A pioneering program in California aims to sequester carbon, improve water resources and boost plant growth, by treating the soil beneath farmers’ and ranchers’ feet as part of a living system.

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Jose Ortega, left and Fidel Meza work the soil in Lemoore, Calif. The state’s new Healthy Soils Initiative gives money to farmers and ranchers to experiment with building healthy soil for “carbon farming.”

Soil’s ability to capture carbon and store water has led to an upsurge of interest in this often overlooked natural resource.

In California, a new program called the Healthy Soils Initiative is about to put unorthodox farming practices to the test. With modest grants of up to $50,000 administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), a network of farmers and ranchers throughout the state will embark on a series of experiments in carbon farming.

The term refers to improving soil health by biological processes that limit the amount of synthetic chemicals applied to crops and adopting techniques aimed to reduce nutrient loss.

Kevin Muno is among the converts. He and his business partners at the Santa Ysabel Ranch run a cattle operation called the Land of Milk and Honey. Located about 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, it is the southernmost of the ranches testing the efficacy of carbon farming methods in California.

According to Muno, his goal is to restore the ecology of the landscape through a series of practices that he calls regenerative agriculture. The aim is to improve soil quality and to promote vigorous plant growth. By demonstrating the ecological services that carbon farming can provide, he and his partners believe they can prosper and conserve resources. “Humanity can benefit,” says Muno. “People in the city like clean air and water in their reservoirs. If we manage the landscape correctly, we can have those things.”

At the ranch, cattle move around on small areas of land meant to mimic the herding instincts of wild herbivores. Chomping on grass, urinating and defecating as they go, the cows consume, digest or trample every edible plant in the segment. The plant life is then allowed to recover as the cattle are moved on.

If things go as expected, the grassland will spring back more thickly than before. The soil will hold more water, and provide more organic matter essential to plant growth. Healthy soil, in turn, becomes a carbon sink thanks to the improved plant vigor.

Based on advice from the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI), Muno is also using compost to improve the soil. A quarter-inch of it was applied to half an acre of the ranch. Over several years, technicians will monitor the site for carbon uptake and then compare the results of a carbon farming study done in Northern California.

The experiment is based on research conducted by…