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Promoting Climate Smart Agriculture in Marin and Beyond

by Jeff Stump, Director of Conservation, Marin Agricultural Land Trust


Last week, I was honored to be one of the presenters during the “Scaling Up Climate Smart Agriculture” tour associated with the Global Climate Action Summit. As part of the tour, we visited the Bordessa Dairy in Sonoma County and MALT-protected Stemple Creek Ranch, where grass-fed beef cattle and sheep are raised. The day was dedicated to sharing what we’ve learned here in Marin about implementing climate-beneficial agriculture.

Tour attendees came from around the country and the world, and all were there to learn more about carbon farming.

Jeff Stump presenting on Carbon Farming

Today, I want to share with you what I spoke about on the tour.

Protecting Farmland

First off, some context: In the US, we lose approximately 175 acres of farmland every hour.

Fortunately, here in Marin, MALT has changed that story. Since our founding in 1980, we have protected half of all the privately owned, productive farmland in Marin county — 52,600 acres of land on 85 family farms and ranches. Our conservation easements prevent future development and subdivision, keeping the land in farming forever. We are incredibly proud of this work, but it is just one part of our mission.

The second part of our job is to help landowners take care of the land. With 52,600 acres under easement, this is a big job. But what we’ve found is that, as a land trust, we are in a unique position to help our landowners by catalyzing climate beneficial agriculture.

The Effects of Climate Change on Local Farms and Ranches

With the effects of climate change becoming more apparent in Marin and across our state and planet, this work could not be more important or timely. Our farmers and ranchers are seeing what all of you are seeing: longer, hotter summers; episodic rains; increased risk of fire; and less hospitable environments for native plants and animals, as well as livestock.

It is no overstatement to say that climate change is a threat to our local farms and ranches, and to the future of agriculture.

The Carbon Farming Solution

Ten years ago, we understood this threat and started working in partnership with our landowners, foundation funders and local, state and federal agencies to develop an approach to mitigating climate change on farms and ranches in Marin, an approach that can be scaled across California and beyond.

MALT was one of the founding members of the Marin Carbon Project. We are proud to have helped create the carbon farm planning process, the first step towards making our agricultural land more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Today, MALT and our partners are leading efforts to implement carbon farm plans in Marin.

Carbon Farming

Through this work, we have identified three central pillars of how a land trust can encourage climate beneficial agriculture. These pillars are permanence, stewardship, and partnership.

Pillar 1: Permanence

In the 12 years I’ve been working on land conservation at MALT, I can’t count the number of times landowners have pulled me aside and shared with me the same concern: “Jeff, I cannot spend a dime on this land if I might lose it tomorrow.”

Without permanence, there is uncertainty. And uncertainty is an impediment to investment, whether of time or money.

What we do at MALT is create that permanence: protecting farms and ranches forever by purchasing development rights from landowners using an agricultural conservation easement.

By securing the future of these lands for farming and ranching, our landowners have the security to invest in climate smart agriculture, the future of their operations and in the future of our planet. That’s what I would call a win-win-win.

Pillar 2: Stewardship

Another important part of our job at MALT is stewardship: we help farmers and ranchers care for their land. We provide funding and technical expertise directly to landowners to support their efforts to improve agricultural management practices and protect natural resources.

This money and support helps them as they implement carbon farming practices, including:

applying compost on rangeland,
implementing prescribed grazing to reduce heavy use areas,
establishing windbreaks, and
restoring riparian areas to improve water quality and quantity.

All of these practices sequester carbon in the soil, ultimately helping the land hold more water and fare better in winter rains and long, dry summers. These practices can also improve the bottom line, making the grass more bountiful and nutritious for the livestock and wildlife it supports.

Pillar 3: Partnership

MALT cannot do this work alone, which is why the third central pillar is partnership. Our most important partners, of course, are the MALT protected landowners. We also have generous donors and foundation supporters who understand that their dollars, invested wisely, can make a difference.

MALT has partnered with scientists to further our understanding of agriculture’s role in climate change and has partnered with policy-makers to support our farmers and ranchers as they adapt to climate change.

Through a Regional Conservation Partnership Program, MALT partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Resource Conservation Districts and Land Trusts to bring Carbon Farm Planning and implementation of climate beneficial practices to five bay area counties.

Each of these new partners has adapted our carbon farm planning concept to address the needs of agricultural landowners in their counties and are now working to implement climate beneficial practices.

The exciting thing is that these partners are teaching their neighbors and, with the help of the Carbon Cycle Institute, this work has expanded to more than 36 counties in California.

Why is this important? Because almost every county in California has a local land trust, a Resource Conservation District, access to USDA NRCS conservation planning assistance and most counties have agricultural landowners interested in change.

That is a powerful network of partners ready to help our producers complete carbon farm plans and implement climate beneficial practices at an incredible scale.

A Vision for the Future

As I shared before, MALT has discovered that as a land trust we’re in a unique position to catalyze climate beneficial agriculture because of our trusted relationships with landowners and partners, and we will continue to further this work here in Marin.

We are excited about the future, about continuing to create a connected network of protected private farms and ranches, all of which are working to make the land more resilient to climate change.

And we will continue to spread the word about this essential work, helping other land trusts catalyze this climate-beneficial agriculture their areas of the state and beyond.

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