Soil Carbon Challenge: Design

The Soil Carbon Challenge will be an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil carbon. Preliminary details here:

Further description here: Can policy build soil carbon?

Questions, suggestions, and useful comments for the design of the competition are welcome. This is not the place to discuss general topics on soil carbon.

Scenario for Soil Carbon Challenge (this is fiction because it hasn't happened yet)

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an unusual partnership between 54 nonprofit organizations and associations across the globe, many of whom have been competing with each other in advocating strategies for stewardship of land and resources. The activity of the Challenge is monitoring rather than advocacy of particular methods. Its purpose is to recognize land managers who do an outstanding job of turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon, achieve positive change through monitoring, and tell the story of soil organic matter.

In January 2010 the 29-member Competition Committee for the Soil Carbon Challenge met to finalize rules and protocols. Committee member Dwayne Beck admitted, "This isn't about science, at least in the sense we've become accustomed to. It's about systems dealing with the living world. There's lots of people out there who are throwing mud against a wall, to see what sticks. We're going to help them gauge their soil organic matter. But a scientist will try to predict what sticks, and then tell us why some of it didn't stick, or why some that did stick should not have."

In February 2010, the first class of 8 Monitors completed their initial training: in-depth skills training on facilitating collaborative, community-based monitoring, as well as procedures for monitoring basic biosphere processes at the soil surface, and soil sampling for carbon measurement and bulk density using simple technology. Monitors were trained NOT to recommend or show ownership in specific land management practices, but to facilitate local discussions, and facilitate access to further knowledge and resources. It was emphasized clearly that their job was not to sell the benefits of the Challenge, broker carbon credits, or to motivate people to change what they were doing on the land, but to provide information, paths to resources, and new ideas if asked, and to focus on observations and monitoring. The Monitors were also trained in GPS and the data formats for the Challenge.

By April 2010 over 200 requests for entry to the first 10-year round had been received, channeled through sponsoring local conservation districts or groups, from three continents. Monitors set off for various areas to do baseline surveys.

The basic drill was to cooperate with the local sponsoring conservation district in assembling a volunteer community team, including the land manager(s), neighbors, and interested people. In some cases there were 30 people in these teams. On the field day, the Monitor and the team did a baseline survey on an entered parcel, including soil surface monitoring, chest-level photography of the soil surface, and soil sampling. The Monitor also provided infiltration rings and penetrometers for people to experiment with. A wide-ranging discussion of biosphere processes such as water cycling, and the possible effects of various local management practices, was typical. The Monitor sent samples to the lab, and photographs and collected data to be posted on the Challenge's map-enabled website.

In some cases the local sponsoring district looked at gathering additional data, such as field capacity, because of their interest in some flooding issues. A local agricultural research station added nitrous oxide detectors to some of the sample plots. Local media also showed up to interview the landowner, various community team members, and the Monitor. In another case, some people from a local road department joined the community monitoring team for the field day, because of their interest in reducing the amount of soil and water flowing onto district roads. In another case, the entrants were all forested properties, the local sponsor was a forestry agency, and some were using biochar strategies.

Two years later, the Monitors resampled the plots, with the same kind of field day mostly devoted to collaborative monitoring and discussion, and some careful sampling. In 2016, the sixth year of the Challenge's first round, the provisional local winners were announced, and awarded their prize from the district as well as given the opportunity to make presentations and get interviewed on television about how and why they did what they did. In one district, every contestant who sequestered over 4 tons C per hectare per year was so honored (about half of them).

In one case an entrant was disqualified for the use of imported charcoal on his field, which was reported by a member of the community team and admitted by the entrant.

In 2014 the second larger class of Monitors completed their training, reflecting the increased level of entries, as well as the overdue sponsorship by the U.S. National Association of Conservation Districts and the Australian Landcare. The Challenge's second round began this year. In 2020 the first award of the World Carbon Cup was made to an Australian farmer, with the runner-up award going to a grazing cooperative in Senegal.

Over time, people grew to regard soil organic matter as a key to their welfare. Because of the monitoring, they knew how to maintain and build it, using methods that were appropriate to their situation. One of the older people remarked that it had taken extension agents and chemical companies a generation or more to transform their community's agriculture in the twentieth century, because of the resistance to outside ideas, but only about 10 years for their community to increase their soil's organic matter by half, because it was their own ideas, methods, and motivations that drove the change.