Sustainable ranching practices got a major boost in Marin County this month with a $1 million grant to the Marin Resource Conservation District for projects that help ranchers sequester soil carbon and complete other restoration work on rangelands. The California Coastal Conservancy grant, the largest ever awarded to the R.C.D. for carbon farming, will enable the district to fund more projects for agricultural producers on its long waitlist. 

“This grant deals with climate adaptation, resiliency and reversing some of the climate impacts that have been made in the past,” said Nancy Scolari, the district’s executive director. “I think it gives us hope for finding ways to be a part of that.” 

The grant is intended to fund 15 to 20 carbon farming practices on eight ranches with existing carbon farm plans, designs for 15 to 20 more projects, and six new carbon farm plans, all designed to help store carbon that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere by agricultural operations. The projects will include riparian restoration along creek tributaries, revegetation with woody shrubs and trees, and silvopasture, the practice of planting and integrating trees on grazing lands. Individual projects can range in cost from $20,000 to $500,000, Ms. Scolari said. 

Nearly 70 ranches in Marin are on the district’s waitlist for carbon farm plans, and 19 have already completed plans. Though the Coastal Conservancy grant will cover only a fraction of what the district would need to fund its entire waitlist, it still encourages ranchers to “dream big.” 

As part of these projects, the R.C.D. has been consulting with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into carbon farm plans. Last year, FIGR representatives visited True Grass Farms outside Tomales to consult with rancher Guido Frosini, whose plans will include silvopasture and riparian restoration and will be funded by the Coastal Conservancy grant. This month, representatives visited nearby Toluma Farms for the same purpose.

The grant was bolstered by matching donations from other sources, including $100,000 from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and $225,000 from the Measure A tax fund. The R.C.D. gets 1 percent of Measure A funds, and though the measure’s spending allocations are in question, the district’s funding will likely remain the same. For the time being, the R.C.D. can only use Measure A funding for projects on ranches with agricultural easements.

In support of the carbon farming grant proposal, several R.C.D. supporters wrote letters to the Coastal Conservancy. Supervisor Dennis Rodoni wrote that the district’s carbon farm plans are critical to the county’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases in unincorporated Marin to 60 percent below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, and to become carbon neutral by 2045. The University of California Cooperative Extension, the Agricultural Institute of Marin, Clover Sonoma and Straus Family Creamery also wrote letters in support of the grant. 

Carbon farming has not always been the business of the R.C.D., which traces its roots to the New Deal soil conservation legislation spurred by the Dust Bowl. The R.C.D., originally known as a soil conservation district, helped farmers control erosion and flooding. In 1986, the Coastal Conservancy granted the district $1 million for a sediment control project.

But as Marin became aware of the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and as research demonstrated the potential of carbon sequestration on agricultural lands, the R.C.D. became a key member of the Marin Carbon Project consortium that formed in 2006. The district’s existing soil conservation practices and an array of new ones, including composting, silvopasture and rotational grazing, could be used to help agricultural operations inch closer to carbon neutrality. 

“Everyone was waking up to the reality of the climate crisis, but also the potential of ag,” said Jeff Creque, the Marin Carbon Project’s co-founder. 

Since 2014, the Coastal Conservancy has given the R.C.D. three grants totaling $725,000. “The Coastal Conservancy has been an early and persistent supporter of this work. They got it right away,” Mr. Creque said. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board has also been an important source of funding. 

Many who oppose Marin’s beef and dairy industry on environmental grounds are skeptical of the potential of carbon farming to mitigate climate change. Some cite studies showing that soil’s capacity for carbon sequestration diminishes over time, calling into question the long-term efficacy of the practices. 

Dr. Whendee Silver, a U.C. Berkeley ecosystem ecologist who led the research behind the Marin Carbon Project, said that although the ability of some soil to sequester carbon has been shown to slow and stabilize over time, most soil has a high threshold for storing carbon. “This concept that soils will fill up and saturate is an interesting one, and it is in the realm of scientific speculation,” Dr. Silver said. “We’re not even sure this really happens.”

Other ranching opponents have argued that native perennial grasslands are more effective at sequestering carbon than grazed pasture, even given carbon farming practices. But Dr. Silver said native bunchgrasses don’t cover the land as thoroughly as invasive European grasses and that composting is a more direct sequestration method than native plant restoration, which can be a challenge. “That’s a harder solution to implement, and we don’t even know what the effect would be on soil carbon,” she said.