hairs.  (Nichols 2008a)

Mycorrhizal relationships cannot develop and evolve on soils that are disturbed on a regular basis.  Therefore, the implications of these USDA findings support no-till and permacultural approaches to agriculture as favoring greater carbon capture and sequestering with respect to global climate systems.  Such findings were doubtless considered in developing California’s Healthy Soils Program.

But if ranchers and perhaps even farmers are paid to restore degraded watershed functions, as proposed by Rainfall to Groundwater, they will be catalyzing development of mycorrhizas and glomalin, thus creating synergistic benefits for both soil carbon stores and restoration of soil structure (aggregation) a.k.a. watershed detention functions.

Ranchers and farmers could be supported in their efforts toward providing both ecosystem services.  See Ecohydrological Economics


Further Reading & Info:

California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program

California Office of Environmental Farming & Innovation

Gili, Enrique.  2017.  Carbon farming: California focus on soil to meet climate, water goalsNews Deeply  July 31, 2017.

Nichols, K., S. Wright, W. Schmidt, M. Cavigelli, and K. Dzantor. 2002. Carbon contribution and characteristics of humic acid, fulvic acid, particulate organic matter and glomalin in diverse ecosystems. Pages 365-367 in Proceedings of Humic Substances: Nature’s Most Versatile Materials.  International Humic Substances Society, Boston, MA.

Nichols, Kristine.  2008a.  Does glomalin hold your farm together?  Brochure.  USDA-ARS-Northern Great Plains Research Lab   Note:  Excellent overview highly recommended!

Nichols, K. A. 2008b. Microbial engineering to enhance your bottom line. Pages 138-139 in Meeting Proceedings for the 12th Annual No-Till on the Plains Winter Workshop, Jan. 29-30. Salina, KS.

USDA/ Agricultural Research Service. 2002. Glomalin: Hiding place for a third of the world’s stored soil carbon. Agricultural Research Magazine 50:546-549.

USDA/Agricultural Research Service. 2008a. Glomalin is key to locking up soil carbon. ScienceDaily. July 2, 2008.

Velasquez-Manoff, M.  2018.  Can Dirt Save the Earth?  New York Times Magazine.  April 18, 2018

Wright, S. F., M. Franke-Snyder, J. B. Morton, and A. Upadhyaya. 1996. Time-course study and partial characterization of a protein on hyphae of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi during active colonizations of roots. Plant and Soil 181:193-203.

Wright, S. F. and A. Upadhyaya. 1996. Extractions of an abundant and unusual protein from soil and comparison with hyphal protein from arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.  Soil Science 161:575-586.

Wright, S. F. and A. Upadhyaya. 1998. A survey of soils for aggregate stability and glomalin, a glycoprotein produced by hyphae of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Plant and Soil 198:97-107.