Swanton Pacific Ranch Restoration

Photo credit: Joe Johnston        Aaron Lee using a tractor to spread nearly 200 tons of compost at Swanton Pacific Ranch.


Restoring the Land

As the fields begin to green and sprouts of new life continue to peek through the devastation at Swanton Pacific Ranch following the August 2020 fire, staff remain busy overseeing recovery efforts and shepherding an increasing number of research projects. With the revisioning of Swanton Pacific Ranch underway, critical research projects related to fire recovery and regenerative land management forge ahead as well.

Because the evacuated cattle have not yet been returned to the ranch to to allow for fences to be mended and watering systems to be repaired, Cal Poly Professor Stewart Wilson, a soil scientist, is working with Aaron Lee, an agriculture management specialist at Swanton Pacific Ranch and graduate student in the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, to set up a research project in the ranch’s expansive rangeland. The undertaking is intended to determine how spreading various densities of compost can help to restore grazing lands such as those at the ranch, with the dual goal of restoring productivity and sequestering carbon — ultimately reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Initiative is funding the $249,000 study, which will take place over the next three years, providing hands-on opportunities for undergraduate students in soil analysis.

“Swanton Pacific Ranch is already positioned as a demonstration rangeland with an extensive network in California,” said Stewart. “Though we currently don’t have the infrastructure to host meetings and bring people to site demonstrations, the connection between everyone involved, from ecosystem restoration and beef production to soil health, remains intact.”

Lee, who lives and works at the ranch, spread nearly 200 tons of compost in 24 treatment plots over 12 acres. While California recommends that compost is applied to grazing lands to improve soil health and mitigate climate change, it is not yet known exactly how much compost should be applied to provide peak benefits. Wilson and Lee hope to find the answer.

In late November, Lee spent more than a month spreading 10-, 20- and 30-ton increments of compost per acre. Initial soil samples were taken prior to compost application and will continue to be sampled throughout the duration of the project. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions are measured twice monthly.

Lee, who had only worked at the ranch for about eight months before the fire, decided to remain there, alongside his wife, despite losing everything. He jokes that he once envisioned himself, “tootling around the orchard with a happy, simple life.” Now, he works long days attending to a never-ending list of chores. “If I were anywhere else, it would have been a different story. I fell in love with Swanton and instantly found value in the work. The future of Swanton is bright.”


Visit Cultivate Spring 2021 to read more stories.

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