CalCAN in the Field: A Vision for San Joaquin Valley Agriculture in the Face of Climate Change

Posted on Wednesday, November 17th, 2021 by Renata Brillinger
gt florists Lilian Thaoxaochay with the UCCE Small Farms Program in Fresno gives us a tour of her family farm, GT Florists & Herbs

A Vision for San Joaquin Valley Agriculture in the Face of Climate Change

During the last week of October, 45 agriculture and food systems experts and stakeholders came together for a two-day discussion on “The Future of San Joaquin Valley Agriculture in the Face of Climate Change.” Participants included farmers, researchers, technical assistance providers and advocates, most of whom live and work in the San Joaquin Valley. 

The intention of the gathering was to explore creative ways that San Joaquin Valley farmers, ranchers and agricultural communities can bounce back, adapt and thrive in the face of drought, worsening air quality, and other accelerating effects of climate change. Discussion ranged over topics such as water scarcity, land use, climate smart agriculture, farmworker health and safety, soil fertility, and more. 

fresno group
At CalCAN Advisor Steven Cardoza’s organic raisin operation on the first day of farm tours

Participants shared two general outlooks throughout the gathering: (1) a belief that crisis can create opportunity and innovation; and, (2) the importance of taking an integrated systems approach that begins by identifying common ground and seeking solutions that benefit farmers, farmworkers, rural communities and the environment. 

We grounded the dialogue by spending the first day visiting three farms in the Easton/Parlier area representing a spectrum of Central Valley crops, farm sizes and practices to see and hear firsthand from farmers—an 1,800-head conventional dairy, a diversified 20-acre farm growing Asian and western fruits and vegetables for direct market, and a second-generation organic raisin operation. The recurring themes that surfaced during the day were carried forward on the second day with a series of short presentations and breakout sessions. Some of the takeaways are summarized below.

Water scarcity

To no one’s surprise, water is on the minds of growers who have varied challenges depending on their access to groundwater and surface water. A question asked of farmers throughout the day was “How deep is your groundwater, and how deep was it 10 years ago?” Amelíe Gaudin, a UC Davis agroecologist, noted that in 30 years, California is predicted to have the climate of Arizona, and that we need to brace for impact and plan for resilience. Nayamin Martinez from the Central California Environmental Justice Network pointed out that this issue not only affects food production but also residents who lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. All three farmers on the tours shared strategies they use to improve soil health as one way to hold water and facilitate groundwater recharge. These practices include compost application and cover cropping on all of the farms and reduced tillage with no-till seed planting on the dairy feed crops.

Land access

hoop house
A hoop house at GT Florist & Herbs. Owners Gianina and Teng Thaoxaochay own their land, unique in Fresno where many other farmers, particularly Southeast Asian farmers, lease their land.

Many people warned of a transition in land ownership that is underway in the Valley as family farmers struggle to stay in business, and there were stories shared about investors outbidding local farmers, some motivated by the potential of selling groundwater. The average age of farmers continues to rise, some land is expected to be fallowed (left unplanted) in order to achieve groundwater sustainability, and the barriers to land ownership are daunting for younger and newer farmers. Brian Shobe from CalCAN shared that about 45 percent of all agricultural land in California is leased, which can be an insecure position and can limit farmers’ ability to make soil health improvements or other stewardship practices that have longer returns on investment. Farmers of color experience even higher rates of insecure land tenure —for example, 80 percent of the approximately 1,300+ Southeast Asian farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties rent their land. It was noted that these issues have major consequences for individual farmers, and that systemic solutions are needed on a landscape and community scale to address them.   

Tensions around regulation

A struggle common to all types of farmers is the time-consuming and costly job of complying with regulations. The farmers who attended all had stories of unintended consequences of regulations limiting innovation and creating disproportionate burdens for smaller farms with less administrative capacity yet the same or even larger (e.g., due to diversified crops) amount of paperwork to navigate. There were a few examples shared of how grant programs can incentivize the very same practice that another agency’s regulation discourages. Some of these challenges also play out with some grant programs that have inflexible rules and burdensome paperwork that disproportionately affect smaller, diversified operations and non-English proficient farmers. We also discussed that many regulations exist for important reasons—to protect human and environmental health. 

Cultural and social shift

Several farmers talked about the social cost of innovating at the risk of being judged by neighbors, and also about the importance of farmer-to-farmer networks. Tom Willey of T&D Farms noted that there are financial incentives for conventional farm advisors to sell products, and that what is needed is a shift to finding ways to compensate advisors for knowledge-based approaches. Nicole Celaya from FoodLink for Tulare County shared a description of an agroecology and cultural learning center at Quaker Oaks Farm near Visalia that fosters an appreciation of local cultures and shared land stewardship. This was echoed by Kassandra Hishida, Community Alliance for Agroecology, who noted the importance of local knowledge in indigenous and farmworker communities. The main barriers to the success of new farmers were identified to be lack of access to land and capital, as well as insufficient support for business development and agroecological practices.

Strategies for on-farm resilience

Touring the organic moringa demo plot at the Kearney Research Station

Throughout the two days, the farms we visited and the stories shared highlighted management approaches to coping with climate change, especially when used in combination and modified as needed to respond to changing conditions. Here are some of the most frequently shared resilience strategies:

  • Reduced tillage – Dairy producer Andy Rollins, organic raisin grape grower Steven Cardoza and organic stone fruit producer Steve Fukagawa all talked about reducing tillage and soil disturbance by practices such as mowing, mulching, no-till seed drilling and leaving crop residues on the field. They described the resulting decrease in dust and diesel use, and the increase in organic matter (and subsequently carbon sequestration).
  • Organic production — Many of the farmers who attended have been growing organically for years and attribute those systems to not only a market advantage but also to greater resilience. Steve Fukagawa has been growing stone fruit and raisins organically for 15 years, and by discontinuing chemical use and focusing on soil health, his pest problems have declined as the natural predators have moved in. Other organic farmers in attendance echoed Steve’s statement that he would have gone out of business years ago if he had not transitioned to organic. 
  • Irrigation efficiency — Christine Gemperle, organic almond producer, talked about her use of a combination of deficit irrigation, microsprinkers, subsurface drip, and irrigation scheduling, and how important it is for dealing with unreliable water availability. Combined with the whole orchard recycling she has been using, she is seeing improved soil water retention and increased soil carbon.
  • Biodiversity — Tim Bowles from UC Berkeley shared that his research is finding that medium-scale, diversified farms are the most resilient to stresses and shocks because they are nimble, have enough resources to experiment, and have multiple markets to buffer them. Christine half-jokingly talked about how tiring it can be for small farmers to adapt, and Steven noted that farmers in crisis are not likely to move towards greater complexity. Tim later made the point that we need to find ways to support farmers in becoming more resilient given how challenging it is at the individual farm level. 

Reflections on Needed Policy Solutions

Our opening panel on the second day included CalCAN Advisors Steve Fukagawa and Amelíe Gaudin,Nayamin Martinez and Christine Gemperle.

One of our objectives in convening this gathering was to listen for needs for policy change. We heard several ideas that were summed up in the closing panel by three speakers (Charles Delgado at Sustainable Conservation, Ruth Dahlquist-Willard of UC Cooperative Extension in Fresno, and Brian Shobe at CalCAN).  A team from UC Merced and the Union of Concerned Scientists emphasized the importance of grounding policy in the needs of and with input from frontline communities (see one of their papers here). Here are some policy needs that surfaced:

  • Funding for extension specialists and pest control advisors with training in agroecology, organic and climate smart agriculture
  • Financial support for producers to invest in practices, equipment and technical assistance that generate more resilient farms and deliver multiple co-benefits to people and the planet
  • Improved implementation of existing incentives programs that currently create major barriers to participation for small and socially-disadvantaged farmers
  • Regulatory reform that levels the playing field for smaller, organic, beginning and socially-disadvantaged farmers
  • Support for research and on-farm demonstration focused on resilience and equity
  • Funding for agroecology training and community centers that are grounded in farmworker and indigenous knowledge. 
  • Institutional purchasing policies and incentives that reward farmers for the value of climate smart and biologically integrated practices and pay the true cost of their implementation

We hope this dialogue generated new partnerships and collaborations and nourished existing ones, and that with the ability to return to in-person gatherings, we can look forward to more in the coming years.

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