This week, $56.9 million dollars were awarded to protect nearly 21,000 acres of farmland and rangeland by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in its fifth round of Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) grants. The program provides grants for organizations and local governments to either purchase agricultural conservation easements or to develop plans to protect agricultural land. By permanently protecting croplands and rangelands at risk of urban development and rural ranchettes, the program avoids the higher levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with more energy-intensive land use.
Agriculture Easement Grants
$55.5 million dollars was awarded for 31 easement grants going to 15 land and agriculture trusts and conservancies and one city government that aggregate the funding and handle the legal issues on behalf of the participating farmers and ranchers. The projects are concentrated in the Central Valley and span 19 counties from Santa Barbara to Plumas. The DOC estimates that the easements on almost 21,000 acres in this grant round will prevent 5.19 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in emissions—calculated by estimating avoided vehicle miles traveled, construction, and infrastructure energy use.
Among the larger acreage easement is the California Rangeland Trust’s project in Copperopolis in Calaveras County. Located near other agriculture and conservation easements in an area at risk of rural residential development, this 3,155-acre rangeland project would protect the 280 cow/calf pairs that graze the land during some or all of the year. Within 2.5 miles of the City of Chowchilla is one of American Farmland Trust’s projects to preserve a 1,000+ acre farm that has been owned and operated for over 70 years by the same family, currently producing corn, almonds, wheat, cotton and alfalfa. They use chicken compost, crop rotation, and preservation of native cover, as well as recycling water and recharging groundwater on five sites on the property. Though the grant funds only the protection of the land, the climate smart practices employed by the farmers adds considerable additional value in terms of carbon sequestration, water conservation, and native habitat protection.
One of the smaller projects is San Benito Agricultural Land Trust’s protection of a 24-acre organic farm in San Benito County within two miles of the city of San Juan Bautista. Utilizing healthy soils practices that sink carbon—like composting, native plant hedgerow plantings, and cover cropping—the farm produces mixed vegetables and tree fruit while also conserving 1.5 acres of riparian and wildlife habitat.
After no planning grant applications were submitted in the previous round, the DOC utilized a technical assistance provider to conduct outreach and support planning grant applicants for this grant round. All six planning grant applications submitted were funded for a total of $1.4 million, in six different counties stretching from Kern to Humboldt county.
One of the planning grants went to the County of Madera, which estimates that under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), 120,000 acres of currently irrigated farmland land will need to be pulled out of production. Their planning grant will be used to develop a plan to ensure that this land stays in agricultural production, and will promote low water use agricultural operations such as grazing or dryland farming.
It is concerning that none of the funded applicants reported that their projects will benefit socially-disadvantaged or low-income communities. This indicates that there is more work to be done to level the playing field and put a greater priority on achieving the state’s commitment to addressing equity issues through these investments.