The Carbon Gatherer
The carbon trading market is heating up again, and a lot of people who have been figuring out ways to grab carbon dioxide out of the air are back in the game. California's John Wick may well be at the head of the pack.
Written by CHARLIE SILER
With photography by JAK WONDERLY
Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published in 2015, just as hopes were developing that a more ecological approach to managing rangeland could pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in our soil. In the years since, those hopes have not quite been fully realized, but the land management changes those initiatives produced have still yielded significant benefits, just on slightly different levels.
In order to do justice to the new reality around “carbon sequestration”—and still preserve the record on its evangelists’ early hopes—this article leaves the 2015 story that you see below intact, but now includes a new sidebar, published in early 2020 with updated reporting.
As John Wick, a California cattle rancher, walks across his porch, past some metal jugs and pipes still wrapped in shipping plastic, he tells me that the gear is part of a still to produce alcohol for fuel. Stepping inside with him, I see hanging strands of multi-colored wool, which he says are part of a separate project aimed at getting the clothing industry to switch to plant-based dyes.
Neither project sounds like anything that a rancher — even one with a hand-picked team of scientists — should be able to pull off on a significant scale. Wick’s big ideas would be easy to dismiss if not for the fact that six years ago, on this Nicasio ranch where we’re meeting, he scored a slam-dunk on an even more audacious goal. He and his team figured out new ways to run cattle on pastureland in order to fight climate change.
For more than a decade, people have been experimenting with this idea. Allan Savory, a well-known biologist and farmer, advocates the use of livestock, bunched and moving, to mimic nature and thus improve soils. Another fan is Rattan Lal, distinguished professor of soil science at Ohio State University, who has been exploring various approaches to “carbon sequestration” for 50 years, in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the cornfields of Ohio. Tony Lovell of Soil Carbon Australia has said that if land is grazed properly, a pasture can contain more carbon than a tropical rain forest.
The problem is that many of these notions have not survived rigorous scientific analyses. That’s where John Wick has come in, with a novel way to supercharge the process—and some valid studies to back it up. His protocol has now been approved by the American Carbon Registry for use on the voluntary carbon trading market. It also just recently got the nod from the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association, which means that California counties can offer emitters the ability to purchase credits from ranchers using the system. Eventually, they hope the strategy will be approved for California’s cap-and-trade program, a system in which big polluters can buy credits to offset their emissions.
Wick’s work is drawing so much interest that by April, 2015, several new laws had been proposed in the California legislature, each seeking subsidies and financing arrangements of one kind or another. The return of the West’s drought this year, in record-breaking dimensions, has lent urgency to all of these proposals for a very simple reason: carbon-rich soil holds more water. And the worse the drought gets, the more farmers might be motivated to get more carbon into their fields. Wick also has a few offshoot projects, which include the fuel alcohol idea and making plant-based dyes. Another effort, called Thermopile, focuses on dealing with human-waste in a way that is carbon-beneficial (and safe).
“The warmer we get, the more the water vaporizes,” Wick explains. “The more it vaporizes, the more we are losing our carbon. It’s going up. Venus is a dead carcass of a planet. All its carbon went out. We are headed there. We will go to a place where this planet is a rock, unable to support life, and we are heading there faster than people can comprehend.”
Over the next hour, with an almost religious zeal, Wick scribbles on the dry-erase board and tells me how the 2008 experiment, known as the Marin Carbon Project, has expanded into a quest for sustainability everywhere, all the time. “We can basically provide all material cultural needs for humans in a way that is restorative, in a way that removes massive quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere.” he says, eyes widening behind his John Lennon frames. “That’s the vision.”
This is why Wick is hurrying now, marker in hand, getting fired up, racing through the Keeling Curve, the climate of Venus, cosmic dust, carbon pools, the Quaternary extinction, gravity, Big Bang theory, electromagnetic energy, soil carbon, reduced-tillage systems, carbon-negative sweaters and, most of all, the importance of compost — lots of compost.
Gradually, it becomes clear that the urgency and earnestness that feed Wick’s somewhat frantic optimism are the flip side of his vision of a different future, one where he fails. “The warmer we get, the more the water vaporizes,” he says. “The more it vaporizes, the more goes into the sky. The heavier it gets, the more dramatic the storm events. We are losing our carbon. It’s going up. Venus is a dead carcass of a planet. All its carbon went out. We are headed there. We will go to a place where this planet is a rock, unable to support life, and we are heading there faster than people can comprehend.”
But wait, I ask him, what about cutting emissions and installing more solar panels and wind turbines? “Emissions reduction isn’t going to do anything significant.” he says flatly. You’ll hear this a lot if you hang out with John Wick. He believes the climate solution will come not from eliminating carbon dioxide emissions, as most think, but instead from removing carbon dioxide from the air — with plants.
Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, a children’s book author and daughter of George Rathmann, founder of Amgen Inc., bought this ranch 17 years ago. Nicasio, 30 miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, seemed like a quiet place for them to write their books. A builder by trade who was helping with his wife’s books, Wick had no background in science or ranching, which became evident when the couple made the mistake of removing all the cattle from the property. Before long, they realized the cows were performing an important role in keeping the fields from becoming overgrown with weeds.
In 2003, they hired local ecologist Jeff Creque to evaluate the ranch and figure out what they were doing wrong. It turned out that by re-introducing grazing in a strategic way, they could manipulate what plants grew there.
“In five weeks, I move 250 animals 67 times, like a wave through this whole ranch,” Wick says. It takes five trailers to remove the cows by this time, because they have put on 50,000 pounds of meat.
“We needed to understand our relationship to this landscape, and we really committed to that,” Wick says. “We had to understand about soil, about grass, about grazing animals, about natural hydrologic functions and to get a bigger understanding of this watershed.” Once he did, he saw his fields in a new light. “All different grasses express their seeds at different times,” Wick says. “If I wait for the oats to start organizing to make seeds, and I bang it with a major grazing event, I knock my oats back and then my natives get a shot at it, so that’s my tool. I wait for the first oat plants to start showing the first hints of making seeds and I make the phone call.”
The phone call is to bring in the cows, which arrive in four trailers. “In five weeks, I move 250 animals 67 times, like a wave through this whole ranch, and in the end they have taken a bite of every single grass plant on this whole 540 acres. Then we send them away.” It takes five trailers to remove the cows by this time, because they have put on 50,000 pounds of meat.
Two years after instituting the new grazing regimen, the ranch was looking a lot better. The soil was improving, too, because, without cows wandering across it all the time, it was less compacted. And non-native plants that had taken over the land were being pushed aside by native varieties. But Creque wanted to do more. He kept talking about an idea he’d had for awhile. What if they could grow so much grass that it could suck in a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the air? Could improved grassland management, Creque wondered, be a climate solution? “He was saying that grass plants can be seen like little straws sipping carbon out of the atmosphere,” Wick says. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Backed by funding from the Rathmann Family Foundation, Wick and his wife gave it a shot. Wick sprinkled a mere one-half inch of compost on a few hillside pastures, and left some adjacent fields alone. Then he let his cattle graze both areas, where they added extra fertilizer with their manure. On the composted fields, plant growth rose dramatically. According to several peer-reviewed studies, his soil, which had been losing carbon, gained an additional 0.4 ton of carbon on each acre. And the gains have continued year after year, without Wick having to spread any more compost. That’s the boost that Wick has added to the agriculture world’s effort to slow climate change: the simple addition of compost to pastureland.
When Wick takes me for a walk on the control plot and the composted plot, the difference is striking. The untreated pasture feels like a pitcher’s mound underfoot, whereas the treated area feels softer, almost spongy. “The trend is expected to continue for 30 more years, and possibly 100,” Creque says. Wick is literally making soil carbon out of thin air. Through the basic process of photosynthesis, his invigorated new plants captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and put it in the ground. (As usual, soil microbes then eat most of it, but apparently they have left enough to produce Wick’s results.)
In testimony last summer before Congress, Wick said that if replicated across just 5 percent of California’s rangelands, “this practice would offset all of the state’s annual agricultural and forestry [carbon dioxide] emissions.” With the world’s carbon dioxide levels topping 400 parts per million, Wick figures he has five years to roll the program out globally if the world is to get back to 350 million parts per million—the maximum level considered safe. “I’m trying to put a major fire out,” he says.
Excited by the implications of the discovery, Wick and his team are determined to export their ideas beyond the three demonstration farms in Marin County now using the system. They are making plans to spread compost on hundreds of acres of urban lands in San Francisco, and then on rangelands in China, Brazil and Argentina. At the top of the agenda is figuring out ways for ranchers to get paid for managing their lands using the strategy Creque and Wick designed: compost and selective grazing. Their larger hope is to package the system with other ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Many of these involve basic soil-saving measures, such as wind breaks and stream bed restoration.
If replicated across just 5 percent of California’s rangelands, Wick told a Congressional committee last summer, “this practice would offset all of the state’s annual agricultural and forestry [carbon dioxide] emissions.”
“We call them carbon farm plans,” Creque says, getting into the rhythm of Wick’s frenzy of possibilities. “So we could say that these practices on these acres will sequester this amount of carbon, and that then allows us going forward to aggregate those carbon farm plans and then offer the carbon capture potential to the market to get funding. That is our long-term concept.’’
As it happens, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2015 “The Year of Soils.” The purpose is to raise awareness of the importance of “soil health,” a term that seeks to elevate how we think about the dirt under our feet. The idea is that soil isn’t some kind of a blank slate to be tweaked with chemicals, but instead is a living ecosystem that, if managed properly, can hold water, grow better food, protect crops from pests, and store large amounts of carbon.
As wondrous as all this sounds, the carbon revolution faces its share of obstacles. The first is how farmers in some of the world’s most arid regions, such as Northern Africa or parts of China, can practice carbon farming — or whether it will work at all in such dusty soil. The second is basic economics. “Compost is pretty expensive, just to gather the raw ingredients and then produce a finished product,” says Renata Brillinger, executive director of California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN). “Then there’s the feasibility of trucking it around.” But these obstacles don’t seem to be discouraging anyone. In late March, 2015, CalCAN held its fourth annual “summit,” drawing roughly 300 participants and 60 different speakers.
The notion that agriculture can play a role in reversing climate change isn’t new. It’s been championed by many people, including former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation encourages sustainable farming practices in Africa. Clinton’s foundation has helped small farmers establish community nurseries that can help reforest the land, and then sell carbon offsets.
One of the biggest proponents of using soil to store carbon is Rattan Lal. For years, Lal has been telling the world that CO2 can be moved from the air to the soil through no-till practices (which mostly involves leaving crop residues in the field and growing throwaway plants known as cover crops). “We could put a hundred gigatons [of carbon] into the soil over 25 to 50 years and another hundred gigatons into the trees and forests,” Lal says. “So if we did trees and soil, maybe in about 50 years, we could take out about 50 parts per million of CO2.” That amount, of course, is exactly what’s needed to move the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels close to that elusive target of 350 parts per million.
Wick wants to get it it done faster than that, and he thinks he knows how. “We have a solution,” he says with a smile. “It’s very exciting.”