Soil Carbon Challenge

Items relating to the Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

Challenge update December 2014: some monitoring results

Peter Donovan and Ralph Corcoran. Photos by Didi Pershouse.

Sometimes it has been lonely. Often there have been unexpected gifts of friendship and hospitality. In the 30,000 miles of travel in my school bus home, plus many thousands more by train, bus, plane, and car in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, I have glimpsed bits and pieces of a miracle: a growing interest and commitment, by many people, to growing soil and regenerating land.

Since 2010 I’ve established about 270 baseline carbon plots in the US, Mexico, and Canada. As we start re-monitoring we now get to see results, not just baselines, which means we can track the actual changes in soil carbon and plant cover over time. These can teach us, one plot at a time, what is actually possible when creative and committed people work with the most powerful and creative planetary force.

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international (and localized) competition to recognize land managers who are growing water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter. It is designed for those who are, or will be, managing for more carbon and water in their soils and enhanced ecological function, and who want feedback and accountability relative to this goal. We seek to recognize grassroots leadership, to help discover what is possible through management of the most powerful and creative planetary force, and to help build management capacity at all scales from society to individuals managing land.

Northeast Oregon: Tony and Andrea Malmberg of Union, Oregon had a 23% increase in soil carbon in the top 10 centimeters (about 4 inches) after not quite three years, following a transition from 23 years in the Conservation Reserve Program where no farming or grazing was done, to planned grazing beginning in October 2010. Above-ground plant diversity increased as well.

Peter Donovan, Blain Hjertaas, and Neil Dennis

Southeast Saskatchewan: Every one of the 5 farms with baseline plots that Blain Hjertaas and I remonitored in October 2014 showed substantial increases in soil carbon, over 40 percent in some cases (see links below to graphs and summary data for all layers sampled). These plots are in pastures, mainly smooth brome or meadow brome, and bluegrass. These graziers are all using some type of planned grazing, with fairly short times of exposure to grazing and fairly long recovery periods. In some cases, they have given their cattle access to round bales of hay spaced around the field for winter supplement. None of the plots were located in the rings of lusher grass growth that persist for some years around the location of each bale, but some hay feeding did occur over the plot SUNB1 and the surface litter there did contain hay residue.

Blain Hjertaas, who has helped a group of graziers in southeast Saskatchewan learn planned grazing and holistic management, noted the excellent growing conditions over the last three years.

Neil Dennis, one of the Saskatchewan graziers who is featured in the film "Soil Carbon Cowboys," has used high stock density and recovery periods of 80 days or longer for years on his pastures of brome and bluegrass. “As your land gets healthier, your recovery time should get longer. Everything starts changing when you get healthier land—the health of the animals, and the response of the grass. My brome hasn’t set seed in a year.”

See graphic plot summaries here.

as well as on the map.

The sampling methods are detailed in Measuring Soil Carbon Change: A flexible, local, practical method, available here.

These results mean that some dedicated land stewards, by turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon, are growing soil and soil structure. This has a large influence on water-holding capacity, yearlong productivity, profit, quality of life, and the well-being of their communities. They are doing this with the tools and resources that are already available on their farms, namely sunlight, rain, plants, livestock, countless microbes, and well-directed human management.

Notes Soil Carbon Coalition cofounder Abe Collins: "Practical, visionary ranchers and farmers are leading the way in discovering how to grow new topsoil. By tracking change in soil carbon levels via the Soil Carbon Challenge they've gained important feedback.

"We hope that soil health outcomes of these ranchers' good management also expands the sense of possibility and encourages action toward a deep topsoil future by the non-farming public.

"The Soil Carbon Coalition continues to develop and implement open monitoring and data analysis tools designed to increase people's capacity to achieve topsoil and water security wherever they live."

Carolyn and Trent Wall, Peter Donovan

The Soil Carbon Coalition will continue to help develop local interest and capacity in measuring change in soil carbon, using open data and practical methods. I’ve given workshops in Mexico, Vermont, and Pennsylvania and have more scheduled for 2015. We would like to see the Challenge be taken up (and localized) in all areas of the world, with open shared data. For those of you who are participating in the Soil Carbon Challenge, please contact me to request remonitoring or for instructions on accessing your baseline data.

Mapping power and change: an expansion of our work

Life, as the Russian geochemist Vernadsky observed nearly a century ago, is the most powerful geologic force. Yet we are ill-suited to recognize or enlist this most powerful and creative planetary force, because we generally don’t monitor landscape function. Instead we spend vast sums on predictions, models, and on mapping problems, species, and land cover, and then on research to establish best and worst practices for addressing these problems.

Big data, citizen science, and open-data technologies are coming together to create an opportunity for open, participatory, multilayered maps of landscape function and change over time that build on our mapping of soil carbon change. The Soil Carbon Coalition is looking for

Joe and Julie Morris receiving Burch award at Quivira Coalition conference

Joe Morris, of Morris Grassfed in San Juan Bautista, California, is receiving the Clarence Burch stewardship award at the Quivira Conference this month in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “I am honored to be recognized by the Quivira Coalition for this year’s Clarence Burch award, and deeply appreciative to all of our partners for making this possible,” Joe said.

Soil Carbon Challenge updates and coverage

You may sign up for quarterly email updates with the form on this page, or by sending an email with your name and location to


December 2016

October 2016

December 2015

May 2015

December 2014

April 2012

November 2011

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April update


The 2011-2012 Soil Carbon Challenge baseline tour has come full circle. I arrived back home in northeast Oregon's Wallowa County on the last day of March 2012, after 250 days on the road and 12,137 miles in the converted school bus as well as several side trips by car, plane, and train. It was a fantastic trip, and I'm deeply grateful to all those whom I visited for their participation and hospitality.

Starting a Soil Carbon Challenge in your nation or region

by Peter Donovan

As of this writing (October 2016) the Soil Carbon Challenge is only functioning in North America. We think it makes sense for other areas as well. If you are interested in helping start a Challenge in another area, or a project to help develop a shared intelligence on soil health and watershed function, this page is an attempt to give some guidance and encouragement.

First, a diagram of the policy situation around soil carbon, soil health, and watershed function in the U.S. and several other countries:

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November 2011 update

Soil Carbon Coalition
November 6, 2011

Vermont Soil Carbon Challenge kickoff

Seth Itzkan kindly provided some video of the short talks at this event at Stan and Helen Ward's Three Springs Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont on October 21, 2011.

Peter Donovan and Abe Collins are co-founders of the Soil Carbon Coalition, which initiated the Challenge.

Seth Itzkan is a futurist from the Boston area who recently spent 6 weeks at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Dibangombe, Zimbabwe.

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?

California Grassland Carbon Challenge

Click the image to download the pdf flyer, 346K
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Soil Carbon Challenge: procedures, deliverables


The Soil Carbon Challenge soil carbon monitoring procedure is aimed at detecting change over time. Remonitoring can happen after 3-10 years depending.

  1. Decide on number and locations for permanent plots or monitoring locations with the people involved, and on depths to sample. Considerations of experimental design, differences in past, present, or future management, vegetation, soil types, and slope all play a role. Try to be representative and strategic with plot locations: not at foot of eroding slope, not right next to a water trough.
  2. Each plot is located on a transect. Set up transect with GPS as well as reference locations or lines of sight with tape and compass. Mark the transect with permanent stakes or markers, depending on the situation. If one or more markers disappear, or if GPS satellites become space junk, the plot can still be relocated.
  3. At each plot, do a surface assessment of ecological processes, including photography of the surface cover. For rangelands, we like the Land EKG method.
  4. The carbon plot is 4 m x 4 m, larger in forested areas. During monitoring, try to keep surface disturbance to a minimum. Take bulk density samples from a small soil pit at a plot corner for each depth sampled (e.g. 0-10 cm, 10-25 cm, 25-40 cm, which in inches is approximately 0-4, 4-10, 10-16 inches).
  5. Take water infiltration measurements with single-ring and tension infiltrometer.
  6. Take 8 core samples for each depth sampled. In general, we bulk samples from each layer. For specifics of the sampling method, see the latest version of Measuring Soil Carbon Change (2 Mb pdf).


  1. Surface monitoring report, including photographs.
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