Jon Gay is something of a software engineering legend — he’s a co-creator of Flash, the groundbreaking and globally popular multimedia platform. But these days he spends a lot of his time in West County working with a decidedly different kind of material: cow manure. He and his wife, Misty, are four years deep into a project to restore life and balance to a worn-down coastal farm, Bay Hill Ranch.
When they began, it was an eroded and heavily overgrazed 500 acres spanning the hilltops between the town of Bodega and Bodega Bay.
Their goal sounds simple enough: restore the native coastal prairie, raise healthy, happy grass-fed beef for the local community, and while they’re at it, do something concrete about the warming planet.
Given the rock hard challenges of ranching, it’s an ambitious undertaking. But to Gay and his small but talented team, the evolving land management techniques they’re introducing here are key to a livable future.
They’re part of a growing movement that’s re-booting how we farm in the age of global climate change.
Gay’s Bay Hill is the first ranch in Sonoma County to sign what’s called a Carbon Farm Plan, which they crafted with the help of the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District (RCD), as part of their LandSmart program. RCD’s like Gold Ridge partner with rural residents and farmers to steward natural resources and promote good agricultural practices. Last month, Gay opened his ranch and sponsored a tour to give anyone interested a firsthand look at the work they’re doing, and encourage community support.
Even though it was August, we were close enough to the coast that the gathering took place in a chill gray mist. Gay, Gold Ridge’s Adriana Stagnaro, and Bay Hill’s Ariel Greenwood and Erin Axelrod led 22 of us down a dusty trail, past a towering gray barn built before Lincoln was President, and out into rolling pale blonde grasslands. Our assembly included neighboring West County ranchers, a member of the Bodega Land Trust board, a native grass researcher, a horticultural garden designer, customers of their grass fed beef, local folks concerned about climate change and a meat distributor.
All farming is carbon farming in a sense. Living things are built of carbon. Plants take it from the air as carbon dioxide and turn it into sugars, proteins and cellulose. Animals consume the plants, and return some of the carbon to the soil as manure, some to the air as belches or flatulence, and the cycle continues.
Cutting greenhouse gas
But how farmers work the land can dramatically affect how much carbon remains stored in plants and soils, and how much ends up back in the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. Ideally, the proportions stay nicely balanced. But some modern agricultural practices end up releasing far more greenhouse gases than they store. Herds of cattle and sheep produce huge amounts of methane from their digestive tracts, and heavy plowing and tilling of the soil can also break down and release stored organics.
According to the EPA, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture accounted for approximately 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, and the amount is rising. Agricultural emissions in the U.S. have increased by approximately 17 percent since 1990.
Sonoma County’ Climate Action Plan 2020 recently set goals for reducing carbon emissions here, and agricultural sources are an important part of that picture. That’s where the RCD’s Carbon Farming program comes in, encouraging agricultural practices on farms, vineyards and ranches that will help lower greenhouse gas emissions, while storing more carbon in the landscape.