Healthy Soils Demonstration Projects Raise Awareness & Catalyze Innovation

Posted on Wednesday, August 19th, 2020 by Renata Brillinger

Almost $3 million was recently awarded to 20 Healthy Soils demonstration projects by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), completing the program’s largest grant round since it started in 2017. Teams of farmers and ranchers, researchers and technical assistance providers around the state will use on-farm management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or store carbon, collect data on the effects of the practices to improve the state’s quantification methodology, and share their experiences with growers and others in a series of field days over the next three years.

Just as with the Healthy Soils incentives grant awards made in May, demand for the demonstration grants far exceeded the program budget, with twice as many applicants as there was funding available.

In the life of the demonstration grant program, 67 projects have been funded for a total of about $10 million. This corresponds with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of an estimated 3,842 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) over the life of the projects. Thousands of farmers and others have attended field days to learn about these healthy soils practices, amplifying the impact and reach of the funding.

A diversity of regions, crops, types of healthy soils practices and partnerships was represented in the pool of successful applicants. Locations range from Modoc in the northeastern corner of California to San Diego, and from the coast (Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz) to the Central Valley (Fresno, Kern and Colusa). Farmers and ranchers operating orchards, vineyards, grazing land and annual cropland will be innovating with compost applications, hedgerows, cover crops, compost tea, vermiculture, reduced tillage, rangeland planting and more. Project leads include universities, Resource Conservation Districts and non-profit organizations.

“The California Marine Sanctuary Foundation is collaborating with Big Sur Land Trust on a project at Marks Ranch near Salinas to explore using healthy soils practices as a restoration strategy for degraded soil. They will apply compost, plant native species and manage cattle grazing on four acres of the 816-acre ranch. The site was used as an equipment storage yard for the command center during the Soberanes Fire in 2016, which resulted in heavily compacted soils and a decline in native grassland species. In addition to increasing soil carbon sequestration, they will monitor or observe for improvements in many soil health indicators including soil water holding capacity, groundwater infiltration, improved drought resilience, increased native plant diversity, reduced erosion, and improved forage for cattle grazing. The partners will reach out to ranchers and land management agencies and organizations throughout California to share their findings.

“We feel that we can make significant progress toward restoring this area by using an integrated combination of soil health practices. We want to make the connection between land-based practices and ocean health by sequestering the atmospheric carbon that is causing ocean acidification and warming.”

—     Patrick Riparetti, Director of Stewardship, Big Sur Land Trust

Cardoza & Cardoza Farming Co., an organic raisin grape vineyard in Fresno, will use several strategies to improve soil organic matter and minimize tillage – a practice typically used to control weeds but which disturbs and disrupts soil structure. They will combine compost applications and cover crops to add nutrients to increase soil organic matter. Using specialized equipment, they will mow and chop the cover crops without disturbing the roots and blow them under the vines to act as a mulch to retain soil moisture, keep the soil cool, and control weeds. They got invaluable support on the application from the University of California Small Farms Center, who will also organize the outreach and education.

Cardoza Ranches (Fresno County)

“Managing weeds is the hardest part about an organic system. The grant gives us the chance to test out how to do it without tilling or herbicides, while optimizing soil health. I think this could change the way we grow organic grapes. I’m excited to have people come so they can see, feel and smell the healthy soil we are building.”

— Steven Cardoza, Cardoza & Cardoza Farming Co.

A grant awarded to the Agriculture Department of Santa Rosa Junior College will fund a demonstration project at Shone Farm, their demonstration and teaching farm. They will apply compost to 20 acres of pasture, plant 3 acres of hedgerows, and use prescribed grazing to improve pasture soil health. They expect to see several benefits including improved soil structure and carbon sequestration, better forage production and a healthier watershed. Outreach and education will be carried out through field days, tours, class instruction – including short videos for online classes, job training opportunities and a grazing school for local ranchers in collaboration with Sonoma County Cooperative Extension.

“We are really excited about the opportunity to engage our students, many of whom will go onto careers in agriculture and land management, and our community about soil health while also improving the condition of our pastures.”

—    Josh Beniston, Program Coordinator for Sustainable Agriculture, SRJC


A full list of Healthy Soils demonstration grants awarded can be found on CDFA’s website. Though the Covid-19 crisis creates uncertainty about when it may again be possible to gather together to learn about these projects, we look forward to joining in on field days and farm tours to learn more from these innovative farmers and ranchers. Stay tuned for event announcements by any of the project leads, CDFA and CalCAN.

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