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California Grassland Carbon Challenge: What we learned, advice for moving ahead

photo by Carol Hirashima

In January, 7 land managers hosted me as I sampled and established baseline sites (22 total so far) for the California Challenge. The weather was ideal.

On January 24, the Morris family hosted a meeting in at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista facilitated by Jeff Goebel with at least 55 people participating. The purpose of the meeting was to highlight the possibility of turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter, and engage people's interest and creativity in this possibility. In the afternoon, after an excellent lunch prepared by the Retreat Center that included Morris Ranch grassfed shortribs cooked with balsamic syrup, Joe Morris led us on a short walk where he explained how their grass-fed beef enterprise depended on, and could probably continue to enhance plant productivity, soil cover, soil organic matter, and soil water, and how his holistic decision framework connected it all.

I felt that the meeting was an excellent start. At the close, some people expressed a desire for more basic information on the subject, and some for more detail, such as suggestions for their particular situation. I've been trying to meet these needs with this website (or, and hope to organize things a bit better as we go. In the meantime, browse the information on the right hand side, and use search, or feel free to ask specific questions.

To the participants: Now that you've had some time to reflect, what did you learn from our meeting and afternoon at Joe Morris's ranch, and how do you feel about it?

What would you recommend, going forward? What can we do to create more movement in California, in building soil organic matter?

I welcome your answers as comments to this post (you must be registered and logged in to do so) or as emails to me, which I will also share as comments below.



I had no idea what to expect when my daughter and I attended the carbon conference in San Juan Bautista on Jan 24th. What I found was an amazing interdisciplinary group of individuals (scientists, ranchers, farmers, students) concerned with the challenges of mitigating the effects of global warming by putting carbon back into the soil including all the positive effects this has on local ecology. I have to admit, I was nervous when I found out that I would be asked to actively participate in discussion groups with these professionals. Jeff Goebel did a wonderful job creating an intellectually and emotionally safe and supportive environment for the exchange of information, viewpoints, ideas, questions, concerns and fears.

Over the past several years I have been dealing with the challenge of re-inventing myself professionally (I possess a BS in Clinical Laboratory Science) while raising my daughter and caring for my elder parents. I began attending my local junior college and have taken classes in Integrated Pest Management, Sustainable Landscaping, and Soil Ecology and Management. After attending the carbon conference and speaking with John Wick, I was inspired to sign up for a class on Landscape Ecology. I hope to assist in the research my instructor is conducting at John’s ranch in Nacasio.

I think it was highly beneficial to walk out on the Morris Family Ranch to see firsthand the practical implementation of the concepts discussed earlier in the day. I am very interested to attend a follow-up conference that focuses even more on the execution, management and monitoring of increasing soil carbon in California’s rangelands.


Annette Krupp

A big thank you to the Morris', Peter Donovan, and everyone behind the scenes who helped organize the event. Caitlin and I were very happy to see so many like-minded people rallying around such an important issue. The beginning stages of a movement are important times to focus energy and direction. I found the format of the meeting extremely thoughtful. We broke down into groups several times preceded by a hardy introduction from each participant, leaving us with a good sense of group cohesiveness. It seemed like that was a primary goal of the coordinators and a successful one in our opinion. Even a banquet style lunch fortified by the Morris' own holistic beef gave people a chance to sit down, break bread, and have a real conversation.

Transitioning into the afternoon Joe Morris gave us an overview of his ranch, the layout of the land, and what he's been doing to encourage a feeling of peacefulness. That feeling of peacefulness is an encompassing sense of duty on the Morris ranch. It's integrated into Joe's holistic philosophy and approach to regenerating the land. Peter provided a great demonstration of water infiltration rates. He showed us how native perennial bunch grasses allow water to recharge underground aquifers, while glazed or bare soils fast track water into the ocean.

We even got a small talk on the benefits of earthworms by Vermont Dairy Farmer, Abe Collins.

We were very encouraged by the solidarity of each group involved. It seemed like everyone from beginner, to naysayer, to expert was there. The big question for us and something that we often discuss in permaculture is what to do next? Maybe even more to the point is how to stay connected? I would love to see a group email go out with everyone's contact info. I know there are some people who I've talked to but there are also people I haven't.

Another reflection I've had is some sort of feedback forum. It's an interesting race that we are running. The winner regardless will be everyone, because of the knowledge gained. It's my understanding that no one yet has a clear picture of a definitive strategy with data. While in general we are focused on land management and holistic approaches, scale plays an important role and location too. How much do we really know about glomalin and the carbon make-up of our soils? Are VAM's the true conductors of liquid carbon or is it more productive to have a complete foodweb? While we leave the race to decide I wonder if there isn't time for discussions about techniques, strategy, education, and observations. These discussions could yield more field plots and expand the divergent thinking solutions tree. A forum also gives an open arena to input from those who couldn't make the meeting but still wanted to participate. Is a online forum in order, or maybe just an email?

Keep in touch,

Dan and Caitlin