Finding Community at the CalCAN Summit: A Beginning Rancher Perspective

Heather Nichols (Yolo County RCD) and Khara Strum (Audubon Society) presentation on hedgrows for farming; CalCAN Summit - Farm and Ranch tour or River Garden Farms for regenerative agriculture

This piece is written by Molly Taylor, the current Policy Intern with CalCAN.

As a first-generation woman ranching in Amador County, it can be hard to find your crowd. Last week I found it at the 6th California Climate & Agriculture summit in Davis. One workshop in particular grounded my experience in those of other farmers and ranchers working towards a climate-friendly future for their operations.

What It Takes On the Ground to Get Carbon Into the Ground, moderated by Sara Tiffany of Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) took a deep dive into the experiences of two recipients of the Healthy Soils Program (HSP).

Blake Alexandre, of Alexandre Family Farm, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties, has received multiple CDFA grants, including an Alternative Manure Management (AMMP) grant to make compost from the manure generated by his 4,000 dairy cows. His compost system primarily processes the manure generated on-farm, but he also accepts wood shavings from a nearby mill, marine waste from local fisheries, and even, an errant dead whale that washed up on the beach a few miles from his farm. Alexandre’s dairy, which is a pasture-based operation, relies on healthy soils to grow sufficient forage for his herd 365 days a year. Because of his fine-tuned compost system, Alexandre is able to create enough compost to spread over much of his acreage, resulting in pastures with the capacity for higher stocking rates.

Read more from CalCAN about Alexandre Family Farm’s Climate Smart Agriculture projects.

Often, as small-business owners and farmers, we are faced with regulatory barriers that make operating a diversified operation challenging, and at times full-compliance could mean the difference between viability and extinction. We know that pasture-based systems emit 10% less methane than confinement operations and that the grazed pastures sequester up to 3,400 pounds of CO2e per acre per year. So, why aren’t we seeing compost policies that support the financial viability of such operations?

Elle Igoe, of the worker owned-cooperative Solidarity Farm, is a first-generation farmer working in the Pauma Valley region of San Diego County. Solidarity Farm is as much focused on food-production as it is on community education and outreach, working on initiatives that highlight the need for regulatory reworking and program reframing:

Solidarity Farm’s Carbon Sink Initiatives
One: Develop a cover crop for SoCal
Two: Legalize Compost
Three: Demonstrate no-till/reduce till
Four: Popularize resilient food crops
Five: Document co-benefits
Six: Unlock public resources

In partnership with the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians, Igoe and Solidarity Farm worked together to apply for a Healthy Soils Program grant. As a first time recipient of HSP funding and a beginning farmer, Igoe met the same barriers many others face in accessing adequate technical assistance. Many questions were left unanswered and they had to fly by the seat of their pants to fill in the gaps. Where can we find a no-till seed drill? Or affordable native and drought-tolerant cover crop seeds? How can we safely implement controlled surface burning?

As a farm committed to providing healthy and accessible food, Igoe voiced her discomfort with shifting the costs of their climate-smart farming practices to her customers in order to make ends meet, further highlighting the disconnect between grants like HSP and the need for continued implementation assistance and risk management throughout the project’s life span.

Read more about Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians’ Healthy Soils project.

Both confirmed that grants like HSP, although a good starting point, by no means pay for the full cost of implementing soil-building practices on the farm. Alexandre has been able to pull together enough resources to hire a staff member focused on grant application and project implementation. But smaller farms, like Solidarity, are having a tougher time committing themselves to the same climate-smart practices as they get off the ground.

I left the workshop feeling for the first time since I started on my own ranching operation a sense of community and a renewed hope in the future of climate-friendly agriculture. Having mulled over how to get resources to implement soil-building practices on my own ranch, it was a relief to hear that the same barriers are experienced by producers across the state and that solutions can lie in the smallest of opportunities.

Photo Credit: Jackson Holt

Pictured: Heather Nichols (Yolo County RCD) and Khara Strum (Audubon Society) presentation on hedgerows for farming; CalCAN Summit – Farm and Ranch tour or River Garden Farms for regenerative agriculture

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