A Conversation with Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program Support Specialists

Posted on Tuesday, March 1st, 2022 by Guest Blogger
sustainable agricultural land conservation Orchard with a SALCP easement, photo provided by Cristina Murrillo-Barrick

This blog was written by Cristina Murillo-Barrick and Dr. Chandra Richards, Agricultural Land Acquisitions Academic Coordinators with UCANR

Dr. Chandra Richards, UCANR Agricultural Land Acquisitions Academic Coordinator

A Conversation with Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program Support Specialists

In 2021, the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) partnered with the State to add two new positions to support agricultural land conservation and adapt to climate change. Cristina Murillo-Barrick and Dr. Chandra Richards were hired to serve the Central Valley and Southern California regions, respectively. Below is an interview with Cristina, where she explains the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) Program, and how these two positions aim to strengthen agricultural land preservation within two very important regions in the state.

What is the SALC Program?

The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) Program protects at-risk agricultural lands from sprawl development by promoting growth within existing jurisdictions, ensuring open space remains available, while supporting a healthy agricultural economy. The program is funded by the California Strategic Growth Council (SGC) and administered by the California Department of Conservation (DOC). SALC is part of California Climate Investments (CCI), a statewide program that puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy, and improving public health and the environment—particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Cristina Murillo-Barrick, UCANR Agricultural Land Acquisitions Academic Coordinator

This program began in 2014 and has been used to fund two types of projects —planning and acquisitions grants.

What are planning grants? Can you give an example of one and how it relates to climate change and agricultural land conservation?

Planning grants offer funding to develop and implement plans for the protection of agricultural lands at risk of conversion to non-agricultural uses. In brief, planning projects allow for local and regional governments to work alongside stakeholders to grow and develop strategically, while accounting for climate adaptation, conservation, crop production, and economic support. For example, Madera County is engaged in a planning project that aims to address one of the most pressing issues in their region—groundwater management and landscape-level changes.

What are acquisition grants?

Acquisition grants offer funding to protect agricultural lands at the urban-rural fringe. The goal is to establish voluntary easements, protecting land on the outskirts of cities from development and preserving it as agricultural working land, in perpetuity.

Can you explain what an easement is?

Sure! We get that question a lot.

An easement is a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a third party for the third party to use or maintain the land. In the case of an agricultural conservation easement, landowners work with a land trust or conservation buyer to protect their land as agricultural working lands. Landowners retain ownership of the land and can continue to work their lands, live on the property, or sell it. Land trusts or eligible conservation buyers apply to SALC for funds to pay for the easement, and once the transaction is complete, the land trust or eligible conservation buyer goes back to the property once a year to ensure the terms of the easement have been upheld and the property hasn’t been developed.

So, you both have new positions, co-funded by the California Department of Conservation (DOC) and the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR); tell me about why these new positions were funded and what you aim to do in your roles.

Our positions were funded with the intention of increasing geographical equity within the SALC Program. Since the program’s inception in 2014, many regions in California have engaged in the SALC Program; however, participation from the Central Valley and Southern California has been limited.

Both Chandra and I began our roles in mid-2021. We are excited to be in this role and have both the professional and academic backgrounds to complement the aim of this position- which is to increase SALC Program engagement, education, and outreach and provide stronger technical assistance in the hopes of enhancing stakeholder capacity and funding more projects in our regions. The UC ANR and DOC partnership created and funded our positions to better serve Californians within our regions. I am working in the Central Valley and Chandra is working in Southern California. Our goal is to assist eligible applicants within our regions acquire SALC Program funds and successfully implement SALC projects.

I noticed that you both have a regional emphasis- Cristina in the Central Valley, and Chandra in Southern California. Why these two regions?

Most folks are familiar with the fact that the Central Valley has some of the best agricultural land in California and the world, while Southern California has some of our largest urban and growing centers. These are high priority areas for agricultural land conservation, yet these two regions of the state have been underrepresented in the SALC Program.

There are fewer SALC acquisition and planning projects within these regions than in other regions of California, such as the Bay Area or Central Coast, which have a history of high participation in this program.

Why is there such a disparity between areas like the Central Coast and your regions? Why has there been so little representation of these programs in the Central Valley and Southern California?

That’s a great question, and one that we have been looking into very closely as we begin our work. As employees of the UC, we work for a research institution with the aim of using our findings to increase the health of all Californians. As we began our work, one of the main questions we asked our regional agricultural stakeholders was- what were/are the barriers to participating in the SALC program?

On the planning side, there are barriers to engagement in SALC, specifically that both of our regions need assistance with capacity– that is to say, networking across groups and putting proposals together. In our roles, we are focused on examining how the SALC Program can best be a resource for eligible entities, like cities, counties, and transportation agencies. Ideally, we can incentivize entities to apply to these sources of funding by connecting the outcomes to issues they are already engaged in- like updating their general or climate action plans or addressing climate adaptation and water needs.

A farm in the central valley with a SALCP easement

One barrier to acquiring easements is that there are relatively few land trusts within our regions. These entities are essential to acquiring easements because they connect with landowners, help them complete the application, and engage in long-term monitoring, a key component of the program. Regions like the Bay Area and Central Coast have larger numbers of structured, well-funded, and better-resourced land trusts with ample capacity and that has been a key to their success in acquiring easements. We are working on connecting land trusts and landowners in our regions to improve resilience long-term.

What are some ways the program is aiming to address equity and Tribal representation?

The first thing to note is that agricultural land conservation, much like environmental conservation within the United States, is informed by certain narratives of what types of land should be conserved and who will benefit from it. In this program, the goal is to preserve at-risk agricultural land in California by connecting land trusts with landowners to keep that agricultural land in production as long as possible. That being said, agriculture remains one of the most racially-segregated industries: USDA data shows that, in 1999, less than 4% of land owners in the US identify as non-White.  In contrast in the same year, the US Census Bureau estimated that 25% of the US population identified as non-White.

Yet, if we include not only landowners but managers and farmworkers, agriculture as an industry is very diverse; the same can be said if we account for small scale and tenant producers, low-income producers, and producers of Color. Because many of these groups have historically faced barriers accessing land, these groups have not benefitted from the program. But, to a degree, that is changing.

In 2021, DOC hosted two listening sessions and two working group sessions focused on gathering feedback and ideas regarding the equity components of the SALC Program. Historically, the DOC also has hosted an annual guideline review workshops when new guidelines are released.  In 2021, they held workshops that included an equity listening session. This year, they are conducting a Native American Tribal review process to better serve tribal communities. These are initial steps to address a very complex issue, and our DOC partners are aware there is a long way to go, but I am pleased that the work is beginning to take hold across California entities involved in natural resources.

In your positions, what are you most looking forward to?

One of the elements of the program that makes me optimistic is the ability for planning projects to better address regional and equity alongside climate change adaptations. Our positions are largely focused on acquiring SALC planning grants; these funds can be used by local and regional governments to engage with stakeholders – farm bureaus, cities, and counties, as well as land trusts and historically-marginalized groups. These groups can then develop plans by thinking on how to strategically address barriers, such as farmworker housing alongside local groundwater needs. Planning grants can be used to strategize on a landscape level, to think about what kind of growth would benefit multiple groups in forthcoming decades, and I find that both hopeful and exciting.

I am also looking forward to engaging with communities in my region, because there is a great deal of work that remains to be completed within California, especially when it comes to agriculture, climate adaptation and equity. Working on supporting the SALC Program allows me the opportunity to engage in all of those, so I look forward to growing this work.

Cristina and Chandra can be contacted at:

Cristina Murillo-Barrick, serving the Counties of Fresno, Merced and Tulare

cmurillo@ucanr.edu or 559- 458-6193 (work phone)

Dr. Chandra Richards, serving the Counties of San Diego, San Bernadino and Riverside

cmrichards@ucanr.edu or 619-786-2620 (work phone)

If you want to learn more about SALC: email salcp@conservation.ca.gov or go to https://www.conservation.ca.gov/dlrp/grant-programs/SALCP


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