#8 The Carbon Ranch

A Crazy Idea At The Time

Welcome to Terra Firma by Courtney White. I’ve spent my life prospecting for innovative, practical, and collaborative answers to pressing problems involving land and people, sharing them with others. I’d like to share them with you!

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I hope your holidays were great! I’ve resolved to make 2020 the year of regeneration. I’ve had a very good response to Terra Firma which tells me there is a need for regenerative stories and news about land and people. I’d love to reach more readers. If you know of anyone or any group who would like to subscribe to the newsletter send them an email note (click on box). Thanks!

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News Item: Here’s an end-of-the-year story (with lots of links) from The Weather Channel about how the terrible weather in 2019 has many farmers and policy-makers pondering regenerative practices, policy changes, and carbon markets. It follows up on other news items I’ve posted, underscoring how fast times are changing (see).

In the previous issues of Terra Firma, I have argued for regenerative agriculture, overturning entrenched beliefs, and working in the radical center (TF#4), with a special emphasis on the essential role carbon plays (#5). I also discussed how all these different pieces come together in a very hopeful model called a fibershed (#6).

In this issue, I’d like to back up to 2010 and revisit a crazy idea of mine called a carbon ranch. It was part of an effort by a small group of scientists, authors, and activists who had begun to advocate for the sequestration of carbon in soils as a way of slowing climate change, an idea that was a total outlier. Very quickly, however, soil carbon caught on and today it has become the focus of an energetic and hopeful movement!

For me, it began in early December 2009 when my eyes (ears actually) were opened by a NPR story that aired in advance of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark (original story here). It described an experiment taking place on a ranch in northern California called the Marin Carbon Project. Its goal was to scientifically determine if the carbon sequestering potential of soil could be boosted by certain land practices.

The idea was so ‘out there’ and exciting that I had to go see for myself!

I went to California the following March (described in the first chapter of Grass, Soil, Hope) where I learned that that the only ‘shovel-ready’ solution for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere was plant photosynthesis and progressive land management, such as practices that grow more grass. There were cattle involved too! I suddenly realized there was a frontier of action and hope underground among the microbes, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi. It was time to become a soil nerd.

John Wick, a rancher and the director of the Marin Carbon Project, told me that the potential for CO2 storage in soils was three times greater than the atmosphere and since large parts of the Earth are covered with grass the impact on climate change could be huge. Scientists had run the numbers, he said. It was possible. Wow! In fact, the MCP was assisting the research of Dr. Whendee Silver of UC Berkeley to verify the carbon sequestration potential for California rangelands. More good news!

But the kicker came when I read a quote by NASA’s Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s leading climatologist, who postulated that 50 ppm (parts-per-million) of CO2 could be drawn down and stored in the soil by improved agricultural practices (see). How crazy was that? Seriously crazy, I thought – and very cool.

All of this was extremely hopeful and I was a different person when I returned home to New Mexico. Here’s a photo I took during my visit of John Wick explaining the goals of the Marin Carbon Project to a group of Chinese scientists:

Back at work, we decided to focus on soil carbon sequestration as the subject of the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference in 2010 and invite everyone to come learn about this exciting idea. However, it needed a better name – I mean, would you to go to an educational event with the word sequestration in its title? No way! So I decided to call the idea a carbon ranch.

No one was talking about soil carbon in 2010 in this way other than a few ‘out there’ scientists, such Christine Jones, and a handful of agriculturalists, so I did what every activist must do sooner or later to spread the word - write an op-ed. In it, I wondered: why is society so obsessed with high technology as a solution to our problems, including climate change, when the low technology of nature could be more effective? Why not use the power of photosynthesis as a solution instead?

In the op-ed, I argued that we could store carbon in soils by: (1) switching to planned grazing systems using livestock, particularly on degraded land; (2) restoring riparian and wetland zones; (3) protecting open space from development; and (4) implementing no-till farming practices.

“The time has come to bundle them together into one economic and ecological whole, which I call a carbon ranch,” I wrote. “The goal of a carbon ranch is to reduce atmospheric CO2 while producing substantial co-benefits for all living things. These include local food production, improved ecosystem services, restored wildlife habitat, rural economic development, and the strengthening of cultural traditions.”

That sounded good, but was it practical? To find out, I sat down and made a map. I drew (badly) every sustainable, resilient, regenerative, land-healing, soil-building, local food-producing activity I could pull from my experience, putting them into a single mythical landscape. Here it is (artwork by my friend Jone Hallmark):

The map is incomplete, I realize now. It needs trees and indigenous land practices and a wool mill and cattle grazing on crops, to name just a few. But the map holds up because I wanted to make a basic point: we all in this together. Too often, proposed solutions to pressing problems, such as climate change, balkanize us into separate and often competing camps or else leave too many people on the sidelines. I wanted a map that engaged everyone at some level, from food producer to eater and beyond.

That’s what is cool about carbon. It’s everywhere. It is the graphite in our pencils, the diamond in our rings, the oil in our cars, the sugar in our coffee, the DNA in our cells, the food on our plates, the cement in our sidewalks, the steel in our skyscrapers, the charcoal in our grills, the fizz in our sodas, the ink in our pens, the plastic in our toys, the wood in our chairs, the leather in our jackets, the electrodes in our batteries, the rubber in our tires, the coal in our power plants, the nano in our nanotechnology, and the humus in our soils.

My crazy idea turned out to not be so crazy after all. In a few short years, the idea of sequestering atmospheric carbon in soils took off thanks to the hard work of many people and organizations. It’s become a movement, which I’ll discuss in the next issue – a hopeful thing indeed!

That’s what Terra Firma is all about: looking at the world in a positive way, grounded in nature, experience, facts, and hope.


  • Here’s an important science article on livestock management titled ‘The Role of Ruminants in Reducing Agriculture’s Carbon Footprint in North America’ by Richard Teague, Rattan Lal, and others: http://www.jswconline.org/content/71/2/156.refs


  • John Wick and Jeff Creque speaking at the 2010 Quivira Coalition conference (part 1 of 6) about the Marin Carbon Project (see).

  • An introductory 4-minute Bioneers video on carbon farming featuring Rebecca Burgess, John Wick, and others (see).

  • A very informative general 4-minute video by Kiss the Ground (a nonprofit) on carbon sequestration (see).

A trio of speakers from Australia and New Zealand:

  • Here is an early TED talk on soil carbon (2011) by a soil scientist Ichsani Wheeler (see).

  • Here is soil scientist Nicole Masters speaking at the 2018 Quivira Coalition conference (see).

  • Pioneering soil scientist Christine Jones talks to a farming audience in 2019 (see).

Web sites:

Kiss The Ground:  https://kisstheground.com/

Carbon Underground: https://thecarbonunderground.org/

Carbon Cycle Institute: https://www.carboncycle.org/

Regeneration International: https://regenerationinternational.org/


~ I am very pleased to announce that Grass, Soil, Hope will be reprinted in 2020 by a Chinese publishing house. It’ll be my first foreign-language edition of any book! I received the news from Chelsea Green a few months ago. I don’t know the publication date yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

~ In June, I’ll be speaking at the Groundswell No-Till Agriculture Conference, hosted by the Lannock Manor Farm, an hour north of London, England. More details later.

~ I write a monthly blog on life and writing called The Grass Canoe. In a new post, I discuss my deep dive into the world of William Shakespeare, including my two-line “performance” in a recent production King Lear. (see)

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About me: For twenty years I worked to create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others focused on western working landscapes. Today, I am a full-time writer. My nonfiction books include Forewords by Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan. For more information or to contact me see: www.jcourtneywhite.com/

I am also the author of a MYSTERY series called the Sun Ranch Saga, set on a working cattle ranch in northern New Mexico. The first book, titled The Sun, is available and I’m working on the sequel. See: http://jcourtneywhite.com/fiction/

Terra Firma means ‘solid earth’ or ‘firm ground’ in contrast to air or water. Historically, it was first used by the Republic of Venice to describe its holdings on the Italian mainland.