Regenerative Agriculture and Municipal Climate Action Plans
Agriculture has historically been – and continues to be – a key pillar in the economy.
Industrialized farming over the years has allowed for faster and more productive crop yields, but it has devastated soil health and water quality. As soil degrades and we lose nutrient-rich top soil, we not only decrease our ability to continue to grow crops, but we increase carbon emissions.
Agriculture, along with forestry and land use, accounts for about 25 percent of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions. It’s no surprise then that some of the most innovative solutions to the climate crisis involve changing how we farm. More specifically, we’re talking about regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming aimed at rehabilitating and enhancing the entire system of the farm by emphasizing soil health, water management, and proper fertilizer use. Rather than stripping the land of its nutrients, regenerative agriculture practices improve the land’s resources. Emphasis is placed on techniques like:
- Conservation tillage
- Ecological diversity
- Rotation and cover crops
- Minimizing disturbance
Regenerative farmers are implementing these practices on their farms, and they’re seeing not only better soils, but improved crop production – and local governments are taking note.
Several municipalities have integrated regenerative agriculture into their climate action plans and are partnering with farmers throughout their communities to test and implement these techniques. They’re not only finding that these techniques draw down emissions, but also cultivate more-resilient and adaptive farm land – land better protected from the effects of the climate crisis, including drought and extreme weather.
The following three municipalities are leading the way in studying, testing, and implementing regenerative agriculture practices and supporting farmers in their regions.
>> Learn more: What is Regenerative Agriculture? <<
Boulder County, Colorado
Boulder County strategizes in its 2018 Sustainability Plan that it will “promote long-term agricultural stewardship and sustainability practices that enhance soil health and regeneration, reduce erosion, and conserve water.”
These practices include:
- Encouraging water efficiency.
- Working with local universities to better understand and pilot carbon sequestration practices.
- Promoting dialog between farmers and beekeepers to develop pollinator habitats.
A key piece of Boulder County’s work is in its use of open lands. Boulder County maintains just over 100,000 acres of open space – 25 percent of which has been designated for agricultural use. By leasing part of this 25,000 acres to local farmers, the county has been able to create partnerships to test the most effective regenerative practices.
One partnered farm, the Campbell and Quicksilver Farm, is using cover crops and reduced tillage, compost, and slow-release fertilizer on various plots, while regularly measuring the soil’s carbon levels. During the off-season of corn, the farm’s primary crop, they plant rye and hairy vetch to serve as a cover crop and protect the soil from wind erosion. Boulder County and Colorado State University are studying the effects of these various practices on soil health and carbon sequestration, as well as crop yield.
Park City, Utah
In 2016, Park City, Utah made a commitment to become carbon-free by 2032. Along with transitioning to 100-percent renewable electricity and electrifying its bus fleet, Park City is targeting regenerative agriculture to draw down its carbon footprint and meet this goal.
A key technique in Park City’s regenerative agriculture project is conservation easements.
Park City’s regeneration project has protected over 9,540 acres of open space, permanently limiting the use of this land from development. In a study conducted in 2017, the city found that its open spaces were drawing down 7,686 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MT CO2e) per year. By conserving more land from development, Park City has been able to not only maintain the soil carbon in its open spaces but begin working to improve the health of its lands and their ability to absorb carbon.
The McPolin Barn property, a historic agriculture site in Park City, has recently been converted into a regenerative agriculture project in order to test new methods to regenerate soil, increase soil carbon, and bring back native plants and wildlife.
Due to years of industrialized farming and eventual abandonment, the McPolin property suffered from noxious weeds, grass overgrowth, drainage issues, and a lack of plant biodiversity, all of which degraded the soil. As a solution, Park City has started to introduce new plant species to repair these issues, including clover and vetches to increase nitrogen levels, beets and radishes to aerate the soil, and pollinators like sunflowers.
Other practices the city has used on its open spaces have included rotational grazing and biochar. According to the Rodale Institute, “Rotational grazing is the practice of containing and moving animals through pasture to improve soil, plant, and animal health.”
On the McPolin property, Park City is using rotational grazing with a small herd of cattle. By rotating the areas that the cattle are grazing, plants are building stronger and deeper root systems that help with soil biomass, fertilization, and carbon sequestration.
Additionally, Park City is developing a biochar program to put carbon back into the soil and supports wildfire mitigation efforts. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made from burning wood and brush in oxygen-deprived containers, concentrating it with carbon. Biochar can be added to soil to improve the soil structure, increase water retention, regulate nitrogen levels, and improve microbial diversity. The process of creating biochar takes carbon emitters – decaying biomass – and turns it into a usable and beneficial form.
In 2019, the city began creating biochar using wood and brush from wildfire prevention projects. Park City is starting various tests to see exactly how its use of biochar is increasing soil carbon levels, biodiversity, and water retention, especially as they head toward spring, when it’s faced with managing snow runoff.
Marin County, California and Santa Clara County, California
In California, counties are addressing regenerative agriculture by supporting and funding projects and organizations in their communities using these practices.
In 2015, Marin County published its Climate Action Plan with a chapter dedicated to agriculture. In the plan, the county laid out how it would work with local farmers and agricultural-focused organizations to promote education and outreach of carbon farming, as well as supporting the growth of these practices throughout the county. By providing financial incentives, Marin County has been able to work closely with local farmers using these practices and learn from their findings. The county is also a supporter of the Marin Carbon Project, a nonprofit focused on increasing carbon sequestration throughout the county.
Just south in Santa Clara County, a region with a strong history of agriculture, the county has had to find innovative ways to meet its climate action goals, cultivate climate resilience, and continue to support its rural economy.
In 2018, the county released Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan: Investing in our Working Lands for Regional Resilience to not only mitigate climate change, but also support economic development. The county has recently launched a reverse auction grant program to help fund innovative farming practices that support climate resiliency. Local farmers are encouraged to submit their ideas, with the most efficient and cost-effective ideas receiving funding from the county.
What Can You Do?
Want your county to lead the way in fighting the climate crisis? Join your local Climate Reality chapter to get involved in promoting innovative solutions to the climate crisis, including regenerative agriculture, in your own community.
Across the country, everyday Americans are joining Climate Reality chapters and working together for practical climate solutions in communities from sea to shining sea.
These friends, neighbors, and colleagues are bringing clean energy to their towns, fighting fracking developments, and so much more. Most of all, they’re making a real difference for our climate when it matters – and you can too.
Through the County Climate Coalition campaign, you and your chapter can gain insight from a growing network of counties nationwide to learn the best ways to urge your own county’s elected officials to take regional action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Learn more now.