Russell Ranch director Kate Scow works with students to collect soil samples for testing. Photo from UC Davis Science and Climate website.
Russell Ranch director Kate Scow works with students to collect soil samples for testing. Photo from UC Davis Science and Climate website.

ASI’s Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility has been home to groundbreaking research in soil health since the 1990s—a legacy showcased in recent media coverage.

Can we increase food production while also increasing the environmental friendliness of agriculture?

This question is increasingly on the minds of California’s lawmakers and farmers, and it is a central focus of the nearly quarter-century of research (and counting) going on at ASI’s Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility.

For over two decades, research at Russell Ranch has explored the ways that farm management practices like composting, cover cropping, and other techniques impact the sustainability of farming.

Central to these investigations is the question of soil health: how to empower farmers to be stewards of the soil and maintain soil's ecosystem of beneficial plants, animals, microbes, fungi and help keep crops healthy and productive over the seasons and across decades. 

California's Healthy Soils Initiative

Land management practices that focus on soil health don't just hold promise for improving crop productivity. They may also help mitigate climate change. So soil health has become a major focus of the state of California, reflected by the California Department of Food & Agriculture's Healthy Soils Initiative.

Last week Russell Ranch, ASI’s UC SAREP program, and the California Climate & Agriculture Network co-hosted a webinar on the CDFA’s new grants program for farmers and ranchers to fund management practices that improve soil health.

Media coverage of the Healthy Soils Initiative included several interviews with Kate Scow, director of Russell Ranch and Professor of Soil Science and Soil Microbial Ecology. In fact, last week Russell Ranch’s groundbreaking soil research was featured in not one, but four different places:

  • Kate Scow was quoted in a New York Times story about the CDFA's Healthy Soils Initiative
  • UC Davis’s new Science & Climate website showcases work on the UC Davis campus that’s seeking to understand the impact of climate change and find solutions. The lead story on the website features Kate Scow talking about soil health and carbon sequestration  
  • The same story about soil carbon is running on the Washington Post website
  • Kate was also interviewed by CBS-5 San Francisco for a story about CDFA’s new grants program for farmers and ranchers to fund management practices that improve soil health. Check out the full video here

 Learn a little more about soil health research at Russell Ranch below. And stay tuned for more posts and updates on soil health research at ASI!

Soil Health Research at Russell Ranch

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Soil amendments

How do cover crops, charcoal (biochar), manure, and biofuel wastes (biodigestate), impact soil chemistry and soil biology?

How do these soil amendments impact crop productivity?

Farming systems

How do organic, conventional and hybrid crop management systems impact soil health and soil structure?

How does soil health impact the production of greenhouse gases, and the amounts of carbon removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in the soil?

Soil microbes

What do different crop management systems do to the ecosystem of microbes living in the soil, not just year to year, but over decades?

How do these microbes impact soil structure and the production of greenhouse gases that are implicated in global warming?

Some of Russell Ranch’s soil health research findings include:

  • Producers can maintain yields on their farm comparable to synthetic fertilizers if they use food and plant wastes digested by microbes (biodigestate) as their sole source of fertilizer.
  • Applying charcoal (biochar) to the soil can boost corn yields in the following year by 8 percent.
  • Growing winter cover crops can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed in the growing season by 30 to 40 percent.
  • Organic crop systems sequester more carbon in the soil (a big goal in climate change mitigation practices) than conventionally managed crop systems.

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