Can Tom Steyer Move the Needle on Climate Change?

Kat Taylor and her former-presidential-candidate husband are using their vast resources to address sustainable agriculture

Kat Taylor is excited to talk about carbon sequestration and perennial grasses, but one of her favorite topics is the “full assemblage of predators” that now calls TomKat Ranch home. “It’s an indicator of [ecosystem] health all the way down the food chain, because you can’t support mountain lions and bobcats…unless the rest of the world is pretty healthy, too,” she explains.

Taylor knows this because while voters across America watched her husband — billionaire Tom Steyer — run for president on televisions across the country, researchers at the ranch had been tuning into a very different broadcast for some time. Footage from web cameras placed near cattle water sources revealed thirsty coyotes and badgers sneaking in to hydrate.

It’s one tiny picture of how everything that happens on the ranch, which serves as a living laboratory, is monitored. Data collected by cameras, sensors, and on-site scientists are then used in studies and incorporated into larger, multi-site research projects, all of it in service of figuring out not just how to make agriculture more sustainable, but how to utilize farm practices to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Steyer dropped out of the presidential race at the end of February, and those following the news likely know of his attention to climate change as a signature issue (despite the political liability of having acquired some of his wealth via investments in fossil fuels).

But he and his wife also own this 1,800-acre ranch — aptly named TomKat — on the California coast about an hour south of San Francisco. The ranch is known for its unique research model and broader contributions to helping further the climate-positive aims of “regenerative agriculture.” At a time when there are still many unanswered questions about how to best build soil health and produce food sustainably, that research could have lasting impacts on the planet and the food system.

Taylor said that when she saw the landscape, her original idea was to return it to a wild ecosystem that could be used to teach young people about ecology. But in the early 2000s, the couple began to hear about grazing cattle in a way that sequestered carbon. They were intrigued by the potential and decided to put the land “back to work,” but to do it in a way that prioritized research and learning. “We’re not trying to make our livelihood off the ranch,” Taylor said. “So, we can de-risk a practice and show it to others, and they can take it up without worrying so much.”

In other words, it would be easy to see the ranch as a vanity project of billionaires; what would any regenerative rancher do with unlimited resources, after all?

But Taylor said the couple’s aim is to use those resources to figure out which practices will allow ranchers who are trying to earn a living make their operations more resilient and climate-friendly (without breaking the bank). That kind of investment could be especially important at this time, when ranchers are faced with not only unpredictable weather events but also uncertain markets due to COVID-19.

To that end, ranch director Wendy Millet is often dispatched to conferences to spread the word about their work when she’s not on-site moving cattle around 800 acres of grazing pastures. TomKat also hosts about 80 to 100 in-person educational events per year, although how that will be affected by the current pandemic is still undetermined. And Millet engages other local meat producers in tackling market challenges they’re facing, too. For instance, she’s currently organizing ranchers to talk about barriers to processing and how the farms might work together to introduce solutions like mobile meat processing units.

Carla Rosin is a well-known advocate for local, sustainable food in Northern California, and she’s worked with TomKat on events like Eco-Farm and the California Small Farm Conference. She said the “educational component” of the ranch set it apart, and that while many other growers have to keep their heads down to keep a ranch running, TomKat is able to collect and share a lot of valuable information. “Their outreach is extensive,” Rosin said.

However, it all starts with the research. “We get to run the whole place as an experiment,” Millet said.

The ranch works with Point Blue Conservation Science, which started tracking birds as a measure of ecosystem health in 1965 and has since evolved into a more multifaceted environmental science organization. Chelsea J. Carey, the senior soil ecologist at Point Blue, works on research at TomKat and said that the relationship there led to the establishment of the Rangeland Monitoring Network, which now collects data from close to 100 ranches in California. “[TomKat] is a unique partnership model for us in terms of the way we work on agricultural land,” she said. “The ranch’s leadership and staff really embody the regenerative mindset, lean into challenges presented by working with complex ecological systems, and are committed to using rigorous science to help inform and inspire regenerative agriculture at scale.”

Point Blue’s scientists have already published a handful of peer-reviewed papers in academic journals based on their work at TomKat, and the research has produced both inspiring examples of positive environmental change and sobering questions about how much of a difference grazing can really make.

On restoring perennial grasses, which can build soil health, the team has documented impressive results since implementing planned grazing in 2010. In 2011, the grasses were present in eight out of 75 pastures. By 2013, they were in 58; in 2018, they were in 70.

They have also banded birds that live in riparian habitats (near streams) on the ranch every year since 2011 and have seen significant increases in common species. “This is cool because some of these are actually seeing regional declines,” Carey said, “and there is more recent work showing that a lot of common bird [populations] are actually declining dramatically across the United States.” Carey said these results point toward the benefits of practices like restoring riparian habitats and carefully grazing near riparian areas. On the flipside, species of grassland breeding birds that are declining throughout the state are also declining on the ranch, due to the encroachment of “shrubby species” like coyote brush, Carey said. “That’s a real challenge on the Central Coast, and grazing by livestock doesn’t do a great job at managing that woody encroachment.”

How much carbon can be stored in soil and how best to keep it there is, without a doubt, the most complicated research question. While some companies have already started paying farmers for carbon sequestration, many scientists believe more evidence is needed to clarify how much carbon is really being stored and for how long.

The research at TomKat and surrounding ranches points to both big opportunities and challenges on that front. Point Blue measured soil carbon in 2015 and 2018 at TomKat and surrounding ranches in the network and found that on average, the rangelands lost soil carbon. However, because the timing coincided with the tail end of a serious drought, Carey explained, that kind of loss would generally be expected. Still, “what our data show is that even in places that are really leading the charge on regenerative management, increasing soil carbon in that time frame was difficult to achieve,” she said.

Given impressive results shown by studies on ranches using similar grazing systems in wetter climates, those data point to important questions about climate and weather patterns in the context of using grazing to sequester carbon.

Point Blue researchers also found that 46 percent of the points sampled at TomKat did gain carbon at one or both of the depths they sampled at (0–10 cm and 10–40cm). So now, Carey said, they can “dig into the data” and try to identify what those points have in common. Were they managed in a certain way, for instance? Or are they in specific points on the ranch that share characteristics in terms of topography?

Timing matters, too. In 2021, when the team does the next round of sampling, things may look different. In the meantime, they’re also running controlled trials on the farm to test soil amendments that might be beneficial.

With Taylor and Steyer behind it, the opportunities for inquiry appear limitless.

“We have always approached all the work that we do, Tom and I, from a systems-change point of view, because we’re all connected in these highly overlapping and interdependent systems and cycles,” Taylor said. At TomKat, she is hoping to help farmers and eaters understand how working within those cycles, rather than disrupting them, is key. “The agricultural system works within the solar cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycle. Nature has developed all of these things exquisitely to take care of the planet and those of us who depend upon it.”

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