The Marin Carbon Project’s Mixed Prognosis for the Future of Agriculture
By CHARLIE SILER
A lot has happened in the world of soil carbon in the 5 years since we checked in with John Wick, who launched the groundbreaking Marin Carbon Project in 2007.
Much of the attention the project received over the years was sparked by the concept’s promise as a potential climate change solution. The idea was that, by regenerating grasslands and other plant life, large amounts of CO2 could be physically removed from the atmosphere. As the vegetation grew, the plants would pull carbon from the air, through the basic process of photosynthesis, and spread it into the soil at their roots. And there the carbon would remain as long as the land was left relatively intact — that is, un-ploughed, undeveloped.
Wick and others behind the idea of carbon sequestration believed that the new stores of carbon would be significant enough to be measured, and actually sold by farmers as carbon credits. Unfortunately, carbon storage on that scale didn’t happen, and it’s still unclear if it ever will through soil management practices. In fact, a much higher profile experiment — at former presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s ranch, about two hours south of Wick’s — has also produced results that fell well short of its owner’s promises. (Readers of the Steyer story should beware, however. The article suffers a bit from its own exaggerations, claiming that more ecological farming methods, often referred to as “regenerative agriculture,” can’t equal the yield of industrial agriculture. As it happens, the very same issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly that profiled John Wick also featured an entire collection of articles rebutting that myth.)
Today, Wick acknowledges that those big early hopes for carbon sequestration were “naïve,” and that “trying to concentrate value into the units of carbon wasn’t the right focal area.” As the effort has evolved, most carbon sequestration evangelists have turned toward what Wick calls “carbon cycle management,” which can deliver quicker, more tangible results.
“Sequestering more carbon has climate change benefits, but what it really means is that the farmer is able to capture more solar energy in the form of carbon, and that has a lot of benefits for productivity, for water savings, for soil health,” says Pelayo Alvarez, director of outreach for the Petaluma-based Carbon Cycle Institute.
Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, a statewide coalition (known as CalCAN) that promotes sustainable farming, points to another plus: pollution reduction. “Even if we don’t see the carbon sequestration that we predict, we are certainly going to see a transition away from chemical inputs, which has carbon benefits, they just don’t get counted for the farmer,” she says.
Despite the setbacks, Wick still believes in the climate-saving power of carbon sequestration. “If enough people do it in the right systems,” he told me, “we can directly affect the temperature of the planet in a good direction. What we discovered and have measured, if you increase your carbon in the soil, it increases [the soil’s] water-holding capacity. We have measured that, and it’s a lot of water. So let’s get that carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis into healthy soils globally, and that will become our normal.”
To promote these possibilities, Wick keeps developing new projects. With his signature enthusiasm, which runs over an almost nonstop smile, Wick explained his latest endeavor — a partnership with The North Face, the outdoor clothing giant, to make “climate-beneficial wool.” The North Face financed an early experiment on a California ranch to see if an application of compost would boost plant growth enough to sequester measurable amounts of carbon. Wick then grazed sheep on the treatment plot, and is convinced that his experiment worked, even if the consensus of the scientific community isn’t quite there yet.
“One pound of that wool removes seven pounds of CO2, rather than putting six pounds up, which conventional wool does,” Wick told me. Buoyed by these results, Wick is now trying to create a market for “climate-beneficial cotton.” To launch this concept, Wick worked with Huston Textile Co., a small but brave new start-up, near Sacramento, where a husband-and-wife team are bringing back a range of traditional textiles, including the original selvedge denim that created America’s first generations of blue jeans. [For more on Huston Textiles, and the history and future of selvedge denim, see Craftsmanship Quarterly’s 2017 article, “The Secret to Vintage Jeans.”]
Wick says Huston Textile’s first run of the denim already has caught the interest of one fashion brand, Guess. Over lunch one day with Maurice Marciano, one of Guess’s founding owners, Wick handed him a bolt of the new denim. Wick says Marciano told him that he’d show it to his colleagues, “and they are going to look at how ordinary blue jeans could be made out of climate-beneficial cotton right now. We had to create that entire supply chain to produce that single bolt of cotton.”
SPREADING THE GOSPEL
In 2015, when my profile of Wick was written, there were a lot of hopes that the state’s cap-and-trade program would fund farmers to build carbon sequestration efforts on a statewide scale. But the funding never arrived in the amounts anticipated. It turns out that it’s difficult and expensive to show that a farm is storing carbon for long periods of time. And that lack of transparency is a deal-killer in the green-eyeshade kingdom of cap and trade.
But that shouldn’t suggest the effort has been a bust. In 2016, drawing primarily from Wick’s work with the Marin Carbon Project, California launched a whole new program called Healthy Soils, which has distributed $50 million across the state for various initiatives. “The whole field of carbon sequestration in agriculture has become institutionalized in the last five years here in California,” says Brillinger. But funding for the program remains an annual struggle. This year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed $18 million in funding for Healthy Soils, a 35 percent cut from the $28 million it received in 2019.
Whatever farmers get, and whatever they do with that funding, they’ll need to thank John Wick for it. “It all started with John Wick and the Marin Carbon Project, but it has become a lot bigger than that,” Alvarez says.
Charlie Siler is a journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in climate change.
Jak Wonderly is a California-based photographer whose work has been published in National Geographic, the LA Times, CNN, and many other outlets.