As the sun rose over the soggy northern California town of Nicasio earlier this week, six trucks made their way along a muddy path. They were the first of a team selected to deliver compost to 15 ranches throughout California. A small group of onlookers — people who have seen compost’s impact on carbon levels and agricultural production and believe California is on the brink of a compost boom — were excited.

“It’s a $67,000 day for me,” John Wick of the California Carbon Project told ThinkProgress. Wick and his wife, writer, illustrator, and biotech heiress Peggy Rathmann, are paying for the compost out of their own pocket. While ranchers can typically find cheaper compost, the trucks were carrying specific compost for research purposes.

Over the next year, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will use the compost to conduct tests to determine whether compost improves soil health on California’s diverse rangelands. If it does, ranchers will be able to use federal Farm Bill funding to purchase compost, in addition to anticipated state funding provided through California’s new Healthy Soils Initiative.
Wick and Rathmann, compost advocates and concerned environmentalists, wanted to help NRCS conduct the tests quickly. Waiting for the federal government to fund research may have taken years — a long time given the urgency of climate change.

Experiments have already confirmed that applying a half-inch layer of compost to grazed ranchland helps plants suck carbon out of the air and store it in the ground. Compost over less than three acres offsets the equivalent of carbon emissions from four diesel truck trips from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. It also significantly increases production and soil water holding capacity.

If compost were applied to the millions of acres of rangeland in California, the beneficial effect on carbon levels in the atmosphere, agricultural production and water conservation would be monumental. These field trials are a step in that direction.

The importance of the federal research isn’t limited to future Farm Bill funding, however. The tests will also provide hard evidence ranchers and farmers need to decide whether switching from their current practices to compost is the better economic choice.

“People are very willing to change practices if it’s been shown to help them,” said Jeff Borum, project coordinator for the NRCS field trials. “They need observable data. They want to smell the soil. They want to see it on ranches of people they know.”

In other words, ranchers and farmers need proof compost will help them, not just the planet. Despite California’s reputation as a deep-blue state, there are a sizable number of California farmers and ranchers who view environmentalism as a four-letter word. But if compost measurably improves their bottom line, it’s worth the change.

To read the full story, visit