An Interview with CalCAN’s Policy Director: Climate Threats, Abundant Solutions

This is a re-post from the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy (IATP). IATP works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

As states take the lead in responding to climate change, food and farming is often an afterthought. California is an exception. The state has included agriculture programs as part of its climate policy from the beginning. In September, the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) called for the next California governor to scale up transformational, sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change. In a report, Climate Threats: Abundant Solutions, CalCAN reviews the effectiveness of existing programs and outlines a comprehensive set of recommendations to strengthen the state’s policy framework that will help farmers, farm workers and rural communities respond to climate change. IATP spoke with Jeanne Merrill, CalCAN’s policy director, about the report’s findings and lessons for other states.


Who participated in this report and what did the engagement process look like in writing it together? 

Jeanne Merrill: We always work in coalition at CalCAN. This project was the same. We wanted a diverse group of people and expertise to help inform our recommendations for the new California governor. So, we looked to our partners who work on farmland conservation issues, farmers with experience with the Climate Smart Ag programs, academics doing research on soil health and climate issues, social justice advocates, etc. Some of the people who helped inform the report are long-time advisers and partners; others were quite new and could provide a fresh perspective. All together, with CalCAN staff, we had 30 people weigh in our climate change and agriculture recommendations for the new California governor.

What were the top-line recommendations for the next governor?

JM: We have four top-line recommendations:

  1. Scale up: We need to scale up our investments in Climate Smart Agriculture. We can’t reach the state’s 77,000 farms unless we significantly increase investment in the programs.
  1. Integrate: We have to move away from siloed agency programs that impact agriculture and look for synergies. We have a program that incentivizes dairy producers to turn their manure into compost. We have a separate program that incentives crop and rangeland producers to use compost. But the two programs do not speak to each other. We have to change that.
  1. Streamline: A lot of people in agriculture talk about regulatory burdens. We’re interested in streamlining regulations and recognizing where incentive programs can assist with achieving environmental outcomes.
  1. Level the playing field: Small and mid-scale farmers and socially disadvantaged farmers are among the least resourced and least prepared for climate change, but they are critical partners in our food and rural security. The state needs to deepen and expand its efforts to address these needs for those farmers, farmworkers and rural communities most at risk.

California is ahead of many states in that it has dedicated programs on climate smart agriculture—though those programs have faced cuts recently. What have been some of the outcomes of those programs and where do you see the most potential? 

JM: Since the cap-and-trade program funds became available, from 2014 to the end our fiscal year in 2019, the state of California will invest over $300 million in farmland conservation, healthy soils, alternative manure management (methane reduction) and irrigation management efficiency.

In the first three years of the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program, which is our program to protect farm and range lands at risk of sprawl or rural ranchette development, 80,000 acres of agricultural land will be under easement in the state. That’s compared to our earlier efforts in the state to fund farmland conservation with bond funding, which spanned over 20 years and only protected 55,000 acres. The climate change investment funds have been a game changer in terms of the reach and impact for sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change.

We’ve had over 800 farm-based climate smart ag projects, across four programs, funded since this work began in 2014. We continue to have more farmers applying than we have funding for. The result has been an estimated 43 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent reduced over the life of the projects (This represents a combination of reducing emissions and sequestering carbon). That’s the same as taking 9 million cars off the road for a year. That’s real impact.

Governor Brown recently announced an executive order that requires the state to be carbon neutral by 2045. That’s extremely ambitious, but given the state of rising temperatures, greater weather extremes and dire impacts, it’s appropriate. But how do we get there? We can’t get there without agriculture acting as a carbon sink and reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

The report recommends scaling-up investments and setting targets for reducing ag-related emissions. What emissions are largest in California—how would you reduce them? 

JM: Yes, we have to scale up if we’re going to meet the state’s climate change goals and make a difference for farmers and ranchers to be able to withstand a changing climate.

Two-thirds of our agricultural emissions come from dairy and livestock operations in the form of manure storage and enteric fermentation (the belches of animals).

California is the first state in the country to go beyond anaerobic digesters on dairies and look to incentivizing dairies and other livestock producers to move away from the wet handling and storage of manure where methane is produced, to dry manure management, composting and pasture-based systems that reduce methane and address water and air quality concerns. The program is called the Alternative Manure Management Program, run by our Department of Food and Agriculture.

It’s pretty new, but we have more dairies and livestock producers apply than we have funding for. So far, over $30 million has been invested. The program will fund 100 percent of the costs and covers projects like flush to scrape manure systems, advanced solids separators combined with composting, solar drying, compost bedded pack barns and pasture conversion or extension.  We’re excited about the program.

You mention climate equity as a goal. How did you integrate that value within the recommendations?

JM: We’ve always included a focus on farm worker recommendations in our past governor reports. This is the first time we’ve expanded that vision to speak more holistically about inequities in agriculture and rural communities. There’s been a strong and important embrace in California of climate justice, seeking to address the inequities of impact on low-income, social disadvantaged communities. We wanted to look at climate justice issues through the lens of agriculture. How do we lift up small and mid-scale farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, farmworkers and rural communities? We call out specific recommendations on equity issues and look to how existing programs can better serve these communities. Among them is fully implementing the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, which requires our department of food and agriculture to improve access to resources for farmers of color and women farmers.

How will you hold the governor and state legislature accountable to these recommendations?  

JM: This is our third governor recommendation report. During the Brown administration, which is just wrapping up after its eight-year run, we did a progress report after the first four years of the administration. That helped us look back at our work, assess our progress and deepen and expand our recommendations moving forward. Of course, we shared that with the Brown administration. We’ve run bills that advance our recommendations when we couldn’t get traction otherwise. We bring a multi-prong approach to our work.

We have shared our current recommendations with both candidates running for governor. We will then turn our 60-plus recommendations into shorter transition memos to help inform the first 100 days and first year of the next administration. It’s not enough to write the report. We’re meeting with legislative offices, following up with campaigns, bringing farmers to the capital, and following up with the governor’s staff after the election.

I should note that we learned a lot from Ferd Hoefner and the team at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Our focus is obviously different—it’s California, it’s climate change and agriculture—but we’ve taken note of how they have successfully advocated for sustainable agriculture priorities at the federal level and applied many of those lessons here.

What advice would you give to people or organizations in other states interested in putting together climate and agriculture recommendations for their Governor? 

JM: Build a good team of diverse people, organizations and expertise to inform your recommendations. We worked on the report for almost six months. We had both in-person meetings and phone calls, lots of drafts and good, healthy debate. Be aspirational and pragmatic.  What can you get done now? Where does the state need to go? How do you forward recommendations that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but keep farmers on the land?  Climate policy can be complex. But bringing in that sustainable agriculture perspective is necessary and often lost in climate policy development. We need to be at the table as states and local governments grapple with these issues. We can offer a vision that is both exciting and necessary, farmer and environment-centric, that brings a lot of hope to people and makes a real difference. It’s little “d” democracy and it speaks to our strengths as a sustainable agriculture movement.

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