SACRAMENTO – The Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees both voted unanimously in support of Assembly Bill 2377 over the past week. The bill – authored by Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) and sponsored by CalCAN – will improve producer participation in three Climate Smart Agriculture Programs by integrating comprehensive technical assistance into the programs. The bill now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
The three programs referred to in the bill – the Healthy Soils Program (HSP), the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), and the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) – provide incentives to farmers and ranchers interested in transitioning to practices that have multiple benefits for the climate, their businesses, land, and communities.
However, farmers and ranchers have told us loud and clear that the limited outreach and technical assistance available for these programs has limited their participation and, in some cases, prevented them from making the most out of their projects.
Limited Technical Assistance = Limited Participation and Reduced Impact
Out of the 400 farmers and ranchers who attended workshops to learn about the first round of the Healthy Soils Program in August 2017, only 250 started applications. Of those 250 applications, only 100 – or less than half – were completed and submitted.
When surveyed about why they didn’t finish their application, nearly half of the respondents said the application was too complicated and over a quarter said they didn’t finish because there was no available technical assistance (Source: page 56 from the Science Advisory Panel’s March 15 Meeting Binder). As a consequence, dozens of farmers and ranchers who were clearly interested in applying to the program and adopting Healthy Soils practices were prevented from doing so, and the first round of the program ended up slightly undersubscribed – an unfortunate outcome that greater application assistance could have prevented.
In the SWEEP Program, the limited technical assistance available has occasionally resulted in over-priced projects and challenges for recipients in fully implementing their projects. A number of irrigation specialists who have reviewed SWEEP applications have observed that without technical assistance, farmers have sometimes been convinced by companies to apply for high-tech systems that are significantly more expensive than what they actually need. But because the company will fill out the complicated application on the farmers’ behalf, and many of these high-tech systems are not fully understood, the farmers ultimately agree.
Technical assistance providers have also observed that many farmers who install these new high-tech systems often need additional support in administering their grant, including getting reimbursements on-time, and training on how the maximize the use of their new systems long after the company that installed them has moved on. While a limited amount of technical assistance funding has gone to outreach and application assistance, no technical assistance has been made available to assist growers with the implementation and monitoring of their projects.The SWEEP program has been consistently oversubscribed, so if fewer grants went to over-priced systems, then more could go to right-sized and cost-effective systems. And if more farmers had the type of assistance they needed to make the most of their projects, then they’d save more money and the state would conserve more water and energy.
Assembly Bill 2377 addresses these barriers by requiring 15 percent of the annual budgets of HSP, SWEEP, and AMMP be used to provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers applying for those programs. Specifically, under the bill, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) would establish a technical assistance grant program to provide up to $125,000 annually for up to three years to technical assistance providers – Resource Conservation Districts, University of California Cooperative Extension, nonprofits and other ag professionals – to assist farmers and ranchers through program outreach, project design, application assistance, and project implementation. The bill prioritizes technical assistance for small and moderately-scaled farms and ranches, who often cannot afford private consultants to write their grant applications and design and implement their projects, and provides that at least 25 percent of the funds go to farmers of color, who face additional barriers to accessing the programs and, on average, receive less government support than white farmers.
How Do We Know Technical Assistance Works?
Last August, CalCAN launched a pilot project with small grants to five technical assistance providers for Healthy Soils Program outreach and application support targeted to farmers of color, women farmers, beginning farmers, and organic farmers. As a result of this support, 15 producers received Healthy Soils awards, representing 17% of the total number of grants made in the first round for a total of $720,000 in state funding.
We’ve seen similar high-impact results from technical assistance grants in the SWEEP program, despite limited funding and scope. More technical assistance funding could equate to not only more successful applications, but also more robust projects and higher rates of successful implementation.
Here are two examples of projects that would not have been possible without technical assistance:
With application assistance from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), José Robles was awarded a Healthy Soils grant to apply compost and plant cover crops (non-commercial crops use to improve soil health) as well as a hedgerow to attract insects and improve orchard pollination.
Pao Yang received technical assistance from University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) that enabled him to successfully apply for his SWEEP grant. With the funds, Pao replaced valves and installed drip irrigation throughout the farm, resulting in significant water use and cost savings.
Passing Bills is a Team Effort!
A number of people and organizations deserve thanks for building momentum for this bill:
- Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin for her leadership on this bill
- David Ogilvie, Vineyard Manager and Director of Wine Production at Muddy Boot Wine, for taking time out of his busy schedule to testify at the Agriculture Committee hearing
- Dave Runsten, Policy Director at Community Alliance for Family Farmers, for testifying at the Natural Resources Committee hearing
- Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) for requesting to become a co-author for the bill in Natural Resources Committee
- All the organizations who registered their support for the bill