Students, farmers and ranchers, RCD/NRCS/Extension staff — $45
Farm field day on Feb. 20th — $40
Advancing policy solutions at the nexus of climate change and sustainable agriculture
Filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary “The Dust Bowl” aired on PBS in November, serves as a reminder and wake-up call about the threats posed by climate change to agriculture.
The documentary, consisting of two 2-hour films “The Great Plow-Up” and “Reaping the Whirlwind”, brings to the audience a vivid picture of one of the darkest times of the 20th century through a combination of survivor’s accounts, historian’s input, and dramatic movie footage. According to PBS, “The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history, in which the frenzied wheat boom of the ‘Great Plow-Up,’ followed by a decade-long drought during the 1930s nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation… It is also a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us—a lesson we ignore at our peril.”
“We were just too selfish and were trying to make more money off of the wheat, and it didn’t work out,” says one survivor. Resulted from both severe drought and unsustainable farming practices, the 1930s Dust Bowl left millions of acres of farmland ruined and hundreds of thousands of people dislocated, causing incalculable damage to the environment and economy.
“The next dust bowl” published in Nature, Joe Romm wrote, “Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state.”
So, are there any lessons from the 1930s Dust Bowl applicable to California agriculture? Certainly water issues top the list of concerns — at times flooding from early and rapid spring melting of the Sierra snow pack will challenge growers, and later in the dry season water scarcity will be the problem. With some notable exceptions in parts of the Central Valley, severe dust issues are not likely (though Romm argues that the risks have been underestimated).
Nonetheless, there are practices that California growers can adopt to buffer against the myriad of potential climate challenges. Investing in soil building tops the list. Practices such as cover cropping, applying compost and manure and conservation tillage increase the soil organic matter and provide many benefits — for example, increased water penetration and retention, reduced runoff and erosion, elevated carbon sequestration, enhanced fertility and productivity and economic gain. Investing in soil organic matter may be the best insurance policy a farmer can get to buffer against climate change and whatever version of a dust bowl disaster may California face.
For some California farmers and ranchers who are interested investing in energy efficiency upgrades, the launch of the CaliforniaFIRST program in late September could be welcome news: no upfront cost necessary as long as the property owner agrees to repay the cost of the improvements through an annual property tax assessment lasting up to 20 years.
As the nation’s largest property assessed clean energy (PACE) program, the CaliforniaFIRST program is developed in an effort to help owners of office, multi-family residential (5 or more units), retail, industrial, and agriculture properties in 14 counties and 126 cities in California reduce energy and water use. The new program is backed by $250 million of private capital, and according to Renewable Funding, the CaliforniaFIRST program administrator, it covers a wide range of energy efficiency, water efficiency and renewable energy upgrades, including but not limited to insulation, rooftop PV, and grey water systems.
“Commercial PACE gives businesses a great option for pursuing energy efficiency projects that may have previously been out of reach,” says San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “The County’s partnership with CaliforniaFIRST provides a mechanism for participants to start spending less money on energy bills and more back into the business.”
Considering the role agriculture plays in the state’s economy and its potential for energy and cost savings, CalCAN sees CaliforniaFIRST as an opportunity to finance energy efficiency projects in the agriculture sector, especially for growers in need of financial support to increase efficiency of their operations. Furthermore, because energy efficiency measures and on-farm renewable energy production can reduce GHG emissions while providing energy and cost savings, the CaliforniaFIRST program also provides a way for agriculture producers to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.
More information about the CaliforniaFIRST program and the regions where it is available can be found at https://californiafirst.org/overview.
Being new to California, I find myself always amazed by the impressive variety of fruits and veggies available in the supermarket produce section here everyday. However, a newly released documentary co-produced by KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting points out that things maybe changing. This half-hour documentary, titled Heat and Harvest, talks about the potentially profound threats brought by the climate crisis to California’s farm belt. Rising temperatures, reduced water resources, and increased pest and disease pressures are likely to negatively affect the prices and availability of local produce in California.
For cherry lovers like me, nothing compares with biting into the sweet and juicy goodness of a fresh cherry. So, what if one day we can no longer do that? Uncool Cherries, the first one of the three stories featured in Heat and Harvest, focuses on the threats and challenges that facing cherry growers near Stockton. Similar to wine grapes, cherries need a certain number of “chilling hours” to form perfect fruit. Specifically, a November or December chill is essential for most of the highest-quality cherry varieties in California to slow down the metabolism of their nascent fruits and thus prolong the ripening process that comes with the onset of warmer temperatures.
The shortened chill, as well as a lack of typical fog hours, is impacting the state’s cherry crop. This is linked not only to a fifty percent yield drop last year, but also to shrinking sizes and abnormal appearances of the fruit. For example, “doubling,” in which two cherries are fused like conjoined twins is a result of overheating. In addition, its causing cherries to ripen over a longer time period, which means increased labor costs during harvest.
The video concludes by asking “And who paid for the estimated 22 million dollars in California’s cherry losses last year? We did. Tax payers paid for over a third of that and will likely do so again in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).” In 1999, the USDA offered crop insurance for cherries for the first time. Last year, a record high of 22.5 million crop insurance was paid to California cherry growers.
If climate change is not addressed, more than cherries will be affected. In a 2010 report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency, particular attention was paid to the vulnerabilities of California, which produces 95 percent of the country’s apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisin grapes, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios and walnuts.
CalCAN will continue its work to secure resources and remove barriers to sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change and also to provide support for producers to adapt to the coming challenges.
To view the documentary or for more information:
More than 400 small farm operators in California came together in southern California recently for the 25th annual California Small Farm Conference. The event provided attendees with opportunities to learn the ins and outs of developing successful and sustainable farm businesses.
Bringing the next generation of growers into farming was an area of concern, as were means of protecting farms against invasive pests. Farmers also got a chance to learn more about evolving energy and carbon markets as the state of California implements its cap-and-trade program.
As a presenter in the “Alternative Energy & Carbon Markets: Promises and Pitfalls” workshop, I briefed farmers on the challenges climate change will bring including the potential for increased flooding in winter and deeper droughts in summer. Erratic and extreme weather events already seem on the way to becoming the norm. Yield reductions, shifting crop patterns and increased and changing pest and disease pressures are also likely to occur. All of these changes leave California’s farmers economically vulnerable.
I also talked about steps farmers can take to adapt to the changing climate. Some ideas include working to increase soil fertility and water-holding capacity, increasing biodiversity, and on-farm water storage, as well as finding ways to minimize the use of fossil-fuel based inputs including motor fuels and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
On the policy front, I talked about the idea that the entire state needs to be looking for ways to invest in California’s agricultural future. One of the ways to do that is by directing some of the revenue generated by the new cap-and-trade program toward agricultural research, technical assistance and in support of on-farm practices that produce climate benefits.
Over the next few months, the state legislature will weigh in on areas where cap-and-trade revenue (estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion in 2012) should be invested. CalCAN continues to advocate that sustainable agricultural solutions be a part of the cap-and-trade investment plan.
Among folks at the Small Farm Conference, interest in ways to help farmers meet the challenges of climate change was strong. You can help CalCAN continue building statewide backing for this deeper investment in sustainable agriculture by contacting us at email@example.com.
Family farmers joined program administrators and others yesterday in telling the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee that if you want to do some environmental good and help ensure a reliable food supply, make sure federal conservation programs are well-funded under Farm Bill 2012.
Conservation was the focus of the ag panel’s second farm bill hearing on Tuesday, February 28. Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White told the senators there is continued high demand for conservation programs despite rising crop prices that seem destined to move some conservation lands back into production.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), White singled out the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) as a particularly popular option among farmers. “I have been stunned by the demand for this program,” said White. “We have to turn millions of acres away this year. CSP is where the cutting edge in conservation will become the mainstream. It is the only way we will be able to sustain the land in order to feed 9 billion people.”
Minnesota farmer Darrel Mosel told the committee that the CSP “is a program that allows farmers to farm and at the same time enhance the conservation performance and environmental outcomes of their operation. I believe that CSP is a shining example of what’s right in farm policy.”
The NSAC staff members attended yesterday’s hearing and provided a full report on the proceedings including additional commentary from family farmers making use of conservation programs to enhance production and preserve environmental quality.
The Ecofarm Conference is always an energizing experience, but this year the currents of change seemed particularly electrifying. Maybe it was the weather, which was unusually warm and sunny along California’s Central Coast in early February. Maybe it was the impressive number of young people who have caught hold of the Ecofarm vision of farming in concert with nature. Maybe it was simply the incredible enthusiasm of the 1,700 farmers and food activists who gathered at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove.
Attendees came together under the conference theme of “Raising EcoFarmers’ Voices.” Throughout the three-day gathering, that theme echoed as plenary speakers like food policy activist and current Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie reminded the group that California has always provided leadership to the food and farm movement. Engaging in the discussion and creation of public policy around food and farming is crucial, said Ritchie.
“Policy is important because policy shapes the future,” he said. “If we want things to keep getting better, we have to stay involved.”
Other presenters issued similar calls for increased participation at the local, state, and national level. As part of our work toward a climate-friendly food and farm economy, CalCAN moderated two workshops on engaging citizen participation in the push for a Farm Bill that protects conservation, organic and beginning farmer programs.
On a more hands-on level, we facilitated a workshop highlighting the climate-friendly efforts of the Fetzer/Bonterra Vineyards and those of organic walnut producer Russ Lester of Dixon Ridge Farm in Winters, CA.
Fetzer/Bonterra has done pioneering work in organic wine grape production and recently completed a survey of vineyard properties to develop a benchmark for determining the level of carbon sequestration taking place in the soils, forests and borders surrounding its vineyards.
Russ Lester told workshop attendees about the many ways he has found to create a more climate-friendly farming environment. He noted that government-funded subsidies and grants have been beneficial in helping him reduce the carbon footprint on his farm. He also showcased a system he’s developed enabling him to burn waste walnut shells to generate electricity. Thanks to a bill, the Renewable Energy Equity Act, sponsored by CalCAN, Dixon is now able to connect to the grid and cut his energy costs while lowering his carbon footprint by producing renewable energy from a waste product.
Research, innovation, policy change — all require commitment at the individual level. People coming together to move the farm and food agenda forward in a positive way. That’s the message Ecofarm delivered, and it’s the vision CalCAN carries forward in its work to be the sustainable agriculture voice for climate-friendly farming in California. In coming days, we’ll be moving to increase our organizing activity and our potential for making policy change here in California as we launch the Food and Climate Project. Through this project we’ll be reaching out to organizations, individuals, and businesses with an invitation to take action on initiatives that help California’s farmers and ranchers adapt to climate change and unleash their potential for providing climate benefits. Stay tuned for more details, or contact Ted Quaday, CalCAN’s Campaign Director, for more information.
2011 was a year of extreme weather events in the United States: devastating floods along the Mississippi River, severe drought in the southwest, tornadoes and hurricanes with grave impacts. Making the connections between a rise in extreme weather events and climate change was the focus of Governor Jerry Brown’s December conference on Extreme Climate Risks and California’s Future, held at the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
The impetus for the conference was a recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), entitled Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Rising global temperatures, the report argues, will lead to frequent and longer periods of heat waves as well as shifts in precipitation patterns that will lead to more frequent and severe floods and droughts. All of which will stress and strain our economies, leading to greater numbers of “climate refugees”, those displaced by extreme weather events, unless we act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put in place measures to adapt to a changing climate.
In our blog we’ve written extensively on the connections between rising temperatures, changing climate patterns, and the impacts on California agriculture. At a time when climate change appears to be on the political backburner, the Governor’s conference put climate change and its real life impacts on people back in the forefront.
The President of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Paul Wenger, addressed the conference attendees about the real concerns that climate change will lead to greater water scarcity in California. Farmers and ranchers will find their ability to produce food and fiber deeply challenged if adequate water supplies to produce their crops and livestock are not available.
The conference was an important step by Governor Brown to demonstrate his commitment to maintaining California’s work to address climate change and move us toward an economy that supports renewable energy and sustainable, healthy communities with good jobs. But the path forward is not always clear.
California will need to invest in making the transition towards a clean, green economy possible. We cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change without the resources needed in our communities to reduce GHG emissions and adapt to a changing climate. That’s why CalCAN sponsored the Agriculture Climate Benefits Act, Senate Bill 237, and it’s why we will continue to make the case for AB 32 investments in our communities, now and into the future.
The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service recently released a new guide, The Natural Resources Credit Trading Reference. The reference is intended for NRCS staff, policymakers, and others interested in the potential of the marketplace to incentivize conservation and ecosystem services from agriculture.
The guide attempts to tackle the critiques of those who remain skeptical that developing a marketplace of buyers and sellers of ecosystem services will achieve greater environmental stewardship in agriculture, compared to traditional conservation programs and command and control regulation, and outlines how such markets might best be developed.
Whether you’re a convert to the powers of the marketplace to bring about greater stewardship of the environment or wary of Chicago commodity traders getting into the business of trading water, carbon and other environmental goods, as someone concerned with sustainable agriculture, it is useful to understand the pros and cons of environmental credit trading. It’s the current policy idea du jour.
How to achieve greater environmental stewardship?
For decades economists have noted the problems of externalities leading to environmental pollution. Since the benefits of clean air, water, and healthy soil aren’t factored into the price of most goods we buy there is no incentive, economists argue, for the producers of those goods – food, shoes, cars, you name it – to conduct their business in a way that protects the environment and minimizes pollution.
To make sure our rivers don’t burn as they once famously did in Ohio and our air doesn’t choke us, in the 1970s Congress passed landmark legislation – the Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, and Clean Air Acts – that regulated companies to prevent pollution and safeguard our environment. And those laws are largely credited with significant improvements in our environment – the rivers don’t burn anymore and air quality has improved in many areas. But we still have environmental pollution, and we’re now aware of more complex environmental problems like climate change.
How can we better address the environmental pollution problems in our communities and tackle the complexities of issues like climate change? Some argue that if we can put a price on the benefits of ecosystem services like clean water and air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions then we can use the power of the market to achieve more cost-effective and more nimble solutions to our environmental problems.
Can we put a price on it?
The new USDA guide focuses on environmental credit trading schemes, which are set up as an exchange where a regulated entity, say a power plant, pays the producer of ecosystems services (clean air, water, biodiversity, etc.), such as a farmer, to meet greater environmental stewardship goals and achieve the standard set forth in the regulation.
The authors outline essential features for developing an effective market for ecosystem services. Key features include an agreement on the commodity that is being traded, which in the arena of biological ecosystem services can get complex fast. The authors note , for example, the commodity is in the form of carbon sequestration – the ability to store atmospheric carbon, a greenhouse gas, in soils and woody biomass – what happens if a change in agricultural practice or a forest fire releases the carbon? Who is responsible for the loss of carbon? Is the commodity price discounted to account for the potential of carbon loss? By how much?
Another essential feature of effective markets, they argue, is a price for the commodity must be established and be transparent. But little attention in the guide discusses how to set prices. How much is clean air worth? And if the clean air provided by a farm is intended to offset the air pollution from a factory is that clean air commodity traded at a one-to-one value (i.e. is the clean air benefit from the farm equal to the loss of clean air from the factory?) or not? If not, what’s the difference?
Ecosystem models have become more sophisticated in recent years, and the authors argue the models can be used effectively to estimate the amount of ecosystem benefit from agricultural activities to help inform the development of the market. But a model is only as good as its data. If we depend upon models to estimate the ecosystem service provided by agriculture, we’ll need regional and in some cases local data (soil, climate, etc.) to calibrate them.
Moreover, a model may be able to account for how a change in agricultural practice can achieve a reduction in water contamination, but it may miss how that change affects air quality, wildlife habitat or GHG emissions. And what if one activity is good for improving water quality, but it hurts biodiversity? How do we determine these trade-offs?
Can the marketplace help transform agriculture?
In a November article in Science, a group of researchers recently highlighted the promise and peril of paying for ecosystem services. They argue that few existing ecosystem payment programs pay for ecosystem services that address multiple benefits.
They note: “Incentives for biofuels production that promote conversion of tropical forests to tilled fields may reduce carbon storage and habitat that supports biodiversity. Incentives for habitat protection that create corridors between protected areas may increase disease risks by increasing contact between wild and domesticated animals. Where ecosystem services are jointly produced, paying for only one service can be as damaging as paying for none.”
A central tenant of sustainable agriculture is the importance of taking a whole farm systems approach. That is, to create a more sustainable, biological farming system we must take an integrated approach to managing the soil, pests, habitat, etc. of the farm.
The new USDA reference outlines important considerations to developing effective market-based mechanisms to achieve greater environmental stewardship in agriculture. It is worth a read. But it is this central tenant of sustainable agriculture that they do not adequately address: Can the buyers and sellers of ecosystem services avoid the unintended consequences of rewarding the improvement of one aspect of our environment without degrading others?
Farmers around the globe are experiencing the impacts of a changing climate. However, we don’t have to wait to see what happens to our food and farming systems. It’s possible to take proactive action now to address climate change. And some countries are doing just that.
Australia and Scotland both have innovative agriculture and climate change programs that combine farmer know-how and science to ensure sustainable farming systems for the years to come.
Australia’s Farming Future is the government-run program that assists farmers in preparing for climate change. It includes the Climate Change Research Program, the FarmReady Program, and the Climate Change Adjustment Program.
The Climate Change Research Program provides on-farm demonstrations and research on how changes in farming practices can help with climate change adaptation and mitigation of climate change for primary agricultural industries, focusing on the management of soils in farming practices, reducing greenhouse gas pollution, and adapting practices to climate change. This research program is large scale, involving various research providers, industry groups, and universities, and represents the first steps toward Australia’s solutions to climate change.
The FarmReady program is a grant program involving training farmers, indigenous land managers and farming groups in ways to develop practices for responding to the impacts of climate change. The program provides grant funding for producers to train their staff in new practices to adapt to climate change as well as undertake projects for adapting to climate change. The two grants available are the FarmReady Reimbursement Grants, which allow producers and industries to receive up to $1,500 (AUD) for training courses, and the FarmReady Industry Grants, which allow up to $80,000 (AUD) per year for the installation of farm management practices for adjusting to climate change impacts.
The Climate Change Adjustment Program is an advice, counseling, and assessment program that also aims to help producers and industries manage the impacts of climate change through training grants, financial assessment, and business analysis. This program allows farmers to use the assistance of the government to re-evaluate farming practices and create a Climate Change Action Plan for an industry in order to better its farming practices and prepare for the impacts of global warming.
The Scottish Agricultural College’s program Farming For a Better Climate (FBCC) provides research opportunities, planning and information on ways that farmers can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.
A related initiative, the Climate Change Focus Farms Initiative, works with four farms to demonstrate practical approaches to climate change. Through the program, each operation seeks to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and use practices that increase farm resilience to climate change. These farms are part of the program run by the government-funded Scottish Agricultural College FBCC initiative that works toward climate change research and mitigation.
One of the participating farms is Torr Farm, an organic dairy farm that uses clovers to fix nitrogen in the soil and uses nitrous oxide monitoring chambers to monitor how much nitrous oxide is released from the soils. Stewart Tower Farm is in the process of working toward combating climate change by taking account of the nutrients in farmyard manure as well as using inorganic fertilizers more efficiently.
Maintaining a viable food production base in the face of climate change is central for our health and security. By combining research, on-farm demonstration, training, and technical support Australia and Scotland are taking steps to ensure that agriculture is ready for a changing climate. There’s no reason California and the rest of the United States cannot do the same.
CalCAN and Organic Valley hosted a dairy farm tour last week in Sonoma County to help inform state agency staff about dairy manure management strategies to reduce methane emissions (a potent …