Legislators Learn About Climate-Friendly Farming

legislator tour 9-25-14

On Sept. 25, CalCAN partnered with CCOF to bring state legislators to three Central Coast organic farms. It was an honor to be joined by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes-Eggman (D-Stockton, chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee), Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) and Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel) for a day of tours that showcased the climate and other environmental benefits of organic production.

Here is a recap of the day’s events:

 

Phil Foster shows the group his hedgerow planting and diverse field crops
Phil Foster shows the group his hedgerow planting and diverse field crops

Farm #1: Phil Foster Ranches/Pinnacle Farm, San Juan Bautista

Phil Foster has been farming organically for 25 years. He made the transition from conventional for the higher profit margin that can come with organic production. Phil grows sixty or more crops on his 400 acres. This diversity provides economic stability by allowing him to hedge his bets against changing weather, water availability and pest and disease patterns. Numerous hedgerow plantings on the farm provide windbreaks, as well as habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects for pest control.

Phil focused his tour on the importance of soil building using cover crops and compost produced on-site. Using these techniques, the soil organic carbon on his two farm sites has doubled and tripled over the past couple of decades—a trend that astonished Alex Gershenson, an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at San Jose State University. Alex came to share his research on climate change and organic farming, and said this carbon content in soils is considered very high. The benefits that come with soil carbon include increased fertility, greater resilience due to enhanced microbial activity, better water retention, and carbon sequestration.

 

Carol Shennan from UCSC describes her research at High Ground Organics, one of the field trial sites
Carol Shennan from UCSC describes her research at High Ground Organics, a field trial site in the study

Farm #2: High Ground Organics, Watsonville

Steve Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne started farming organically at High Ground 14 years ago, growing a mixture of lettuce, strawberries, brassicas, squash, carrots, blueberries, and more. High Ground markets this abundance through a CSA.

The focus of the tour was on conservation and partnerships. High Ground’s cultivated acreage is held under an agricultural easement, which is complemented by a conservation easement on the adjacent slough and bird habitat.

Steve showed us the results of a ‘buffer strip’ project funded by a federal Farm Bill program run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This strip of perennial trees and shrubs occupies a channel that collects runoff and drains downhill to the surrounding slough. Prior to the plantings, the channel was badly eroded and the farm was losing topsoil into the slough during rainy seasons. Now, the plants trap sediment and the water moving into the slough is clear and clean. Lisa Lurie from the Santa Cruz Resource Conservation District (RCD), which provided technical assistance for the project, spoke about their role in providing support to landowners interested in environmental stewardship projects and funding.

High Ground is also one of six participating organic farm partners in a research project led by Carol Shennan and Joji Muramoto at UC Santa Cruz (both of whom attended the tour and spoke with participants about their research). The Cal CORE project aims to identify the most environmentally and economically sound, feasible methods for producing organic strawberries and vegetables in the Central Coast region. One aspect of this research is evaluating the carbon footprint of organic systems.

 

Jered Lawson at Pie Ranch describes their organic vegetable production for Google
Jered Lawson at Pie Ranch describes their organic vegetable production for Google

Farm #3: Pie Ranch, Pescadero

Our final stop was at the coastal farm of Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail, originally established as a teaching farm for urban youth in 2002. Pie Ranch recently secured a contract to supply organic produce to the cafeteria of Google’s corporate headquarters and significantly expanded to a farm across the road.

As part of this expansion, Pie Ranch is working with that farm’s longtime operators, a third-generation farm family that had been struggling to stay in business. The up-front investment by Google made it possible to transition from a conventional flower-growing farm to an organic food-producing site while keeping the family on the land. As the first growing season on this parcel wraps up, Jered and Nancy have plans to expand the relationship with Google to offer CSA subscriptions to employees. In a partnership with nearby TomKat Ranch, they are also experimenting with livestock rotation to add organic fertilizer to the soil and increase soil carbon sequestration.

Jered described the land ownership models involved in purchasing and financing Pie Ranch—a creative mix of agricultural easements, partnership with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), charitable foundation grants and the private sector investment by Google. He stressed the importance of local and state policies that protect, incentivize and finance farmers and farmland as they face varied and increasing development pressures.

We are grateful to the hosts and speakers for the time they took to share their experiences. We are also appreciative of the questions and comments offered by Senator Monning and Assemblymembers Eggman and Stone, who took a full day in their busy schedules to attend and who all demonstrated considerable knowledge and thoughtfulness.

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