Bringing life back to soil

Bringing life back to soil
Comparing different soil types during a field trip to Hayday Farms in Blythe led by farmer Dale Tyson and Cynthia Daley of California State University, Chico (far right). Image: Courtesy Dale Tyson

By Caroline Champlin

Here’s a tip for spotting a regenerative farmer: Look for a shovel.

“Most of the regenerative farmers I know are always packing a shovel. They’re always turning soil over to take a look at what’s underneath,” says Cynthia Daley, Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University, Chico.

What farmers are looking for is the difference between soil and dirt. Soil is a living, breathing organism full of microorganisms, porous and ready to absorb water. Dirt is just dirt.

“It needs to look like chocolate cottage cheese,” Daley says. “A very luscious soil like that looks like you want to eat it. It looks really delicious.”

Healthy soil is the foundation of regenerative agriculture, a farming practice intended to reverse climate change by drawing carbon down into the earth, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. According to Daley, this kind of soil typically produces more nutrient-rich crops, conserves resources, and costs farmers less to maintain.

The University of California, in collaboration with the state of California, is funding a $6+ million climate action grant to study regenerative practices and increase accessibility to these techniques. Led by Daley, the project is part of a larger effort to address climate resiliency in the state that included over $80 million in California Climate Action Seed and Matching Grants awarded by the UC Office of the President this fall.

The grant will be used to launch the California Soil Carbon Accrual Project, an experiment comparing conventional and regenerative practices. It will also fund a workforce training program and an index mapping the viability of California’s agricultural land as the climate changes. Partners on the grant include farms, beekeepers, California State University East Bay, Resource Conservation Districts, the Carbon Cycle Institute, and the Modoc Nation.

Bringing life back to soil
Daley and Dale Tyson stand in a cover crop including eight plant species on Hayday Farms. The two are going into their fourth year working together to test regenerative farming practices. Image: Courtesy Dale Tyson

Adding carbon back to soil

Daley and her partners have already been testing regenerative practices on California farms for the last five years. They’ve grown all kinds of cover crops, experimented with reduced tillage, hauled in composted chicken manure, and have let migrating birds turn leftover vegetation into natural fertilizer. And, they’ve seen results.

In one test, they planted a winter cover crop without tilling the land beforehand and then left the plants to decompose in the soil. Next, they added varying amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Afterward, when they rotated between planting corn and pinto beans in the same soil, the crops grown with less fertilizer did just as well as crops grown with more of it. The yield was the same even when fertilizer was reduced by 80 percent—thanks, it seems, to the regenerative practices used beforehand. The farmer was happy too: crops in that trial cost less to grow, saving money.

“This is valid data, this is publishable data, but the fact is we don’t really have side-by-side contrasts,” Daley says.

This grant lets Daley take her research a step further by comparing regenerative and conventional methods with the same crops, on the same land, in the same ecosystem. Using equipment called flux towers, also known as eddy covariance sensors, the scientists can observe the flow of carbon dioxide in the environment. They’re hoping to record this greenhouse gas being pulled from the air into the ground—a sign of healthy soil and carbon accumulation.

Three farms, growing rice, wheat and alfalfa, will take part in the Soil Carbon Accrual Project when planting starts this winter. Daley is working to bring on other farms producing California staples, like tomatoes and cotton, and hopes to extend the study for another two years.

“It takes the soil some time to remodel,” she says.

Daley doesn’t know whether the test plots will be cost-effective, or how the crops will perform, but that’s the idea. The project provides a space to test new practices without the usual pressures on growers.

“Your crops are out on the road. Everybody can see them, and if you have a crop failure, everybody knows it,” Daley said “That prevents a lot of this new technology from getting out and being utilized because no one wants to be the talk of the coffee shop.”

Even failures are informative, with the goal of fine-tuning and making regenerative practices replicable. The hope, Daley says, is that those farms will be more resilient and remain lush during drought—living proof that change is worth the trouble.

Bringing life back to soil
Curt and Bennett Josiassen, who run a rice farm in Richvale, California, are among the growers participating in the Soil Carbon Accrual Project. Image: Josh Crozier

Building trust in the agricultural community

One farm participating in the study is Hayday Farms in Blythe, run by co-owner Dale Tyson. On 10,000 acres he grows alfalfa, wheat, and teff, the main ingredient in injera, a flatbread that’s a staple of Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

Before getting involved with Daley’s research a few years ago, Tyson says he felt stuck on a treadmill with conventional practices. After 35 years of farming the same land, he found himself having to add more commercial fertilizer every year.

“The ground was tightening up and wasn’t responding to the additional fertilizer. So I thought, where does this end?” Tyson says.

Watching the soil deteriorate on his farm, he thought of his grandparents, corn farmers from Nebraska who fled to California during the Dust Bowl. With the climate changing, Tyson wondered what kind of farm his six grandkids might inherit.

“It’s concerning. What am I handing off to the next generation of farmers? Just dirt and good luck?” Tyson asks. “With Chico State, it was an opportunity to see if we could change our thinking and have a better future.”

It’s not all about philosophy, Tyson admits. When the project is over, his peers will mostly want to see his checkbook.

He’s hopeful cover cropping will make his soil more porous. Spongier soil would save him money by retaining water, rather than letting it run off the landscape. If he can cut input costs, Tyson can increase margins without charging consumers more.

But the economics of farming can get complicated, according to Katherine Moore, an agriculture professor at Chico State. Her dad and two brothers run Josiassen Farms, a rice producer and one of the family farms participating in Daley’s study.

Josiassen Farms has been operating for five generations in Richvale, California. They’ve been pursuing soil-building tactics for decades.

But according to Moore, rice crop buyers have a big influence on how crops are grown. If farmers want to implement regenerative practices, there has to be a demand from the buyers who set quality standards.

Rice farms usually team up to sell large amounts of rice to buyers. For a family farm to deviate takes a lot of courage—one failed growing season can make or break the business. This level of risk leads many farms to comply with conventional practices even if they feel more can be done to improve soil ecology.

“It’s the right thing to do so we do it, but it comes at a cost,” Moore says. “We are lucky that our passion to see improved soil ecology, overall has paid off…when it hasn’t, the farm was able to adjust and survive. It’s a long-game strategy.”

Moore hopes to see other farms join this effort. She says this project will be an opportunity to share information and build trust within the social world of farming by providing clear data on the impacts of these practices.

A prediction tool for farmers

Three farms will participate in the grant-funded research to start. Their data will be used to train a model that maps agricultural land statewide.

The California Resiliency Index helps farmers visualize how their land will change with the climate, weighing an array of environmental factors like water availability, soil quality, and erodibility.

According to Daley, growers will be able to change variables in the tool to predict how regenerative practices would impact greenhouse emissions, water use, and economic return from their farms.

“It’s going to help us target those areas where we know we can get maximum soil carbon accumulation with the minimum amount of input,” Daley says.

Building a regenerative workforce

The last piece of the grant aims to spread the lessons learned by Daley across California’s agricultural industry. That’s why part of the funding goes towards a workforce training program on regenerative practices. This connection to practice was a major reason that Daley’s proposal received funding: a key focus of the California Climate Action Seed and Matching Grants is producing tangible results for Californians.

Farmers are busy and usually don’t have free time to take courses in agricultural theory. To bridge the gap between research and production, they can seek advice from Technical Assistance Providers, or TAPs.

TAPs are consultants available to guide farmers through land management decisions, from applying for grants, to solving problems on the ground. This is where the California Resiliency Index can come in, to model new practices on individual farms. Assistance providers may work for Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), non-profit or for-profit firms. UC Cooperative Extension also offers technical assistance to farmers.

“It’s not about telling producers what to do or what they can’t do, but rather to enable them as stewards of the land,” says Jonathan Wachter, lead soil scientist with the Carbon Cycle Institute, a non-profit partner on the workforce training portion of the grant. The group seeks to engage agriculture as a climate change solution. According to Wachter, lots of funding is available for farmers looking to try regenerative practices, but there’s a missing link.

 “This technical assistance piece hasn’t been adequately funded for a long time,” he says. “We haven’t had the workforce and expertise needed to scale agricultural climate solutions.”

The Carbon Cycle Institute partners with RCDs, some of which only have one staffer available to meet the needs of a whole farming community. That’s an equity problem, Wachter says, because in some regions, it means only big producers can afford to pay for consultants.

“If you’re a small producer without those resources in an area that doesn’t have any publicly available technical assistant providers you don’t have many places to turn,” Wachter says.

This UC-funded grant will pay for more people to go through TAP training to become certified in regenerative agriculture techniques. New courses in the program will include Carbon Farm Planning, Pollinator Habitat, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

“It’s extremely rewarding to be out on the landscape working with people who genuinely care about the land,” Wachter says. “This is fundamentally necessary work in addressing the climate crisis.”