Hosted by Phil Foster of Pinnacles Organically Grown Produce in Hollister, CalCAN recently convened a group of 25 partners—mostly farmers and ranchers and a few technical assistance providers—to share their experiences with climate-beneficial agriculture with policymakers. The group was joined by Assemblymember Robert Rivas and San Benito County Supervisor Jim Gillio. Also in attendance were staff from the offices of State Senators Anna Caballero and Bill Monning and U.S. Representative Jimmy Panetta.
Phil Foster, who manages the 200-acre organic tree fruit and mixed veggie operation, offered a tour that focused largely on his no-till soil management, cover cropping, compost application and hedgerows —all practices that improve soil organic matter (SOM) and therefore store carbon. Phil is one of a group of veteran organic growers involved in a farmer-led research project funded in part through a Conservation Innovation Grant through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. While eliminating tillage is one important way to increase soil carbon sequestration, organic producers are challenged to use this method because it is an important weed control technique and is used in place of herbicides.
Phil highlighted the many benefits of cover cropping for his operation. He explained that leaving living roots in the soil increases the presence and health of microbial life in the soil. Phil has a cover crop growing in one field or another at any given time of year. By keeping plants growing year-round, Phil says he has seen his farm’s SOM increase steadily initially but has plateaued, albeit at a level higher than many farms in California (four to six percent). In his current experiment with low-till management, he is trying to increase it even more.
As part of the transition to a low-till system, Phil plants into a field directly after having mowed or crimped the cover crop. The system saves him on labor and time by making irrelevant the intensive bed preparation and time for the soil to dry out he once relied on. Phil demonstrated the use of the crimper on-site, which was on loan from another farmer. Phil underscored the need for implements like the crimper to be more readily available and praised the value of farmer-to-farmer connections for sharing resources as well as know-how.
The group also discussed hedgerows as another farming strategy that offers climate benefits by way of carbon sequestration. Phil emphasized the benefits to his operation of a hedgerow, planted about 20 years ago, including its dual use as a windbreak, increased pest control, higher rates of pollination due to increased pollinator habitat, and aesthetic beauty of the farm.
With a wealth of knowledge and experience in the group, the conversation about innovative, climate-beneficial and conservation-oriented agriculture went beyond the practices on display. About a third of the group had experience with California’s Climate Smart Agriculture Programs. Other producers shared stories of controlling erosion issues with hedgerows and cover crops where heavy rains used to visibly wash sandy soil out of the fields. Several producers in the group have secured funding through the Healthy Soils Program.
Two different producers spoke of their experience with the State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program (SWEEP) that allowed them to transition to solar energy on the farm and make irrigation improvements that reduce both energy and water use, saving them associated costs.
The group also discussed the importance of protecting farmland from increasing development pressure—not only to keep farms in business—but also to provide a foundation for producers to implement climate-beneficial practices and continue to scale up agriculture’s role in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. One producer lifted up their experience with the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) which funds the permanent protection of agricultural lands as a way to limit sprawl and avoid increased future greenhouse gas emissions.
All in all, the farmer-to-farmer tour was a success. Producers learned from each other and got to hone in on the details of best practices for their specific region and micro-climates. Many expressed gratitude at having learned more about climate-beneficial agriculture in practice and policy, including funding mechanisms like California’s programs that are catalyzing adoption of these practices on operations like their own throughout the state.