Barriers for Smaller, Diversified Growers in the Healthy Soils Program

Posted on Thursday, January 27th, 2022 by
A bell bean cover crop planted with funding from the Healthy Soils Program in CA.

Recently, Inside Climate News ran a story about how the application process for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Healthy Soils Program Incentive grants has been leaving out smaller, diverse growers. Find some excerpts below and the full article here. Though CDFA has made many improvements to the Healthy Soils Program (HSP) application process since its start in 2017, the article outlines some remaining issues.

The story looks at the implications of a change made by CDFA during its 2020 grant cycle and continued in 2022 despite concerns raised by many stakeholders. They implemented a rolling first-come-first-served process for scoring applications and awarding grants and this may put smaller and mid-scale growers at a disadvantage.

“A first-come, first-serve award system may be partly to blame, as larger operations with office staff or money to hire a grant writer have been able to secure money more quickly. ‘Those farmers who have fewer resources, and often those were farmers of color, got in their applications later. But the money was already gone,’ said CalCAN’s [Jeanne] Merrill.”

In the current grant cycle, CDFA has a total of $67.5 million available. As of January 20th, they had received over 1,000 applications requesting a total of $73.6 million. The program remains open for applications. However, as CDFA scores and funds grants applications that meet a minimum score on a rolling basis, it is unclear as to whether any grants received now will be funded, as they work through all the applications received so far.

Another challenge is how the application itself is structured to be easier for those who grow monocrops compared to those with more diverse cropping systems.

 “Even when there are funds available, the soils program can be difficult for farmers who grow many crops, as well as immigrant farmers who may not speak English fluently, to access or make use of. It’s also hard for lower-income growers who lease their land year to year to successfully complete an application, because the program requires a three-year commitment for all who participate. And HSP takes a largely prescriptive approach—requiring that one practice be applied to the same plot of land for the entire time. But smaller operations tend to grow a diverse range of crops that require intricate rotation and the ability to swap out crops due to weather, water availability and other factors. ‘So if you get money to plant cover crops, for example, you might not always have the same section of your farm fallow from year to year,’ said Jessie Kanter, a research assistant with the small farm teams at the University of California Cooperative Extension.”

CalCAN has called for several changes to the application process identified in the article to make HSP more accessible for smaller, more diverse, farmers of color. For example, we believe it’s important to prioritize funding for small and mid-scale operations and to translate program materials into multiple languages. You can read our full list of recommendations in our 2020 Healthy Soils Program Progress Report.

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