205: Get More Funding Faster for Land Conservation Projects

Since the time of the Dust Bowl, landowners have worked with Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) to conserve water, improve soil, preserve natural habitat, and prevent erosion. However, it can take two to three years to secure funding to begin a sustainable initiative. Devin Best, Executive Director at the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, and Michael Larcher, North American Solution Lead at cBrain have partnered on a new system that drastically decreases that timeframe by matching a grower’s land conservation needs with grants in a database.

Landowners can participate in the Sustainable Land Initiative by submitting a short form that includes their location, acres, and goals. Technical staff from the RCD will follow up with a sight visit to determine all potential conservation projects including healthy soils, cover cropping, beaver dam analogs, and carbon farm plans.

Through a database, the RCD can pull a report on all landowners interested in similar projects and connect them with funding and permitting. By aggregating data, the RCD can fund more growers, advise grant agencies on what conservation programs are most effective, and spend more time helping growers on the ground.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

And our guest today are Devin Best is executive director of the upper Salinas, las tablas Resource Conservation District. And Mike Larcher, who is a North American solutions and sustainability lead with a company called cBrain. And today we're going to be talking about a very interesting idea called the sustainable land initiative. Thank you both for being here. Thank you.


Devin Best  0:19 

Thanks for having us.


Craig Macmillan  0:20 

Actually, before we get into that, let's kind of set the stage for those folks that are not aware. Devin, can you tell us what is a resource conservation district?


Devin Best  0:28 

Sure. So a resource conservation district is a non regulatory, nonprofit local organization that works with growers and local community to help provide resources and technical assistance for their management of natural resources.


Craig Macmillan  0:41 

And there are RCDs throughout the state, correct?


Devin Best  0:44 

That's correct. There's about 95 of us or so. And they're organized around watersheds, watershed political boundaries, sometimes county boundaries. So it there's a little bit of a mix of how they're organized, but they were formed out of the dust bowl er, and some of them have combined, so you might get a little bit of those sort of things. Originally, the idea was that a federal government had the Natural Resource Conservation Service. And that was a entity that was focused in on dealing with the Dust Bowl and how to help farmers with their resource issues, but they recognize that the federal government didn't really have the best working relationship with local growers. So they formed what was originally known as soil water conservation districts, and here in California, are called RCDs, resource conservation districts, primarily same sort of mission, but they're more directed towards not just water, but also other things as well. And so California, if you look, you'll see this sort of conglomeration of some our cities have combined like ours is upper Salinas and Los Talas, this was to our cities that combined to form one but our counties actually shared by two our cities, the other one is being Coastal San Luis, our city.


Craig Macmillan  1:43 

And Mike, tell us what is cBrain? What does the brain do?


Mike Larcher  1:47 

The C brain is a process company, we specialize in redesigning processes, typically for government agencies, to make them as efficient, effective and transparent as possible, so that the government can do the work and arrive at the appropriate decisions very quickly. And so citizens get better services.


Craig Macmillan  2:06 

And you two are working together on this thing called the sustainable land initiative. Is that correct?


Devin Best  2:10 

That's correct.


Craig Macmillan  2:11 

Devin, what is that?


Devin Best  2:16 

So that actually started with Michael coming into my office and saying, you know, I'm really interested in this beaver brigade and beaver dams, and how can I help to get more of those? And I said, Well, that's great. But I'm also working on this thing called the carbon farm plan. And I need to get more of them done. But it's really tough. They started talking a little bit more about like, what does it take to actually do a carbon farm plan? Why is it takes so long? Why is it so expensive? Why are people not, you know, sort of gravitating behind these things. And as I started explaining, to Michael and his company, how it works, it was really apparent that we, as RCD staff don't spend that much time actually working on the plant itself. Most of it is there's these stop gaps between when we meet with somebody, and when we actually get something done. either. It's funding permitting something staff turnover, sometimes whatever it may be. And Michael's company actually sort of dealt with this particular instance of how do we make sure that we sort of streamline that whole process from start to finish, and get it down to the bare sort of essential parts, but make sure that there's tracking things along the way. So the sustainable land initiative really just focused more on how can RCDs be better at when I meet with the landowner getting resources to them, and I'm not spending all this time chasing grants and looking for permits. And so the example I've been given people is if I was to go meet with the landowner, and they're asking about, let's say, cover crops in vineyard rows, and they're looking for funding for that, usually, I'd go look into CDFAs, you know, list of programs that they have grants and stuff. That's one landowner, and I'd have to write one grant, and I have to wait three to six months until we got announced if we got awarded or not wait for the contract, then the resources, it's so we're talking almost a year or two. And if there's permitting, you're almost talking three years from the day I meet them. That adds some long amount of time between when we meet and actually get something done. And that's not beneficial to the landowner. It's not really the best use of our time. And so we started looking at like, but that's just for cover crops, I might meet with that landowner and say, you know, actually see you have some riparian corridor stuff that we can be doing to and you know, you have an oak woodland, we actually have a program for that. Well, in that one hour to two hours, we might meet that landowner, we lose a lot of information, a lot of potential projects, because now I'm off chasing after the cover crop grant and say, I don't get it. Well, all those other projects sort of fell by the wayside. Well, what if we were able to take all that information, put it in a streamlined sort of database essentially, and then tie those things in and aggregate them with other landowners, so I might be able to say, hey, in addition to that one landowners interested in cover crops have 10 other people I know that are interested in the same thing. Now I'm applying for a larger grant for 10 people all at one time, rather than one and competing against the other. And if I see a grant for my period restoration, I I can combine those together. So it's taking a lot of that information we get in a short amount of time and put it in a place where we can make it the most useful.


Craig Macmillan  5:08 

You are probably more likely to get funding when you can come to a funder and say, Hey, this is going to affect 10 properties is going to 1000 acres as opposed to one person, 100 acres, one person 100 acres, you know, and it's probably also going to increase the efficiency of the actual implementation, I would guess, because you set up your team to do whatever it is, and then you can do a lot of work.


Less administrative oversight. Yes.


Now, Mike, I want to go back the way that Devin made it sound was you were just walking down the street one day and said, Hey, look, there's a sign these guys look cool. I like beavers. And you just wandered in. And I very, very quickly the beaver brigade and whatnot. I'd like you just to touch on what that is. Because that's an interesting thing in and of itself. What brought you to Devin went right to the RCD.


Mike Larcher  5:52 

Sure, I wasn't. I wasn't walking down the street. But I was driving. I I grew up here on the Central Coast. And I spent a long time away last couple of decades, actually, the pandemic silver lining was I got to start working remotely. And so I came back home was on my way to the MidState fair, my wife and we looked out the window and I said, I don't remember the river looking green and lush in the middle of summer. I know what's going on what's changed. And that was how I stumbled across the slo beaver brigade. So for those who don't know, this is a nonprofit organization focused on trying to bring back Beaver and educate people about the benefits that they create. And they do so much cool stuff. Both Beaver and the SLO beaver brigade. But they are they're known as what is a keystone creature that can create entire habitats that benefit farmers, as well as the biodiversity in the overall ecosystem by slowing the water down, helping to improve soil moisture, reconnect with the underground aquifers. I think I saw some statistics that round about 90% of species in California depend on these wetland habitats. And so the more that beaver started coming back, the more water that is available for fish habitat for agricultural purposes, etc.


Craig Macmillan  7:16 

So you had an interest in this you knew about the importance of the Beaver? And then what brought you then to the RCD, you had an idea.


Mike Larcher  7:23 

I started actually with a quick Google search. And I found a call a Cal Poly graduate student who had just done his graduate paperwork on land that was suitable for beaver habitat in and around San Luis Obispo County. And Devin was one of the supervisors overseeing that and providing advice. So we had an introduction I was very excited about about the beaver. And Devin said, Wait, I'm really excited about what you guys do, you can make things so much more efficient and effective. Let's talk about doing that for beaver. But let's do that next. And so our first conversation was, how do we help landowners spend more time in the fields and less time at a desk dealing with government bureaucracy, let's make it really easy for them.


Craig Macmillan  8:08 

So the sustainable land initiative, this was the two of you having a conversation and this is your project. This is your idea.


Mike Larcher  8:13 

It started with the two of us. But we actually had feedback from the Farm Bureau from landowners throughout the region, city, county officials, everyone coming together and realizing that everyone actually wants the same thing. landowners want to become more sustainable. They want to maintain the legacy of their land. They don't want to spend a ton of time dealing with government bureaucracy to make it happen. How do we make it really easy for landowners to do what they already want to do? And to connect them with the immense amount of funding sources that are out there.


Devin Best  8:44 

And I think the one thing I'd add on to that was that when I go to my RCD counterparts, one thing we always talked about was the limitation of our capacity. It's always funding and permitting. And yet we spend all our time doing just that is going after funding and get trying to get permits. And so we're not being a resource to the local community. It's like we want to be we're sort of hindered by those two other processes. So when Michael came to me, it was like, Well, if I can make the ways, that we're getting more funding to us quicker, that's churning the way that we're moving that technical assistance more towards helping the farmers we're talking about, hey, I'm not waiting for this grant. But this is a cover crop, I think it's really good for you. What I think's really fascinating is because because as Michael said, we started got a lot of feedback from other people was that this turned in from just the two of us to really be brought in much broader we have Cal Poly involved. We have three other RCDs involved as well. We have a lot of other incident entities and organizations, NGOs, municipalities. And so we've quit calling it like so much of a program, but it's more of a platform.


When did this begin?


I think we launched in 2022.


Oh, wow. You've done a lot of work in a short period of time.


Yen-Wen Kuo  9:33 



Craig Macmillan  9:33 

This is October of 23. For listeners, as you've done this, you've talked to growers, you've talked to all these folks, what are the top priorities in terms of implementation, project practices that people have said, Hey, these are the things that we want to do, what are the things that seemed to be the most I don't want us popular, but were the most interest is


Devin Best  10:10 

BDAs Beaver Dam Analogs. That's one of the big ones, which is not a standard practice with vendor NRCS or CDFA. Is this the climate smart agricultural practices, it's something that's still kind of out there and still new enough. And that's one of the reasons why this is working really well is we can go forward and have sustainable land initiative and be sort of that platform for us to go outside of that. Those are the list of practices, developed the tactic, goal practices, the actual techniques, the implementation, the funding, the monitoring, the ecological benefits, all that information that goes into feeding into those to make them a standard practice, we can do that, and still provide that information under SLI. So that when it does become a practice.


Craig Macmillan  10:51 

I want to come to back to Mike. But one thing that I want to clarify, because I don't feel like people understand this, the National Resource Conservation Service has a list of conservation practices, they are numbers, much like the code that you'd get diagnosis code and hospital, everything is tracked by that. And if it's on the list, then you maybe find a place where you can fund it. And if it's not on the list, well, then you're not far as the federal level goes, which can make it kind of tricky beaver brigade. That was kind of what got you into this. I'm guessing it must be very gratifying that a lot of folks are now interested in the same thing. Two questions for you on this. First of all, what is a beaver dam analog? We know about the benefits, but how does it fit into this, this this process? You know, do we need permitting? How do we go about it? What are the costs? Like how do you find people that have land that want to do this? I mean, you had the graduate student that sounds like they did the mapping? How is this? how's this working?


Mike Larcher  11:53 

Yeah. So a couple questions there. To start with, like what is a BDA? Do you remember when you were like four years old, and you wanted to put some rocks and sticks in a little creek or something and slow the water down and hold it up?


Craig Macmillan  12:06 

Too old? I don't remember when. But 14, how about that? But yes, yes, I do. Remember? Yes.


Mike Larcher  12:12 

I have a three and a five year old and they still love to do it at its core. That is what a BDA is, we're basically pretending to be little kids or beavers again, and you're slowing the water down the same thing that the beaver would have been doing if it was still in that area. And what that does is it holds the water in the watershed longer. And so it can actually recharge and go into the ground, it's incredibly low impact shouldn't have any negative environmental consequences. However, when you're talking about doing anything in a riparian corridor, or in California, it's going to involve eight permits, Sequa, from six different agencies at three levels of government


Craig Macmillan  12:58 

SEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, by the way, thanks.


Mike Larcher  13:01 

So when you think of it that way to do something that a three year old would do, or a beaver would do on his own, is going to take $10,000 in permitting and three years. So that's one of the values of the sustainable land initiative is that we're trying to take an approach where we can aggregate this across property owners. And instead of permitting each individual one, we can actually go after this as a region or as a watershed. Devin, you want to add something to that?


Devin Best  13:27 

I do. And then the point being is that as a practitioner, somebody that's actually having to go after and get these permits, they typically will permit one feature at a time. So if you're looking at Beaver Dam Analog, you can only do one feature one permit. And that takes three years, well, we're talking about doing hundreds to 1000s of BDAs. And so as an organization, we wouldn't be able to keep up with that level of detail and information and processing of data, to be able to relate that to the regulatory agencies and make sure that we're tracking all these things without something like the sustainable land initiative, which is what we have.


Craig Macmillan  14:02 

And I think that's where you come in. So this is process and process tracking and process design. I'm guessing that's where your expertise would come into this, Mike.


Mike Larcher  14:12 

Yes, that's right. So the way the sustainable land initiative works is that any landowner who is looking to adopt more sustainable practices or to find additional funding and would like the RCDs help, they would submit an intake form that takes no more than five minutes. They can do this from their mobile phone. I've we've even had people submit this while driving, which we do not recommend.


Craig Macmillan  14:34 

Do not recommend.


Speaker 3  14:35 

Don't recommend that no. If it's, if it's a long light, all you have to do is say here's where I live, how much acreage we have, what our vision and goals are for our property. And then RCD staff come out and say this is your vision. We will try and help connect you with funding and permitting to make that happen so that you don't have to spend time going after grants or going after an Dealing with permits yourself will do the heavy lifting. What my company does is we designed a process so that it's really easy and efficient for RCD staff to do this. It's that five minute intake form. And then typically about a one to two hour meeting with the landowner where they'll walk your property, understand your needs, identify appropriate NRCS practices that have been approved and tried and trued. And a couple of things like BDAs, that aren't yet a standard practice, but that might have an appeal to that landowner. And if the landowner wants to do them, the RCD keeps that information. And when a funding opportunity avails itself, the RCD can go after that with a number of properties at the same time, so drastically increasing the RCDs capacity to help landowners here in the region.


Craig Macmillan  15:45 

One of the things that I think is interesting here is this is this is a new model. I haven't heard of anything quite like this before, at least in Agriculture and Land Management, you guys are doing stuff already. I mean, you're making things happen. How has the world of funders reacted to this because this is not their norm? This isn't what they're used to.


Devin Best  16:04 

Yeah, actually, so one of the best case studies was, actually there's the SB 13, Senate Bill 1383, which is about reducing the amount of green waste that goes to landfills. And it was a you know, it's a mandate, and everybody was scrambling to try and figure out how to make this happen. Our local county slo county Waste Department reached out and said, Hey, RCD, you guys work with landowners? How can you maybe help us as well, you know, and actually, this works out really well, with our sustainable land initiative, I can actually, one identify a number of people that we've already talked to that are interested in compost, I can give you the acreage is I can already have a way to track how that that resource would be dispersed and monitored and reported in a very efficient way. So what would have normally taken us a year or even two years to get a scope of work and figure out all the details and how many landowners etc. We turn that around in three weeks, but that was only three weeks, but I was doing other things. That's not really like three weeks they spent doing it. But that's how quickly we could get the information to them. Right up the scope of work, get a contract, we are already doing it. We're meeting the goals for SB 1383. Here and still counting for 2022 and 2023.


Craig Macmillan  17:09 

What about federal funders, state funders, how's that been going?


Devin Best  17:14 

So that is something in the process of developing one of the programs we're really hoping to actually make this more attractive for a lot of people is there's the CDFA Healthy Soils block grants that was originally sent out for solicitation we put in two grants for healthy soils, and also for the state water energy and efficiency program. Our thought was that if we had those funds, we would actually be able to give as much as $5 million of funds directly to the landowners. The main thing that was a problem, and I will just say this, honestly, a lot of our cities were hesitant, because we're not administratively designed to have that much capacity for that much money really. And meaning that many that much demand. It was only because we had sustainable initiative, I was like, Well, this is perfect, because not only can we receive those funds, and get those to directly to landowners, but we can actually report it very quickly back to CDFA. And track all that information where it's not on a spreadsheet or someone's notebook somewhere or something like that. It's in a centralized database for us to use. That was one of the things I was really looking forward to getting those funds to sort of see the true power of the platform itself.


Craig Macmillan  18:21 

That's fantastic. And that leads them to the next part of the process. So we've we've we've brought people into the system, we then have put together an application for funding, we now have a way of making that efficient, and getting to the funders hopefully funding that then comes in which it sounds like it has now there's a lot of reporting, having worked on grants the past, there's a lot of reporting that's involved, and it takes every form from where how many pencils Did you buy to how many acre feet of water did you move? I mean, just everything. So Mike, this sounds like where the data management is really, really powerful.


Mike Larcher  18:58 

So often, when you think about writing a report, if you're starting with a blank piece of paper, that's going to take you a very long time.


Craig Macmillan  19:06 

Oh, yeah.


Mike Larcher  19:08 

But in reality, you probably know a lot of the information already. And that's what we've done by using standard process is that all of that information that was captured during the original site visit and from the landowners intake form, including what their vision, their goal is, how many acres are on an orchard, how much or natural and all of that valuable data is available at a click of a button. So as you go through the process, you've actually had all these conversations, you've had all that you've discussed that and you've probably even written those notes down. Because all of those components are now digitized. All you have to do is click one button or at least RCD staff just has to click one button within the slides system and it will generate a word report pulling all of that information in and having it look and feel like the report that's necessary for the grant. It really makes it It's easier for monitoring and for tracking, Devon.


Devin Best  20:03 

So going back to our original discussion about carbon farm plants, this is where we're really seeing the benefit, where before it would take my staff, many, many months to write a carbon farm plan one, and then to this the funding to be able to get those in place and everything else. Well, so now that we're, actually, I am going to use the word I do not know if its actually true, templatetorizing our businesses, it is now so we're actually taking what we do in our site visits. And we call these resource conservation profiles that collects all this information, we put it into a document for the landowners to have just as a living document. But because Michael's been involved in helping us kind of move these things forward, we're taking all that information and fitting it into carbon farm plans. So now what was taking me a year to write a carbon farm plan, I'm now getting my staff basically a day. And they're getting close to actually writing a full carbon farm plan in a day because we have all that information gathered. And it's just fitting the site visits and the resource conservation profiles, to these templates into these requirements for carbon farm plans. So that's in place, we're also doing the same thing with forest management plans, and conservation plans. So we have a way to make it so that my staff isn't spending all their time writing documents, they're just getting information, putting it in a format that's useful for everybody, whether it's the funding agencies, regulatory agencies, the landowner themselves, but then really transitioning in our conversations away from planning, and assessing, and actually implementing and doing and monitoring what's actually working on the ground. Yeah, go ahead, Mike.


Mike Larcher  21:28 

The nice things about working with the rscds is they have this immense expertise and knowledge, they can write a carbon farm plan, I can't do that, all I can do is build the process to make them more efficient and effective. And so we'd still take all of that expertise from people who are highly trained. And we simply turn it into actionable results as quickly as we possibly can. You still have to know how to write a carbon farm plan, you have to be trained and have the understanding, and the scientific and agricultural backing to do it well. But now let's just make all of that information actionable, so that it can go into a plan, yes. But a plan just sits on a shelf? How do we unlock all of that data so that it can easily flow into a grant. So it can easily be tracked over the course of the next five years to say, here's what its real impact was. And that's the power of digitization.


Craig Macmillan  22:21 

And that then brings us to, we've gone through the process. Now everybody's concerned about the final outcome. What about monitoring? What about evaluating? Did this work this work better here than better there? Can we improve is that part of this whole process is the post implementation part.


Devin Best  22:38 

It is 100%. So that's one of the things when early on, we're designing this processes that we amend to make sure that we're one transitioning RCD staff role from being an administrator. Secondly, being more informative and providing that feedback loop. The other thing too, is if we're doing more of these sorts of things, we can be more informed to CDFA and NRCS, about what practices people like one, what are useful, and Intuit is again, sort of the biggest bang for the buck. At this point, if you look at all this healthy soils practices, I couldn't quite tell you which one is the best one for them to continue pushing forward and Central Coast versus maybe in the northern part of California. But if we do enough of these, we have the monitoring, and I'm shifting my staff time away from administration to on the ground monitoring and reporting and actually talking to people and having that conversation. And I think the main thing I can almost point to is, if you look at what we're doing, we're really sort of putting ourselves back into what they were originally designed to do. You know, back in the Dust Bowl era, not these administrative, let's go chase grants, but really being a resource, a local resource for growers and sort of taking their input and providing it to a higher context, whether it's the state agencies and saying, This is what you should be supporting. This is why we're gonna move this direction, maybe it's BDAs. Maybe it's biochar, maybe it's how these forest management plans fit into a larger context of our secret document, whatever it may be. But we can't have those conversations. When I'm going, Gosh, I really got to get this grant written. And I'm holding my fingers and crossing, hoping that we get something that comes up. So


Craig Macmillan  24:08 

The same question, Mike, where now that we've gone through the process, where are we headed? From your perspective? Where are we going to go?


Mike Larcher  24:14 

I want to see this really start to expand. It starts with the individual landowner. No one knows what's appropriate for their land as well as the landowner. As as much as a farmer or rancher who has been working that land. They know what they need, what they want. The sustainable land initiative exists just to help them achieve that as quickly and as effectively as possible. I want to see this start to scale. And when we start talking, we can talk about one individual landowner and helping them that's amazing. But when an entire region starts to do it, or when an entire state starts to do it, you start to see some really incredibly impactful outcomes. So we've actually deployed a solution that's quite similar. This is actually bottoms up working with individual landowners, we've done a solution very similarly in Europe from the top down. So within the the nation of Denmark, it allows landowners to select what fields they're willing to follow. And this is very specific to Denmark because it's such a low lying land mass, that's only a couple 100 feet above sea level. Well, they have a lot of agricultural land that is that has been completely drained from wetlands, and is very low yielding. It's only existing because it's already government subsidized. Well, what if we subsidize them to return it to wetlands instead? It is, landowners have been so excited about this initiative that they've had to continue to increase the funding year over year. And this one process on its own, is actually on track to reduce greenhouse gas for Denmark as an entire nation by 20%.


Craig Macmillan  25:52 



Mike Larcher  25:53 

I mean, that's huge. And California is 10 times larger than Denmark.


Craig Macmillan  25:59 

And also has its own goals. Yeah, there's a lot of potential here.


Mike Larcher  26:04 

So my goal is to help landowners achieve their individual vision. But to do it at such a scale that we're really actually impacting the entire environmental the state.


Craig Macmillan  26:14 

On this topic, is there one thing you would tell growers and landowners


Mike Larcher  26:17 

take five minutes, open your phone or your browser


Craig Macmillan  26:21 

Not while you're driving!


Mike Larcher  26:22 

Look for stainable land initiative, not while driving, don't do it while driving.


Craig Macmillan  26:25 

If we if we if you search a sustainable land initiative, we'll find you. And we will also put a link.


Mike Larcher  26:30 

search sustainable land initiative, let your local RCD know what it is that you want to do with your land. And they'll try and help you fulfill your vision.


Craig Macmillan  26:39 



Mike Larcher  26:40 

They'll they'll try and make it so you don't have to deal with bureaucracy. And you can spend more time working your land. They'll figure out the permitting in the grants.


Craig Macmillan  26:49 

Mike, where can people find out more about you?


Mike Larcher  26:51 

You can google us at cBrain, the letter C and then brain like what's in your head. It stems from corporate brain. We designed a software to help enable all this in conjunction with the Danish government about 15 years ago. And we are now the back end of 18 of 21 Danish ministries part of why they're considered the most digitized government in the world.


Craig Macmillan  27:11 

That's really interesting. Mike, thanks for being a guest.


Mike Larcher  27:15 

It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Craig Macmillan  27:17 

Our guests today have been Devin Best executive director of opera Salinas Las tablets resource conservation district located in San Luis Obispo County, California and Mike Larcher is a North American solution sustainability lead for cBrain and we talked about amazing, really fascinating model process that they've been implementing called the Sustainalbe Land Initiative.


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