State Legislators and Staff Learn From Farmers Leading the Way on Climate Change

CalCAN co-organized a Climate Smart Agriculture tour in Sonoma County this week, inviting representatives from six state legislative offices to visit two innovative farms. Co-hosted by Organic Valley, Sonoma Resources Conservation District (RCD) and Gold Ridge RCD, we visited Hughes Dairy, an organic pasture-based dairy in Bodega, and Gabriel Farm, an organic diverse orchard in Graton.

The tour highlighted farmers employing practices that reduce methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) on dairies, sequester carbon in soil and woody plants, and enhance on-farm resilience to climate change impacts. Discussion throughout the tour focused on several of California’s cap-and-trade funded Climate Smart Agriculture Programs that provide incentives for farmers transitioning to practices with climate benefits.

We were appreciative of all who came out to participate in the tour, including Assemblymember Jim Wood and a member of his legislative staff, as well as staff from the offices of Senator McGuire, Senator Dodd, Assemblymember Levine, Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry, and Assemblymember Irwin.

Dairy Methane Emissions Reductions & the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP)

The tour started at Hughes Dairy in Bodega, where farmer Richard Hughes manages manure from his 190-head dairy to minimize methane emissions and uses grazing and pasture management to improve soil health and store carbon. Hughes shared the story of his dairy operation, which started 41 years ago and has evolved dramatically over the years, including a transition to organic production a decade ago. Hughes highlighted the benefits of that transition, both to his bottom line with higher-quality milk and healthier cows, and to the environment through the elimination of his use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which are a source of nitrous oxide emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

Hughes shepherded tour participants through his milking barn, where an employee demonstrated the “scrape” technique in which manure is mechanically moved from the barn to a small holding pit before it is spread onto his pastures where it replenishes soil nutrients and builds soil carbon. The scrape technique allows manure to decompose aerobically (with oxygen) which avoids significant amounts of methane emissions associated with anaerobic decomposition (without oxygen). Manure lagoons, a product of the conventional design of large-scale dairies, create significant methane emissions through anaerobic decomposition.

Hughes’ manure management system provides an example of some practices eligible for funding under the new Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), which is set to launch next month with an allocated $9 to $16 million. AMMP, a program championed by CalCAN, will provide crucial resources to support the adoption of methane-reducing manure management practices in small- and medium-scale dairies, like Hughes Dairy, throughout California. The creation of this program marks an expansion of the state’s focus on reducing dairy methane emissions from its previously singular focus on methane digesters, a strategy appropriate only for large-scale dairies. To read additional case studies of methane-reducing dairy practices relevant to the new AMMP, click here. Farmer Richard Hughes expressed the importance of technical assistance for farmers as they grapple with designing and implementing changes to their operation to improve manure management.  “I want the knowledge,” he said.

Soil Management Practices & the Healthy Soils Program

Lucy and Torrey Olson of Gabriel Farm hosted the second stop on the tour at their diverse 4,000-tree orchard in Graton where they produce several Asian pear varieties, persimmons, blackberries and pluots. They utilize techniques to increase soil organic matter, store carbon, improve soil water retention and increase biodiversity.

For example, Torrey explained that, like many of his fellow orchardists, he had once regarded tree trimmings as a management problem and costly nuisance to collect, transport and dispose, usually by burning. In recent years, the Olsons have realized that, instead of a burdensome waste product, these trimmings are in fact a valuable resource that contribute to their orchard’s soil health and structure. They now leave the woody debris in the orchard rows so it gets shredded when they pass through with their flail mower. They then incorporate the chipped wood into the soil using a disc, and in some cases they experiment with no-till by leaving the organic matter on the soil surface as mulch. Torrey said they are curious about possible improvements in soil health and structure from reduced tillage. Torrey cited the additional benefits of that labor, fuel, and time costs that helped drive this transition in management practices.

Between orchard rows, they plant annual crops, known as cover crops, that make nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, available to plants in the soil. They have also established permanent perennial cover crops that both fix nitrogen and, with their deeper roots, improve soil structure and aeration. Torrey also showcased their orchard’s conservation plantings, which are now established hedgerows. He explained that, along with the benefits of sequestering carbon in woody tissues and the soil, these plantings have other tangible benefits for his operation. He remarked that “This hedgerow of California-native coffeeberries is swarmed every spring by so many native bees that you can hear them across the farm.” The attraction of pollinators is key to the bountiful production of the fruits at Gabriel Farm.

All of these practices, including mulching, adding compost, cover cropping, reducing tillage or transitioning to no-till, and incorporating woody, perennial conservation plantings into farm design, are part of the suite of practices eligible for funding through California’s new Healthy Soils Program (HSP). HSP, launching this year, is funded with almost $7 million to distribute in the form of grants to farmers that incentivize transitions in management practices that enhance soil health, build soil carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A request for HSP grant applications will be released by the CDFA at the end of July.

As part of the concluding remarks on the tour, Assemblymember Jim Wood expressed his support for continued funding and simple, accessible application processes for these Climate Smart Agriculture programs that have so much potential for benefitting rural communities and economies as well as the environment. We couldn’t agree more!

Grant applications for the new Healthy Soils Program will likely be accepted for a month starting July 31st, and a Request for Grant Applications for AMMP is expected by mid-August. To get up-to-date information on these programs and other climate and agriculture issues, subscribe to CalCAN’s blog.

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