California’s statewide office of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has awarded $319,000 in conservation innovation grants that will address soil health and carbon storage on pasture lands, tillage management for rice, and the economics of soil health and water management.

“Congratulations to American Farmland Trust, Forward Family Farming, and Scott River Watershed Council,” said Carlos Suarez, NRCS State Conservationist in California, in a statement.

The Scott River Watershed Council plans to use its $114,900 award, along with $140,000 it raised in matching funds, to conduct a three year comparison of pasture and hayfields fertilized with compost, biochar enhanced with compost and plain biochar. Alexis Robertson, project manager at the Council, said biochar is created by thinning forests in the region and then heating the biomass at very hot temperatures using a process called pyrolysis, which keeps most of the carbon intact versus standard burning that releases most of the carbon. The carbon-rich biochar can then be applied to ag land and Robertson said the project hopes to determine whether biochar helps with “water holding capacity and plant fertility.”

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If successful, she says the project could be scaled to other areas where forests are near agricultural land, “connecting those two often disparate ecosystems.”

Conservation innovation grants can be awarded through national and state-level competitions and this year California prioritized “proposals that improve the ‘technical toolbox’” for addressing concerns ranging from soil, water, forest and air quality to animal habitat.

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