CIRS Blog about Rural California
Earlier this month, on behalf of the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN), I attended two unique and thought-provoking international conferences in Paris, France. The following is a report back on the two events.
The by-invitation conferences were loosely coordinated and overlapping, and both were the first of their kind. They were attended by approximately 350 people from at least 40 countries and every continent. Several CalCAN partners attended, as did Jenny Lester-Moffitt, Deputy Secretary with CDFA.
The Future of Food in a Changing World was organized by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a collaboration of philanthropic foundations. The first conference brought together 250 experts and leaders from the local to the global to gain deeper insights into the connections between climate change and food systems, to craft visions of the food systems we need today and tomorrow, and to chart potential pathways to get there.
The second conference was titled Sequestering Carbon in Soil: Addressing the Climate Threat and was organized by Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, philanthropic consultants. I served as a conference planning committee member along with others from Canada, Germany, France, Ghana and California. We met for six months leading up to the conference to provide input on the conference objectives, structure, content, speakers and participants.
California, which had one of its wettest years ever in 2016-17, declared a drought emergency in January 2014 and ended it in April 2017. Over 30 inches of rain fell in parts of the Central Valley that normally receive less than 20 inches, and some Sierra mountain areas received over 60 feet of snow.
Instead of worrying about whether there would be enough water for summer irrigation, many water managers worried about having enough room in dams and reservoirs to prevent flooding. The water content of the Sierra snowpack, which normally peaks in April, was over 160 percent of average in April 2017, compared to five percent of average in April 2015. In 1983, the April Sierra snowpack had a water content that was over 200 percent of average.
California normally uses about 33 million acre feet of water, including 26 million acre feet for farming and nine million acre feet for consumers and industry. Among urban residents, half of water is used for lawns and landscaping.
In normal rain years, about 38 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation is groundwater. During drought years, less surface water is conveyed via dams and canals, and groundwater is 60 percent of agricultural irrigation water. Land often subsides as water is pumped from underground, falling 50 feet or more in many areas of the San Joaquin Valley during the 2012-16 drought.
In his budget released on January 10th, Governor Jerry Brown proposed on-going investments in climate smart agriculture programs, including the new Healthy Soils Program. The budget proposes to maintain current funding levels. However, there’s a catch. The funding will only become available if the legislature votes by two-thirds to extend the cap-and-trade program beyond the year 2020 when the program is set to expire. Why the catch?
By Renata Brillinger
The Soil Carbon Challenge digs directly into the ground with the farmers, ranchers, and landowners who can manage land to improve soil health. Peter Donovan, a leader in demonstrating the connection between land management practices and increased soil carbon, founded the Soil Carbon Challenge—“an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter.” Peter has established an approach to scientifically showing (not just telling) the nexus of appropriate land management, soils, and carbon sequestration.
When managed correctly, soil can become a “sink” for atmospheric carbon while also providing benefits such as increased water holding capacity, decreased erosion and runoff, and improved health, productivity, and resilience due to enhanced populations and diversity of soil microorganisms.
Peter believes in showing possibility by measuring change over time, and recognizing actual results. As such, The Soil Carbon Coalition supports “a different kind of science”, believing science is “based on shared evidence, open participation, specific locations and situations, and on learning to manage wholes more than parts.”
SACRAMENTO – Farmers and ranchers throughout California commend the legislature for its recent actions on climate change. The passage of key climate bills, alongside the appropriation of more than $65 million for climate-smart agriculture programs, will provide needed resources for farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate.
“Farmers have a lot at stake in a changing climate as our extreme drought reminds us,” said Tom Willey at T&D Willey Farms in Madera. “We experience the impacts of climate change on our farm every day. I commend the California legislature for continuing down the path of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in the continued success of California agriculture.
By Beth Smoker
Earlier this month, the state’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) awarded $37.4 million in project funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Land Conservation (SALC) Program. This landmark climate change and agriculture program, administered by the Department of Conservation and overseen by the SGC, funds agricultural conservation easements to protect agricultural land from sprawl development and local governments projects to develop strategies and policies for long-term agricultural conservation – all with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use and vehicle miles traveled. Since 2015, SALC Program has invested over $42 million in farmland conservation.
In this second year of the SALC Program, the SGC approved the Department of Conservation’s recommendations to award one planning grant and 20 agriculture conservation easements, permanently preserving nearly 19,000 acres of crop and rangeland in California. Two of the agriculture conservation easements are located in disadvantaged communities where low-income residents are disproportionately impacted by pollution.
This is an excerpt of an article posted on August 17, 2016 on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website. For more information about the program check out another post on the CalCAN website.
When state legislators return to Sacramento this week, climate change will be at the top of their agenda. Still pending are finalization of the state’s climate change investments for the coming year and, most important, setting the road map for climate change policy in California beyond the year 2020.
For California agriculture, these decisions will impact whether or not there are resources available for the state’s farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate. Given the latest agriculture and climate change news of on-going drought impacts and rising temperatures hurting some crops, farmers and ranchers are weighing in, calling for support for programs like the Healthy Soils Initiative.
As we reported back in June, the FY 2016-17 budget was finalized without the legislature and Governor deciding how the state would invest billions in cap-and-trade revenues to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over $100 million in proposed funding is on the line for California farmers and ranchers to reduce water use and save on energy, improve soil management and store more carbon in agricultural soils, and reduce potent greenhouse gases like methane.
By Beth Smoker
U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative Gets Underway
During the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Month of May, Secretary Vilsack announced an additional $72.3 million for soil health investments to support the department’s 10 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture. Secretary Vilsack established the USDA climate change initiative just over a year ago in preparation for last year’s Paris Climate Conference. The initiative aims to increase agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forests.
This additional funding is being distributed through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), where each state will have the discretion to determine which Climate Change Building Blocks to focus their additional funds on. This is the first time EQIP funding has been explicitly allocated for climate-smart agriculture practices. California NRCS has received $4.3 million of this $72.3 million allocation.
California NRCS plans to fund agricultural management practices that address soil health, nitrogen management, grazing and pasture and private forest practices. All with an eye to increasing soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers and ranchers, beginning this summer, can go into their NRCS District Office to find out more about how they may qualify for the new EQIP climate change funding. The application process is the same as regular EQIP.
A learning opportunity for CDFA’s Healthy Soils Initiative
The USDA funding for climate-smart agriculture comes at an important time for California. The state is considering a new Healthy Soils Initiative, also aimed at providing financial incentives for growers for management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released its draft framework for the program. The upcoming California NRCS experience of distributing climate-related EQIP funds can help inform the CDFA initiative. More information can be found here.
This article was published on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website on June 9.
You may have been hearing the phrase “climate smart agriculture” more lately. Governor Brown embraced the term in his 2016-17 budget proposal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a climate smart agriculture initiative. And international climate efforts include the UN’s work on support climate smart agricultural practices.
So what is climate smart agriculture? Like the phrase “sustainable agriculture,” it is not universally defined, and it is used to mean many things to many people.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations takes credit for first coining the term in the lead up to the 2010 Hague Conference on Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change. The FAO defines climate smart agriculture as “a means of identifying which production systems and enabling institutions are best suited to respond to the challenges of climate change for specific locations, to maintain and enhance the capacity of agriculture to support food security in a sustainable way.”
The FAO identifies three pillars to the concept:
- Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes
- Adapting and building resilience to climate change
- Reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible
Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center
Soil health management is key to solving the climate change problems attributable to farming systems. One way to improve soil health is through adopting sustainable conservation systems that include conservation tillage (CT), cover cropping and other practices. CT describes a variety of cropping methods that involve leaving the previous year’s crop residue on top of the soil and planting the next crop right into it. To increase organic matter both above and below the soil surface, cover crops of a single or multiple plant species can also be grown between major crop rotations. Since crop residues are left on the soil surface and not tilled under, CT reduces the number of tractor passes needed, thereby cutting labor and fuel costs. Minimizing mechanical disturbance to the soil reduces erosion and runoff, increases water infiltration rate and retention, and increases carbon sequestration—all important strategies in climate change mitigation. Precision irrigation is another conservation practice that seeks to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems, by reducing pumping time and energy use.
Starting in 1998, Dr. Jeff Mitchell of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and a group of farmers, researchers, and agriculture professionals have been collaborating in California’s San Joaquin Valley to optimize the techniques and benefits of CT. Together, they formed the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center with the goal of increasing the adoption of conservation farming systems to over 50 percent of California’s cropping acreage by 2028. CASI conducts research, demonstrations, and outreach to growers, agencies, and environmental and consumer groups.
CASI’s mission is twofold: improve the livelihoods of California farmers while conserving and improving natural resources. Working directly with growers and public agency representatives allows CASI researchers to develop projects that reflect an understanding of whole-farm systems and the importance of combining conservation practices to optimize climate benefits.
Council Votes to Expand Funding, New Program Guidelines
This week, the state of California greatly expanded funding for the country’s first climate change and farmland conservation program. The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) funds conservation easements on agricultural lands to permanently protect them and reduce sprawl development. The program also funds efforts by local governments to improve their land use planning and policy development to support long-term conservation of agricultural lands in their region.
The Strategic Growth Council (Council), made up of members of Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet and appointed public members, voted to increase SALCP funding to $40 million, up from $5 million last year. The SALCP funding of $40 million represents nearly half of what the state has invested in farmland conservation in the past 18 years through its California Farmland Conservancy Program.
This significant new funding for farmland conservation in the state should help address the on-going significant loss of agricultural land in California, which averages 50,000 acres annually.
SALCP brings together farmland conservation with climate change by focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the conversion of agricultural lands to urban, suburban and rural ranchette development. The program was created following research at UC Davis by Louise Jackson, Stephen Wheeler and others that found that an acre of urban land in Yolo County emitted 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to an acre of irrigated cropland. The climate benefits of farmland, including its ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon, are lost when the land is converted to urban or other non-agricultural uses.
The 2015 legislative year in California started off with a bang, climate policy-wise.
Speaking before the assembled members of the Legislature at his January inaugural address, Governor Jerry Brown outlined several bold objectives for the year 2030, including goals to produce 50 percent of our electricity from renewable sources, reduce petroleum use by 50 percent, and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
Perhaps most radical was the Governor’s declaration that “we must manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.” By this he meant agricultural practices—including many in the organic toolkit—that can draw down and hold atmospheric carbon in soils, perennial crops and conservation plantings.
Furthermore, in his budget proposal, Governor Brown included a new program called the Healthy Soils Initiative that “ensures that our agricultural soils have adequate soil organic matter (SOM). Increasing the amount of SOM from its current levels in soils can provide multiple benefits.” Existing and transitioning organic producers should be among those to benefit from this initiative since soil organic matter is a cornerstone of good organic practices.
In California’s Central Valley, farmers have been coping with diminishing water supplies, rising water costs, and other impacts of the ongoing drought. At CalCAN’s Climate and Agriculture Summit in March, Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms discussed the impacts of drought and how he has responded to water shortages on his farm in Madera County.
Since 1981, Tom has grown an array of organic vegetables on his 75-acre farm with his wife Denesse. Specialty markets, restaurants, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members enjoy Tom’s produce. Until recently, Tom served as Slow Food USA’s governor for the Central Valley, and he also advocates for sustainable agriculture through his writing, speaking, event organizing, and his monthly radio program, “Down on the Farm.”
SL: You spoke at our Summit in March about challenges regarding the drought and water issues. Now that we’re in the heat of summer, what’s the status on your farm and the region generally?
TW: We lost a shallow well on the farm in the past month or so, and we had to come up with an alternative supply. Shallow wells are going dry all over the county. It’s impossible to drill a new one or deepen an older one unless you’re already on a waiting list for a driller—most are booked for up to a year or two. On our farm, we plumbed into our deeper (500 ft) irrigation well. This well is designed to pump 1,000 gallons per minute, but at the moment, performance is closer to 650 gallons per minute. What I can say is that another dry winter would definitely spell disaster.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
California Governor Jerry Brown has always been ahead of the curve on environmental sustainability.
During his first term as governor in the 1970s, he authorized a first-ever tax incentive for rooftop solar and rolled back a tax break for oil companies.
He helped make water conservation a way of life during the 1976-77 drought, a California ethos that largely persists to this day.
Now in his fourth (and final) term in office, Governor Brown has an opportunity to round out this impressive environmental résumé: he can transform California into a climate-friendly farming pioneer.