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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.

Capturing carbon

Each Plan is customized to individual farms or ranches, and starts by identifying practical ways of capturing carbon and productively storing it. This can range from better mulching and composting and reducing tilling, to restoring wetlands and native habitat. Building up the soil’s organic matter and healthy vegetation, and managing the land’s water and ecosystems, ends up being good for both the farm and the environment.

Jon Gay considers his Carbon Plan a piece of his overall effort.

“Our goal is to increase the diversity and productivity of the land, and the Carbon Farming projects are well aligned with that,” he said.

He’s repairing streambed and restoring native plants, curbing erosion, creating wetland and considers these and other stops to be an essential part of running the ranch and cattle business.

It’s a work in progress

“To understand what happened here, how it got to this state, I had to become something of an archaeologist”, he explains. “The land here had been grazed hard, for 150 years,” Gay says, first by sheep and then cattle. Gay says he weighed whether Bay Hill could be returned to health and was encouraged because “the science was quickly evolving.”

From conferences, books, and connecting with local and national groups, he found an emerging body of knowledge on how to sustainably manage agricultural land. He’s now methodically applying what he’s learned in what he calls restoration ranching.

Rangeland planning

As we walk single file down one steep slope, the botanists in the group call out as they spot patches of native sedges, wild strawberries, hazelnut and wildflowers, and swales of California native bunchgrasses. They’re all remnants of the original ecosystem that grew here. Back in paleo history, this part of Sonoma County was a rich coastal prairie. There were 19 large plant eating species here, including giant mammoths, migrating herds of zebra, horses, deer, elk and antelope.

Gay is now using the native plants and grasses from this corner of his ranch as seed stock to rebuild, and considers grazing his Angus cattle to be a productive and natural part of managing the ecosystem.

But forget the old west notion of just turning out cattle to roam the open range.

Ariel Greenwood, the Grazing Manager for Bay Hill Ranch, uses highly integrated holistic rangeland planning to determine where, when and what their Angus herd will munch. She slowly rotates the cattle around the property throughout the year according to the plan, updating as she goes, to keep up with unpredictable nature. That way the cattle get healthy, nutritious forage through the changing seasons, and the plants stay vigorous and diverse.

Greenwood has acquired a deep understanding of how to care for both the cattle and the land they’re grazing. She’s been farming since she was 16, earned a college degree in agro-ecology and prairie grasslands, and spent years working with mentors and gaining hands-on experience.

Near a holding pond by a fenced section of neck-high grass and wildflowers, Greenwood shares some of the details that go into her planning. To digest roughage like grasses, cows need the help of microbes in their gut. But the types of microbes they need changes, depending on what they’re eating. Since the cow can’t digest and absorb nutrients efficiently with the wrong set — something that can be monitored by checking their manure — timing their diet changes is very important. It takes about two to three weeks for their microbiome to change over with new forage.

Soil teeming with life

Another factor in rotating the cattle is how quickly the plants recover after being munched. Grazing can actually stimulate the regrowth of forage plants, if it’s not too severe. Cattle’s hooves disturb the topsoil, and enrich the soils with manure, and that also ensures healthier, stronger growth.

And then there’s the soil. Scientists have only recently had the tools and interest to look for DNA in the dirt, and what they’ve found is overturning many long held conceptions.

“It’s clear that conventional wisdom has really underplayed the importance of the ecosystem down in the soil,” Gay says. Healthy soil is teeming with life, and the fungi, microbes, insects and other inhabitants do an excellent job of binding the carbon in the soil, and keep it moving efficiently about. And that keeps a tapestry of plants above healthy and strong.

Disturbing the soil, either mechanically with plows and harrows, or chemically, can disrupt the entire system, and leave it open to erosion, carbon depletion, and ultimately, loss of plant diversity. The only solution then is to boost it with fertilizers and minerals, or restore the ecosystem. Chemicals or biota: Gay has chosen the latter.

Back at Gold Ridge RCD, Stagnaro, Project Coordinator, Jason Hoorn, Project Manager, and Noelle Johnson, Conservation Planner, talk about the impact and future of Carbon Planning. RCD’s have a unique and trusted relationship with rural communities. They’re not regulators, or government agencies, but regional partners working cooperatively with farmers and ranchers to conserve and steward the land, usually by sharing best practices, support and information.

“Soils,” Hoorn says, “can be sources of carbon emissions, but they’re also excellent ways of storing carbon. Rangelands pull CO2 out of the air. But if they’re poorly managed, they lose that feature, and also become less resilient.” The Carbon Farming practices all work to better manage these resources.

“Carbon Farming involves many types of agriculture, with multiple benefits, from repairing watersheds and wetland areas, to forests, all of which are great for carbon storage,” Johnson explains.

New plans in progress

In addition to the Bay Hill Ranch, six more plans have been signed with Gold Ridge RCD, Stagnaro says. There’s a 950 acre rangeland/forestland property grazing sheep and cattle, Ocean Breeze Dairy, a 300-acre cow dairy property, which supplies Organic Valley Co-Op, and Apple Bottom Farm, a 5-acre orchard property growing cider apple varieties for Ethic Cider. There are also new plans in process with two vineyards, an orchard and another forestland property.

For the next few years Gold Ridge RCD has funding to write carbon farm plans with farmers, thanks to a Regional Conservation Collaboration Program (RCCP) Grant.

“It’s important that people understand, we have local solutions that are working”, Johnson said.

RCD’s role remains what it has been for many decades, Stagnaro says. “We’re a partner to support farmers and rural residents in their good stewardship of the land, for the benefit of our shared natural resources and the economic health of local producers.”

While Gay is committed to restoring the land and addressing the climate issue, he’s realistic that making Bay Hill Ranch work will ultimately depend on winning the support of the community. Most of the grass-fed beef he’s competing with in the market is imported, much of it from overseas.

Like other local producers moving to the Carbon Farming model, he’s gambling that the local community is willing to share some of the modest added cost of being environmentally proactive, for the long-term good.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com

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