Drop in the bucket

A Drop in the Bucket

Nerds for Earth is a volunteer organization that uses technical skills to help rebalance our climate.  Learn more about us here, and stay in touch by subscribing at the bottom of the post.

As benevolent nerds, our instinct when solving a problem is to build something new and revolutionary.  

Especially when facing a challenge as large as rebalancing our planet’s climate.

Let’s launch giant sun shades into space to reflect the Sun’s heat!

Let’s use drones to seed clouds with light-reflecting dust!  

Both may someday be useful tools to have in the toolbelt.

But they don’t address the root cause of the issue, and in no way move us closer to living in balance with our planet.  

They are over there, somewhere in The Glorious Future – not connected to our everyday lives and the systems, like agriculture, we rely upon.  

Surfing the Adjacent Possible

Please indulge this 2 x 2 problem solving matrix:

  1. Bottom-left: we have the current state of affairs – which if you’re reading this I assume you believe to be less than ideal.
  2. Top-right: we have The Glorious Future – the beautiful state of nirvana-like biological balance that anyone with a Prius probably aspires to.  The Glorious Future is usually a cruel illusion, as it can’t be reached directly from our current reality.
  3. Top-left and bottom-right: we have adjacent possibility – moves that we could directly make as individuals or societies.  Composting at home or advocating for a municipal compost program in your town would fall in this bucket.

Some would decry walking through door #3 as “incrementalism” or a “drop in the bucket.”  

But drops in the bucket are literally all we have.  

Drops in the bucket – individuals burning fossil fuels and spraying pesticides – are how we got here, and how we will move forward.  

At Nerds for Earth, we believe in finding buckets in our society that are already working well, and adding our unique drop.  You might call this surfing the adjacent possible.

Step Forward to Cool the Planet

Carbon Farmers are masters of the adjacent possible.

Using known agricultural techniques, like compost application and cover cropping, they pull carbon from the air into the soil.  

Increased soil carbon means healthier soil, higher nutrient density in food, and often increased crop yields.  Photosynthesis FTW!

It’s a non-sexy strategy that leads to sexy results.

Note: you can find the full list of carbon-beneficial land management practices on the Natural Resources Conservation Services website in case you’re curious.

I’ll let John Wick, rancher and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, explain Carbon Farming in detail:

Carbon Farming could go a long way towards rebalancing our climate and increasing food security.

The Marin Carbon Project estimated that if we applied compost one time to 50% of rangelands in California, we could sequester the state’s annual emissions from commercial and residential electricity use – all while increasing the amount and quality of forage production.

Many agricultural support groups (Fibershed, California Resource Conservation Districts, Mad Agriculture, and the San Diego Food System Alliance to name a few in the US) are working actively to help ranchers + farmers implement carbon-beneficial land management practices.   

So how can we, as nerds, support their work?

Building the Adjacent Possible

Before putting pen to paper as technical volunteers, we first have to answer a couple questions:

  1. Who are we serving?
  2. What do they need?

Answering these questions is always more difficult than it appears.  It requires Listening Closely, and not projecting what we’d like to build or would be fun to build onto the situation.

Who are we serving?

Before a farmer or rancher implements carbon-beneficial practices on their property, they generally build out what’s known as a Carbon Farm Plan.  

That plan is prepared by conservation planners, who often work at the local Resource Conservation District or at a nonprofit group like the Carbon Cycle Institute.

So, for purposes of this project, we specifically decided to serve conservation planners preparing Carbon Farm Plans.

What do they need?

Part of the output from the Carbon Farm planning process is a list of recommended practices and their projected carbon sequestration benefit (calculated using the COMET Planner tool):

What we heard from Carbon Farm planners, is that they wanted help answering a couple questions about Plans they’ve produced:

  1. How much will this cost to implement, given the local variability of labor and other costs?
  2. Given that cost, which practices should be implemented first to get the highest carbon sequestration benefit from a limited budget?

This is the point at which our wheels start turning.  

By calculating the cost of implementing carbon-beneficial practices, we could help Carbon Farm Plans be implemented – a direct adjacent win for everyone involved (+Earth).  

What we Built

The end result of this process was a simple cost + return model built in Google Sheets.  Yes, that’s right – even spreadsheets have a role in rebalancing our climate.

The model relies 100% on existing public data, thanks to the NRCS (a sub-agency of the USDA created during the Dust Bowl as the “Soil Conservation Service”).

NRCS provides cost-share funding to farmers + ranchers engaging in conservation practices through a program called EQIP.  So if planting a hedgerow costs $1,000, a producer can apply for cost-share funding to cover roughly $500 of the cost.

Thankfully, to support this program, NRCS publishes state-level cost estimates for each conservation practice they fund.

So, all we had to do was download the raw cost data from their site, do an *absurd* amount of data processing (boo PDFs), and voila!  

We had a working cost + return model, where a Carbon Farm planner could enter:

  1. The practices they planned for a farm or ranch, and the acreage / amount of each
  2. The expected benefits from that practice, in terms of carbon sequestration, increased soil organic matter, water holding capacity, or yield

And out the other end comes an estimated cost of implementing each of those practices, as well as the relative ‘bang for buck’ in terms of carbon sequestration vs other practices.

Carbon Farm cost + return model
The final output of our Carbon Farm cost + return model

If you’re curious to check out the model for yourself, browse the California and Colorado versions (to make your own copy and put it into action, select File -> Make a Copy and follow the Instructions tab).

Listening Twice

Our instinct as volunteers was to build the spreadsheet model, share it with Carbon Farm Planners, then celebrate.  

But we found it wasn’t that simple.  Ensuring that something you’ve built as a volunteer actually gets used requires listening twice: before you build it, and after you’ve shared it.  

For example, we learned from a couple planners that our model had one major shortcoming:

They needed to be able to set granular component-level costs (like labor, fence, or compost) for each of their plans, as costs in a state like California can differ so widely across different regions.

If we didn’t have 1-on-1 follow-up meetings with planners, we never would’ve learned about this – and our attempt to serve would’ve ended up on the trash heap of history.

But since we did, we were able to build a process into the Sheet to modify costs locally:

Modifying local costs in the cost + return model
Modifying local costs in the Carbon Farm model

Listening Closely can avert (almost any) spreadsheet disaster.  Many thanks to everyone who generously shared their time to offer feedback on the tool. 

What’s your Adjacent Possible?

This is just one small story of one group helping farmers + ranchers help the planet.  A drop in the bucket.

Never forget, though: incrementalism depends on your frame of reference.

As nerds, data wrangling and spreadsheet modeling sure feels incremental.  A direct move up or to the right on the matrix of possibility.

But when blended with the skills of the planner, we make progress towards creating something new and real and good: The Glorious Future.

All that is to say – please do not take your technical skills for granted, just because they come naturally to you.  

When combined with the talent of the people you’re seeking to help, they can be revolutionary.  

Nerds for Earth is a volunteer organization that uses technical skills to help rebalance our climate.  To volunteer or propose a project, drop your email below.


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