By Chelsea Mitchell, CalCAN Policy Intern
On January 11th, hundreds gathered in Sacramento to participate in the Healthy Soils Summit put on by California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Both agencies now have Healthy Soil Initiatives. The NRCS program is on-going, while funding for the CDFA Healthy Soils Initiative is expected to reach farmers in summer 2017. According to an NRCS press release, the aim of the meeting was to “explore roles and collaborative opportunities for managing California soils for health and natural fertility, while reducing greenhouse gases.”
The event was extremely well attended by a diverse group of farmers, researchers, non-profit organizations, and government representatives. The group enjoyed a full slate of panels, and those who couldn’t find a seat in the CDFA auditorium joined from an overflow room at CDFA and via webinar.
Part of a suite of climate smart agriculture programs, the CDFA Healthy Soils Initiative was funded at $7.5 million in September 2016 as part of California SB 859.
Governor Jerry Brown first announced the creation of the Healthy Soils Initiative in 2015 as part of the state’s climate initiatives, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030.
The Healthy Soils Program will provide financial incentives and demonstration project funding for agricultural management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon storage in soils and woody biomass on working agricultural lands. The program also aims to provide tangible benefits to producers by supporting agricultural practices that increase crop yield, carbon sequestration, and water retention in times of flood or drought.
Jenny Lester Moffit, Deputy Secretary of CDFA, announced that the first grant solicitation will be released around June and the first grants will be awarded in September 2017.
The CDFA Initiative defines soil health as the ability of soil “to build and retain adequate soil organic matter via the activity of plants and soil organisms.” However, there was some discussion during the Summit of how to draw a line between “unhealthy” and “healthy” soils. Many echoed the sentiment that while metrics to measure and strategies to improve soil health may be transferable across many regions, changes in soil quality may vary by region, crop, and climate.
Carbon sequestration, water retention, and increased yield were all pointed to repeatedly as important metrics through which to measure soil health. The conversation around strategies for soil improvement included discussion of reduced tillage, use of cover crops, and application of compost, among others. Throughout the day, speakers and attendees emphasized the importance of taking local environmental and economic contexts into account when implementing healthy soil strategies.
The Summit included five panels related to healthy soil and the implementation of the Healthy Soils Initiative. These included valuable discussion of the work already underway on farms and ranches, in academia, the non-profit sector, and government offices to improve soil health in California.
The morning included a panel featuring non-profit organizations and agricultural trade groups with an interest in the Healthy Soils Initiative. Speakers included representatives of Almond Board of California, Carbon Cycle Institute, California Farm Bureau, Sustainable Conservation, and the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN).
Their discussion emphasized the importance of ensuring that efforts by the CDFA and USDA Healthy Soils Initiatives were complimentary rather than duplicative, and making the programs accessible to a diverse set of farmers and ranchers across the state. The importance of securing additional resources for technical assistance was also voiced, as such funding is not included in the CDFA Healthy Soils Initiative.
Growers and ranchers lent their perspectives to the conversation during the morning’s “Building Local Partnerships Panel.” Judith Redmond of Fully Belly Farms and John Heywood of Tollhouse Ranch both shared insights from the work they’ve been doing to institute healthy soils management practices on their farms.
The panel emphasized the importance of financial feasibility for growers, arguing that healthy soils projects will gain little traction if they don’t help growers’ and ranchers’ bottom lines. Redmond went on to argue that on-going funding needs to be secured in order to ensure the success of healthy soils projects. “We need to build the political capital it’s going to take to keep the program going over the next several decades,” Redmond said.As the group reconvened for the afternoon, the conversation shifted to focus on modeling carbon sequestration and measuring the economic impact of improving soil health. Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Colorado State University, and University of California Cooperative Extension lent their voices to the Modeling, Tools and Management Practice Panel.
Of particular note was the announcement that the on-line COMET-Planner tool, which was developed by Amy Swan and others at CSU for USDA NRCS to measure the greenhouse gas impact of conservation practices, has been improved so that its projections are more regionally specific to California. Such a change could help provide better estimates of the carbon benefit of healthy soils management.
The final panel of the day focused on the Healthy Soils Initiative and healthy soils management from an economic perspective. Representatives of The Nature Conservancy and Food System 6, a sustainable food business incubator and investment company, took the mic to highlight the potential economic impacts of this work.
The Nature Conservancy shared insights from their recent report, reThink Soil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health, which aims to quantify the societal benefits and economic benefits to farmers of improving soil health. The report focused on US corn, soy, and wheat cropland and found that adopting healthy soil practices on all acreage for these crops could lead to $50B savings in societal and environmental impacts annually. The report also projected a 5% yield increase for farmers, resulting in a $150/acre profit boost. However, TNC was quick to note the limitations of this work and suggested that there was sufficient need for the report to be replicated using a California-specific model.
As the panel discussions wrapped up, State Conservationist Carlos Suarez made clear his support for the Healthy Soils Initiative and announced that NRCS will lend eight staff to provide technical assistance for the Initiative in California. Their support will be crucial to the success of the program, which currently lacks funding for technical assistance, a key component to working with farmers and ranchers on healthy soils implementation.
The day wrapped up with an open discussion during which attendees expressed their hopes and concerns for the Healthy Soils Initiative and future of healthy soils work in the state. While comments were varied, many voiced their excitement surrounding these initiatives. Rosie Burroughs of Burroughs Family Farms seemed to capture the shared sentiment of the room, saying “as a farmer, you see that all life starts in the soil…[today] my heart is filled with joy.”
The Environmental Farming Science Advisory Panel was set to meet on January 19th to discuss the proposed framework for the Healthy Soils Program. We will continue to follow the implementation of this program closely and report on the developments that come out of these meetings.