We are working with our local Resource Conservation District (RCD), Point Blue Conservation Science, and the Carbon Cycle Institute to write a Carbon Farm Plan for TomKat Ranch. Since carbon regulates the water cycle, and ultimately, your forage production, focusing on building carbon stocks in the soil and in permanent standing vegetation is what leads to a successful regenerative bottom line. Carbon Farm Planning takes a deep look into what your conservation goals are to customize a plan for you and your working land. Reading the land as a feedback loop empowers the landowner to adapt and adjust to the response of the land to meet the stated objectives. This will also be San Mateo County’s first Carbon Farm Plan and is part of a statewide effort to help RCDs learn how to write these types of plans and start making them available to farmers and ranchers across California who are looking to make their lands and enterprises more productive and resilient.

Since every ranch is different, each plan is custom-built to blend the unique production and conservation goals of the landowner. Knowing the land history, the physicality, and your management goals goes a long way toward successful results and the holistic approach of the carbon farm planning process truly peels back each layer of an operation to help farmers and ranchers effectively identify the production and conservation objectives that will help them most.

There are 3 phases in Carbon Farm Planning:

Phase 1 – Collection and Analysis

The first phase starts with asking questions to determine objectives, collecting land use history, inventorying resources, and identifying problems that need to be addressed with this plan. For example, a fairly straightforward  goal we have at TomKat Ranch is to increase deep-rooted native bunch grasses, like Danthonia, that help grow soil and provide our cattle with nutritious green forage late in the year with planned grazing management.  Our Carbon Farm Plan will help us see where on the ranch our biggest opportunities are and identify the best strategies for meeting our goal.

Another more complex objective we’ve set is to take a holistic look at coyote brush encroachment.  Coyote brush provides important habitat for wildlife and growing brush helps build soil carbon with its deep perennial roots. However, too much brush chokes out biodiversity and stifles the growth of the grasses that our cattle and other species rely on.  Further, mature non-growing brush stands don’t help grow soil carbon.  To address this complicated challenge, our Carbon Farm Plan will be making ecological site descriptions for each of our fields and helping us identify the timing and locations on the ranch where we get the best return on investment for mowing brush.

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Phase 2 – Decision Support

After determining goals, we consider conditions like formulating and evaluating alternatives, overall feasibility, potential for success, and cost before making decisions. We are currently in this phase parsing through an ecological site description spreadsheet created to assist our decision making.

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Phase 3 Application and Evaluation

In the final phase, we make decisions and implement the plan while constantly evaluating practicing adaptive management to meet our stated objectives.

We are currently in the middle of Phase 2 and have found the use of maps to be incredibly informative and helpful in getting all of the participants on the same page in understanding the complexities of the landscape and its uses. Creating an ecological site map has helped everyone at the table understand the lay of the land by depicting slope, soil type, aspect, water supply infrastructure, and general infrastructure of the ranch to support our decision making process.

Overall, what we are discovering is that the carbon farm planning process is helping us quantify future benefits of new conservation practices, while being able to quantify how current management practices have or have not improved carbon capture over past (baseline) management.
As with any new endeavor, this is a learning process that we hope will help inform other ranches interested in implementing the carbon farm planning process for their own working lands. Once the plan is finished, we will gladly share the final result of our new Carbon Farm Plan.