CIRS Blog about Rural California

Carbon Sequestration in Grazing Land Ecosystems1


Maria Silveira, Ed Hanlon, Mariana Azenha, and Hiran M. da Silva2


This publication provides basic information about the important role of native and improved pastures (referred to as grazing land) in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Because of the relatively high sequestration rates and extensive area, grazing land represents an important component of terrestrial carbon dioxide (CO2) offset and is a significant sink for long-term carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation. This publication contains information for stakeholders, students, scientists, and environmental agencies interested in enhancing ecosystems services provided by grazing lands.


Global Carbon Cycle


The global carbon cycle consists of complex processes that control the movement of carbon between the atmosphere, land, and oceans. Although natural processes dominate the carbon cycle, human-induced activities can also alter these carbon transfers. In the atmosphere, carbon is mainly present as carbon dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of carbon are also present in the soil, primarily as soil organic matter. Soil organic matter plays a key role in determining soil quality and its potential to produce food, fiber, and fuel. During the past two decades, the global carbon cycle has received significant attention because of its role in global climate change.


Two important global topics are the rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations caused by human-induced activities (primarily combustion of fossil fuels) and the potential effects on climate change. In addition to CO2, increased atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxides (N2O and NO) and methane (CH4) are also believed to cause global warming. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and methane (also known as greenhouse gases) can trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Levels of several important greenhouse gases have increased by 25% since large-scale industrialization began approximately 150 years ago, and this increase is primarily caused by energy use.


Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, a process done without human intervention. However, to address the contributions made by humans, the carbon must be stored or sequestered. Typically, carbon in plants undergoes several conversions. Some conversions are rapid, such as the addition of fresh plant material to the soil, while others may take long periods of time. For example, a large amount of carbon is already sequestered in our soil.

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in Soil 164 0

By Lily Dayton 

As summer wanes and students head back to school, farmers on the Central Coast are draping fields with plastic, preparing for fall fumigations that will sterilize soils before the next growing season. And if previous years’ trends continue, more than 35,000 Monterey County schoolchildren will attend schools near fields treated with high levels of potentially dangerous pesticides—including chemicals that are known to harm the brain and nervous system, cause genetic mutations and disrupt hormonal regulation.

“I’m really worried about our students and how it affects their developing bodies and brains,” says Karin Wanless, an intervention teacher who works with kindergarten and first-grade students in the Pajaro Valley school district, which straddles agricultural areas in both Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties. Some schools within the district are surrounded by fields ranked highest in the state for pounds of pesticides applied, yet application regulations differ between the two counties.

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in Rural Health 129 0

WASHINGTON - A top Interior Department official  Tuesday will sign a San Joaquin Valley irrigation settlement with the Westlands Water District, signaling the end of a long-running legal battle, but marking the start of a hot new political fight.

After years of wrangling, negotiators agreed to a deal that absolves the federal government of the responsibility to provide irrigation drainage to farms in thte Westlands district. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of building the Central Valley Project led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.

In return, according to lawmakers briefed on the deal Friday, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially an advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.

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in Water 244 0

By Don Villarejo and Gal Wadsworth


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). At the time that it was enacted, it was a progressive way to provide, for the first time, legal protections for farmworkers who engage in direct action to improve their wages. It is arguably the best pro-labor law in the nation. 


Despite this, California’s farmworkers remain the state’s poorest-paid production workers. Current annual average wage rates paid to California’s direct-hire farm laborers are lower, when adjusted for four decades of inflation, than they were in 1974, before the law was passed. Seasonally employed crop worker wage rates are even lower. And fewer farmworkers today are covered by labor-management agreements than in 1974.


Our main thesis in this article is that the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.


The prospect that ALRA’s paradigm of labor versus capital would ultimately benefit most workers has largely been a failure. Labor unions and employers now battle in the courts and state legislature to gain advantage against one another, while many workers’ meager economic gains come from increases in the state’s minimum wage.

Why have wages decreased?


Implementation of the ALRA led to prolonged struggles in the legislature, the courts, and in the agency itself. During its initial 6-month period, hundreds of union representation elections were conducted and numerous labor-management agreements signed.


Annual average wage rates for farmworkers rose dramatically.

graph 1

But the industry fought back. A newly elected Republican governor (Ronald Reagan) appointed a pro-employer ALRB General Counsel in 1983, and the agency’s budget was slashed. By 1986, pro-labor members of the ALRB were a minority. Labor-management agreements expired, pro-union farmworkers were fired or blacklisted without recourse, and the General Counsel publicly campaigned against union activities.


Wage rates (measured in constant 2014 dollars), including earnings and paid employment benefits, have actually declined for direct-hire field & livestock workers since that initial rapid increase. 

In 1974, farmers and ranchers reported to the USDA Farm Labor Survey (USDA FLSUSDA) the annual average wage rate for California’s direct-hire field & livestock labor (production workers) was $2.60 per hour ($13.50 per hour in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars).[1] But in 2014, California’s farmers and ranchers reported the annual average wage rate for direct-hire field and livestock workers was $11.33 per hour,[2] or $2.19 per hour below what was needed to keep up with inflation.


Employers say they cannot afford to pay higher wages. But impressive economic performance of California agriculture is exemplified by the increase of farm cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities during this same period. In 1974, sales were about $7 billion (or the equivalent of $34 billion in 2012 dollars), while the corresponding figure in 2012 was $43 billion [Martin. 2015]. 


Thus, California farm operators realized real sales growth of 26%.


At the same time and just as remarkable, California farm production became ever more concentrated. By 2012, California’s largest farms had a 63% share of all farm sales in the state. In all of the other states combined, farms of that size had less than a 28% share of all farm sales. California’s 64,200+ small farms accounting for 82% of all farms in the state had a combined total of just 5% of farm sales.


Size concentration is important in today’s context because many of the largest produce farms are vertically integrated – described as grower-packer-shippers – and more likely to negotiate year-round supply contracts directly with supermarket chains, fast-food venders, fresh-cut processors, and other large-volume purchasers. While benefitting from economies of scale, these arrangements may result in large grower-packer-shipper operations becoming more vulnerable to the concerns of retail customers, especially regarding food safety. During the late 1970/s protracted labor dispute and boycott of Red Coach brand lettuce, the UFW relied on this vulnerability to focus boycott activities.

graph 2

Ending antagonism


The United Farm Workers of America, led by Cesar Chavez, responded to the anti-union administration of the ALRA in the 1980s by pouring substantial resources and effort into a struggle to beat back pro-employer actions. In fact, the UFW stopped organizing in the fields to focus on defending the ALRA. It’s clear from the data on income presented above that the law has not worked.


It is well-known that farmers and ranchers do not command the major share of consumer food expenditures. In other parts of the nation alternative forms of concerted action by farm workers have led to improvements in their earnings. Most significantly, these successful efforts have involved mobilizing consumers to leverage food processors, supermarkets and fast food outlets to assume a significant share of the responsibility for improving farmworker wages. Since most of consumers’ food dollars go to processors and vendors, not to farmers, it is increasingly apparent they must share responsibility for the wages of those who produce food products.


Farm worker organizations pioneered the mobilization of consumers to pressure food system vendors, whether processors, supermarkets or fast food chains, to underwrite increases in farm labor earnings. This approach has relied on boycotts outside the framework of traditional labor-management relations. 


The first notable instances of this alternative form of concerted action were developed in the 1970s by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), initially among processing tomato workers in the Midwest. The national boycott of Campbell Soup Co. sought to bring the company to the table to underwrite a significant share of improved farm worker wages. Some years later, FLOC used the same tactic to force Vlasic Pickle Company to underwrite improved earnings for cucumber workers in North Carolina.


In Florida, since the mid-1990s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has mobilized nationwide consumer pressure on large corporations like Wal-Mart to directly supplement tomato harvester earnings by an additional penny per pound. Wages increased up to 17%, depending on picker productivity. And all Florida tomato workers benefited, not just CIW members.


This past summer, Stop & Shop supermarkets, along with the other stores owned by Ahold, agreed to participate in the CIW program. Stop & Shop is the first of the major “pure” supermarket chains to sign up with CIW.


The CIW agreement with Wal-Mart contemplates expanding coverage in the future to other produce items, not just tomatoes. While the primary focus of this form of concerted action is to raise farm worker earnings, other changes in workplace conditions have also been developed under CIW agreements, including formal grievance procedures, workplace safety education, and training about sexual harassment in the workplace----all on paid company time.


More recently, consumer petitions to U.S. food vendors, stimulated by a dramatic Los Angeles Times exposé, directly led to increased wages for 30,000 Mexican farmworkers in Baja California’s produce export industry. Their main leader was Fidel Sanchez, a veteran of CIW organizing, and they mounted the same tactic as CIW, i.e., seeking to directly persuade major supermarkets to underwrite their demands. At least one grower-packer-shipper with operations in the affected region commented privately that a vendor contacted the firm directly wanting answers to the workers’ complaints.


Based on our review of current conditions, it is clear that a new paradigm is needed for labor relations in California agriculture. Food marketers, processors, farmers and ranchers, farm workers and farm labor organizations should be brought to the table to inform policy makers on developing mechanisms whereby all parties assume joint responsibility for improving the economic status of farm labor.


Representatives of farm labor, farmers, food processors, and food vendors need to be brought together in a new paradigm in order to organize and empower farm workers. Farmers and farm worker organizations need to recognize this opportunity and their common interests. Farmers and ranchers need workers. Workers and farmers have a common interest in coping with the current drought, in the immigrant rights crisis driving the farm labor shortage, and in the quality of rural housing and healthcare. 


Unlike direct worker-grower discourse about wages and working conditions, the effective mobilization of consumers has become effective because some vendors realize they are the principal point of contact for consumers’ relationship to the modern food system. If consumers can be persuaded that improvements in farm labor wages and working conditions are a necessary component of food purchase choices, then underwriting those improvements may become a wise business choice.


Progress to improve the economic status of farm labor families requires cooperation among all the major players in the food system: farmers and ranchers, food processing companies, supermarkets, fast food vendors, and farm labor organizations.


It appears that farm labor organizations are currently the weakest link among the major players in the food chain. With fewer than 10,000 California farmworkers represented by collective bargaining agreements, and employers choosing to fight for every possible advantage in the courts and the state legislature, there is an obvious imbalance between labor and the corporations that now dominate the food system. Only when farmworkers are organized and empowered will cooperation of all participants in the food system become meaningful. There is an urgent need to examine alternatives to the ALRB. We propose that change will come only through cooperation of stakeholders across the food chain. And pressure needs to be exerted by consumers who care about the workers who grow and harvest their food.


Consumers can be instrumental in improving the lives of farmworkers. 


You can start by telling your grocer to contribute a fair share of wages paid to those who put food on your table.

[1] See “Average Wage Rates for Field and Livestock Workers Combined, States and Regions, 1974-1980,” published by the United States Department of Agriculture (ERS-NASS) as electronic file flbulwg1.xls and distributed, on demand, via a 3.5” floppy diskette. The file was originally published in Lotus 1-2-3 format and converted to Excel format by the author. As noted in that document, “Estimates by State and Region, for the various methods of pay and types of workers begin with 1974.” Adjustment for inflation to 2014 dollars was accomplished by reference to the California Consumer Price Index published by the California Department of Industrial Relations. Cf.

[2] See USDA, Farm Labor, November 20, 2014, “Annual Average Wage Rates – Regions and United State: 2013-2014,” p. 24.

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in Farm Labor 737 0

By Lily Dayton

In the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 2012, two farm labor crews arrived at fields southeast of Salinas to harvest lettuce. A light breeze blew from the north across rows of head lettuce and romaine. As the sun rose higher in the sky, the workers started to smell an acrid odor that some described as paint, others as cilantro seeds or diesel fumes. The workers’ eyes began to burn and water; many complained of nausea, headache, dizziness and shortness of breath. No pesticides were being sprayed at the time, but still, the workers were displaying classic symptoms of pesticide illness.

The source of the odor was drift from a pre-plant strawberry field—a 25-acre barren plot of soil that had been fumigated the day before with a mixture of highly toxic and volatile chemicals 1,3-dichloropropene (also called 1,3-D and sold under the brand name Telone) and chloropicrin.

On the morning of Oct. 2, the fumigant had been injected into the soil through a drip irrigation system beneath high- barrier tarps. Eighteen hours later, 43 people—many of them working as far away as 2,000 feet south of the field—were sickened from poisonous gases that had escaped.

This case, like so many others listed in the state’s Pesticide Illness Surveillance Program, highlights a major problem with pesticides—they don’t necessarily go where they’re intended and, once applied, they don’t necessarily stay there.

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in Rural Health 244 0

By Hannah Guzik

Although more than half of California’s children are enrolled in the state’s low-income health program, the state does not report how many of them are born at a low birth weight, receive a developmental screening in their first three years of life or have a suicide-risk assessment if they have a major depressive disorder.

These are just a few of the indicators that the federal government uses to assess the quality of the Medi-Cal program, which will cost the state about $18 billion this year.

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WASHINGTON -- The federal response to the Western drought has been hindered by high-level vacancies, bureaucratic caution and political calculations that have thrown sand in the gears.

Put another way: With more than 70 percent of California now classified in a state of “exceptional” or “extreme” drought, Uncle Sam is floundering.

 “We need leadership from the federal government,” pleaded Cannon Michael, a politically engaged farmer from Los Banos in California’s acutely dry San Joaquin Valley.

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Amidst California’s ongoing drought, farms and ranches have taken a variety of steps to adjust their practices to cope with less water and sustained heat.

new report commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) finds that, as a result of these coping mechanisms, the agriculture sector consumes noticeably more electricity in drought years than in normal years. What’s more, the increase in electricity usage varies significantly by agricultural sub-sector.

A detailed look at this data reveals some of the opportunities to achieve even greater water and energy efficiencies so that agricultural producers can survive future droughts without suffering astronomical energy costs on top of all the other stresses a drought can bring.

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WASHINGTON — Publicly and privately, California lawmakers are pushing to get a big water bill off its current glacial pace.


But history cautions that California legislation this ambitious always takes time, and plenty of it.


Eight years passed between the introduction of California desert protection legislation and its final approval in 1994. More than a decade was needed to complete a deal protecting the redwood trees of Northern California’s Headwaters Forest Reserve. A San Joaquin River restoration bill took three years.


The common denominator to all of these is Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, again going big with a $1.3 billion California water package. The compelling question is whether negotiators can finally reach an elusive agreement. “Every year, we’ve seen the same movie play out over and over again,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said Monday. “And every year, it ends in the same way.”

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The first in our Cal Ag Roots series of articles on pivotal moments in California Agricultural history. Photos by: Richard Steven Street


When you think of California cuisine, do you imagine baby lettuces doused in olive oil, and carefully arranged on white plates?


If you’ve ever driven down the Highway 99 corridor, which cuts through California’s Central Valley, you might have a different sense of the state’s contributions to global food culture. Driving 99 any hour of the day or night, from July through September, you’ll likely have to swerve around trucks mounded impossibly high with tomatoes. You’ll pass acres and acres of dense, low tomato plants being harvested by machines that spit them out into trailers bound for a string of processing facilities that dot the valley.




This year promises to be a record for processing tomatoes, with a projected 14.3 million tons harvested. California’s Central Valley will, yet again, play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply. On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with California cuisine. But, as it turns out, there’s an incredible tale that ties the two together in surprising ways.

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Field crop acreages are declining across the state, as water shortages and uncertainties continue to challenge California growers. Water scarcity has forced farmers to fallow land and sacrifice thirsty annual crops for more drought-tolerant perennials.

According to a recent USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) report, acreages are shrinking for several major field crops. Corn, sunflower, rice and cotton are among the victims of this historic drought. California growers planted 430,000 acres of corn this year, 17 percent less than the 520,000 acres planted in 2014. Sunflower acreage has dropped by 20 percent, with 35,000 acres planted this year, compared to 44,000 acres in 2014.

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California recently took action to protect some of the state’s most threatened agricultural lands by investing in conservation easements and land use planning. These tools have been used for many years by land trusts and local governments to permanently protect farmland from development.

But for the first time the state is focusing its farmland conservation efforts to meet its climate change objectives.

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The latest episode of the Thrive podcast takes a close look at the ground beneath our feet. Soil, on which terrestrial life depends, is often ignored precisely because it is everywhere and yet invisible. Healthy soils contribute so much to human well-being, from nutritious food to clean water, and yet the soils of more than a fifth of all cropland, pasture, forest and woodland are degraded to some extent. Degraded soils, apart from being unable to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.

How, then, can we best restore degraded soils? Sessions at Global Soil Week 2015 in Berlin, co-organized by the Water, Land and Ecosystems research program of CGIAR, provided a platform for people to share different approaches, each of which has something to offer.

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California suffered its fourth year of drought in 2015, prompting the federal government to deliver no water to its Central Valley Project farm customers and the state to deliver 20 percent of contracted water to farmers.  Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals. Annual farm sales of about $43 billion account for less than two percent of the state's $2 trillion GDP.

Governor Jerry Brown in April 2015 ordered urban water districts to reduce water consumption through incentives and fines by 25 percent in 2015. The State Water Resources Board enforces the water reduction plan via local water districts. Brown exempted agriculture from the cuts, prompting criticism. One commodity spotlighted was almonds, since the state's 900,000 acres require about four-acre feet of water per acre, twice as much as cotton, grapes or tomatoes.

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WASHINGTON — House Republicans are swinging for the fences with an ambitious new, but familiar, California water bill introduced Thursday.


After whiffing last Congress when Democrats controlled the Senate, GOP lawmakers are hoping the political climate is more congenial for their 170-page package that once again includes hot-button items like scaling back a San Joaquin River restoration program.


“Congress cannot make it rain,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., the bill’s chief author, “but we can enact policies that expand our water infrastructure, allow for more water conveyance, and utilize legitimate science to ensure a reliable water supply for farmers and families.”


The legislation speeds studies for water storage projects, including proposals for raising Shasta Dam and building a new reservoir at Temperance Flat on the Upper San Joaquin River. It authorizes some increased water pumping to San Joaquin Valley farms, and replaces a San Joaquin River salmon-and-habitat restoration plan with a less ambitious plan for warm-water fish.

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Beginning July 1, 2015, all California employers must give their employees three paid sick days a year or allow them to accumulate paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Many employers plan to grant employees three days of sick leave at the beginning of each year.

Cal/OSHA tightened its heat-safety regulations effective May 1, 2015 to require "fresh, pure, and suitably cool" water to be located as close as practicable to workers. Employers must provide shade for all workers when the temperature tops 80 degrees, down from 85, and must monitor workers for signs of heat stress when temperatures exceed 95 degrees. All outdoor workers must be trained in a language they understand about the dangers of heat illness.

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Last month, the USDA announced its plan to invest an additional $21 million of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to support on-farm water conservation efforts in severely drought-stricken areas. The investment will expand financial and technical assistance to crop and livestock producers in eight states, including California, in an effort to promote practices that conserve water and build soil health.

Administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP supports on-farm conservation improvements through financial cost-sharing and technical assistance to growers. Over $27 million of FY 2015 EQIP funding is already targeted toward drought management practices in California. The additional funding will direct EQIP allocations to areas experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions, and focus on conservation practices that help farmers cope with drought, such as improving irrigation efficiency, implementing prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage. NRCS aims to both improve on-farm water use efficiency and also contribute to the long term resilience of crop, pasture, and rangelands against drought.

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California is in its fourth year of drought After a wet December 2014, there was little rain in January 2015. February rains partially filled some reservoirs, including Shasta Lake, which rose from 40 percent to 60 percent of capacity, but the entire state was declared a drought emergency area.

Agriculture, which uses about 80 percent of the state's developed or storable water that can be delivered via dams and canals, fallowed 400,000 or about five percent of crop land in 2014, but over 500,000 acres are expected to be fallowed in 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said that most of its Central Valley Project farm water customers would receive no federal water in 2015, while the State Water Project said it would provide 20 percent of contracted water to its farmer customers.

By one estimate, the state's 860,000 acres of almonds each year require three times more water than the city of Los Angeles.

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in Water 467 0

By Lynn Graebner

Thousands of residents in rural disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley may soon have help avoiding drinking water from domestic wells and small water systems contaminated with dangerous levels of nitrate.

A grass roots pilot project by the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) is helping rural low-income residents organize their communities so they can apply for grants for drilling new wells or for infrastructure to connect to municipal systems.

“We’re trying to connect people into a regional network,” said Vicente Lara, Central Coast program coordinator for the Coalition. “A lot of people think they’re the only ones experiencing this problem. This is a regional issue.”

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Humankind is faced with the continuing challenge of sustainably growing sufficient food to feed an ever-growing population. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization [1] citing a United Nations World Population Prospects report predicts that the earth’s population will reach 9.1 billion by the middle of this century.

Much of this growth will be in nations whose populations now suffer from malnutrition or outright starvation. In addition to a growing population, the increase in people will demand more food, more meat, and higher quality food because it will be more urban and wealthier according to FAO. Their estimate is that increased demand will require current food production to rise by 60 percent.

The challenge becomes more acute when it is understood that the land area for growing food is not expanding. Indeed, urban growth onto farmland and loss of arable (farmable) soil by wind and water erosion are reducing the available land area most suitable for farming. More land can be brought into production, but with a potentially high environmental and monetary cost.

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