California's Healthy Soils Program: an interview with Dr. Amrith Gunasekara | Climate Group Skip to main content

California's Healthy Soils Program: an interview with Dr. Amrith Gunasekara

31 July 2020, 11:52 UTC 8 min read

Healthy soils initiatives are growing in interest among states and regions as a critical way to enhance carbon sequestration, increase the climate resilience of farmlands and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this year, we invited Dr. Amrith Gunasekara, Science Advisor to the Secretary at the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA),​ to join the Climate Group for a webinar discussing California’s strategies to improve soil health and carbon sequestration in farmlands. Dr. Gunasekara discussed the approach and implementation of California’s unique Healthy Soils Program, breaking down the key components and mechanisms behind the policy.

After the webinar, we asked Dr. Gunasekara to elaborate on some of the challenges and successes of the Healthy Soils Program and share insights for other jurisdictions trying to implement similar projects.

What have been some of the major successes of the California Healthy Soils program?

The Healthy Soils Program in California is a first-of-its-kind program in the world that provides financial incentives to farmers and ranchers to implement specific management practices that achieve greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions, sequester carbon and improve soil health on their farms. The GHG emissions reductions are quantified using COMET-Planner, a tool developed in collaboration with United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) and Colorado State University.

This program funds two types of projects:

  • Incentives Program funds projects that provide funding to farmers and ranchers to implement agricultural management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester soil carbon.
  • Demonstration Projects funds projects that provide funding to Academic Universities, Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) and non-profits to implement healthy soils practices and conduct research and education to farmers regarding these practices. Demonstration projects also help collect GHG quantification data to further inform the models which the quantification methodologies are based on. 

CDFA has funded to date, $33.9 million to 576 incentives projects spread over an estimated 54,084 acres and 47 demonstration projects over an estimated 2,200 acres that collectively achieve over 110,900 tons of CO2e GHG reductions per year, and the Program continues to grow.

How does a program like this contribute to tackling climate change? 

The HSP directly aims at mitigating climate change through achieving reduction of GHG emissions on farms. The conservation management practices included under the HSP achieve this through increasing soil organic matter and carbon sequestration. This is achieved through several mechanisms, such as:

  • Addition of carbon-rich amendments to the soil, such as compost, mulch and wood chips
  • Reducing disturbance of the soil through reduction or elimination of tillage
  • Planting of cover crops during fallow seasons to create active soil biology and carbon sequestration
  • Planting of permanent herbaceous cover and trees, which sequester carbon in the plant biomass in addition to the soil
  • Nutrient management to reduce 15% reduction in application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which can, in turn, reduce nitrous oxide emissions

The COMET-Planner tool includes the emissions of three GHGs, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, in the calculation methodology when estimating reductions from implementation of each of the HSP practices across the State.

Increased soil health and soil organic matter provide co-benefits such as enhancing the water-holding capacity of soils. Such co-benefits can potentially help California farmers adapt to the changing climate future, including management for drought or fires. The HSP Demonstration Projects provide a platform for peer-to-peer education for farmers to adopt practices that can help toward a more resilient and sustainable future for agriculture.

What other benefits, apart from combatting climate change, does a program like this bring? 

Healthy Soils projects provide a variety of additional environmental co-benefits, such as improved water holding capacity of soils and promoting biodiversity. Additionally, these practices prevent soil erosion by wind and water, which can further enhance air and water quality. Improved nutrient management strategies as a result of implementing these practices can further improve water quality protection benefits.

In 2020, CDFA approved an additional practice, whole-orchard recycling, which allows orchard growers who are replacing older trees, to chip those trees and incorporate them into the soil. This is an alternative to the conventional practice of tree-burning, which can reduce smoke and particulate matter generated as a result of burning. This practice is of great significance to create a positive impact in California’s central valley which is home to a majority of the State’s orchard operations as well as a non-attainment zone for criteria air pollutants. 

Does California have any plans to scale up the program?  

The HSP has been growing since 2016-17 when it first started. After an initial allocation of $7.5 Million, the California State Legislature appropriated to CDFA $15 Million in 2018-19 and $28 Million in 2019-20. A streamlined application process, technical assistance providers and UCCE community education specialists, and increased outreach has helped bring in the highest number of applicants to the Program this year.

In addition, CDFA has undertaken efforts, in collaboration with the USDA-NRCS and the California Air Resources Board, to expand the suite of eligible practices that can be supported through the program, through a public process. The HSP started with 15 funded practices in 2017, which grew to 26 in 2018, and 27 in 2020. In 2018, CDFA also began funding through HSP Demonstration Projects 8 practices that are of interest to stakeholders, but do not have peer-reviewed scientific research data to support GHG reduction calculations.

The purpose of these funds is to allow researchers and subject matter experts to design appropriate scientific studies to gather this data and enable CDFA to adopt these practices into the HSP for funding through the Incentives Program in the future. CDFA anticipates continuing this effort in the future to ensure providing wide variety of options for farmers when designing their healthy soils projects. 

CDFA is in the process of engaging with private entities and others who would like to partner on Healthy Soils activities and to further understand how they can play a role. Stakeholder workshops have been scheduled to hear from a wide group of stakeholders. These workshops are a result of numerous stakeholders requesting to partner further with CDFA.

Why is it important that state and regional governments take the lead on this issue? 

Soil health is critical for sustainability of the future food supply. Programs such as the HSP not only mitigate GHG emissions that could have been produced, but also utilize the ability of soil to serve as a sink and storage for existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the long term, while bringing many co-benefits.

Soil carbon sequestration serves as an important measure along side reduction of emissions from industrial and transportation sectors, to help us achieve a carbon-neutral future. Therefore, it is imperative that soil health and soil organic matter be part of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans for local, regional and national governments. Although supportive, national governments currently do not have any soils healthy management practices that link the practices to greenhouse gases, therefore the states are uniquely positioned to take the lead in this effort.

Were there any unexpected challenges that came up in the development or implementation of the program and what would you advise someone looking to replicate this program in another region? 

The HSP was one of four new incentive programs in CDFA that had never previously existed in the Department. Therefore, building adequate government accountability and confirmation that the practices were being implemented was critical to ensuring CDFA builds trust in being able to be responsible for such programs. Balancing these goals with the goals of making a simple and easy to use application was a large challenge along with the pressure of getting the funds solicitated through applications and awarding those applications, all in a single budget year.

One of the foremost challenges in the first year of HSP was to let farmers and ranchers know about the Program which did not result in an oversubscription rate (all submitted applications were funded). Farmers and ranchers usually wait one or two years to see how the program is implemented before applying. Therefore, if there was a year in which outreach for the program could be completed before actual program solicitation release, this would allow for farmers and ranchers to find out more about the program and prepare to apply.

Some other challenges included balancing the ease with which farmers could apply for funding and confirm the projects met a variety of required technical requirements pertaining to implementation of practices, calculation of estimated GHG reductions, budgeting and CDFA’s need to track land areas associated with projects to ensure baseline conditions for GHG calculations were met. 

In the beginning years, CDFA relied on the COMET-Planner Tool for GHG calculations, while preparing maps of the project fields presented a challenge for the applicants. These elements along with the project budget presented separate attachments on the application, making the application somewhat complicated to navigate. In 2019-20, CDFA established a collaboration with the Strategic Growth Council to develop an integrated mapping tool, CDFA HSP RePlan Tool, which allows applicants to create a project design map. The map displays cropping system, land parcel numbers and selected healthy soils practices automatically. If any practices are incompatible with the project or program requirements, the tool shows an error message, thus minimizing the need for the farmers to familiarize themselves with the technical details of modeling involved in GHG calculations associated with each practice. CDFA also contracted with a vendor, Wizehive, to develop a streamlined electronic application for the HSP. This has made the application process simpler going forward. 

Over the years, CDFA has funded technical assistance providers, comprising of university cooperative extension specialists and Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) across major agricultural counties in California, and, non-profits in expertise with agricultural management and conservation, to provide one-on-one assistance to farmers in preparing and submitting applications to the HSP. In 2019, CDFA expanded the available expertise by developing a collaboration with the University of California Agricultural and Natural Resources, where dedicated staff resources (Community Education Specialists) have been hired to assist farmers in applying for funding and implementing their projects. CDFA also dedicated resources toward a dedicated outreach and social media campaign for the HSP in the past year, which has further helped spread the word on the HSP. As a result of these efforts, in 2020 CDFA has seen an increased participation from farmers and ranchers and expects a record number of submitted applications and oversubscription for the Program this year.

In terms for advice for someone looking to replicate this Program, expanding and building multiple partnerships cross State and Federal agencies, RCDs, university cooperative extensions and other key local and regional players that engage with farmers and ranchers for some time prior to the actual release for applications would be critical for success of such a program. Farmers and ranchers need time to become familiar with new programs and see how they work. CDFA has been fortunate for the partnership with USDA-NRCS, who have decades of experience in developing and standardizing conservation practices, which have been adapted into the HSP platform. Therefore, the ability to ensure scientific and data-driven approaches tied to funding for farmers is another critical component for longevity of such a program that aims to achieve quantifiable and verifiable GHG reduction benefits.