Catalyzing Climate Leadership in Farmers of Color in Fresno

Posted on Monday, November 18th, 2019 by Renata Brillinger

There is a large population of at least 900 Hmong farmers in Fresno County who produce a dizzying array of tropical and subtropical fruits and vegetables for California’s Southeast Asian population, often on very diversified and relatively small plots of land. Many of these farmers rent their land and many struggle to stay in business in the face of water scarcity, dropping groundwater tables, regulatory burdens and increased input costs.

A small team of UC Cooperative Extension staff has become a critical source of technical support for this community in the past several years. Ruth Dalquist-Willard is one of California’s four Small Farm Advisors and she conducts research on small-scale farming operations and specialty crops relevant to Hmong, Latino and African American farmers in Fresno and Tulare Counties. Michael Yang, a Hmong-speaking agricultural assistant, and Jacob Roberson who specializes in food safety work closely with Ruth at Cooperative Extension to support farmers with technical assistance on a wide range of practical needs.

In 2017, they began helping farmers to apply for grants under the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) and to install irrigation improvements and well upgrades. CalCAN has written previously about the many benefits these grants provided to farmers.

In 2019, Ruth and her team also extended their services to farmers interested in the new Healthy Soils Program. In June, she learned that all 16 of the Healthy Soils Program applications they assisted were funded as well as 23 SWEEP applications. This tremendous success, however, created a problem for the small team who didn’t have enough capacity to support the farmers through the process of completing contracts with CDFA, let alone assisting them with installing new equipment, learning how to apply compost, finding funds to pay for a compost spreader, and doing soil sampling. Though CDFA provided $400 per farmer for the application assistance, she had no funding for anything else, and she came to CalCAN to ask for help.

In 2018, CalCAN sponsored a bill (AB 2377) that addressed this lack of technical assistance funding. Starting this fall, more than $1 million will be awarded to technical assistance providers to support farmers with all aspects of securing grants, completing funded projects and doing reports. But that funding will come too late for Ruth’s team to support the group of 39 farmers who won awards earlier in the year.

Ruth developed a $100,000 budget to pay for a community education specialist to work closely with the farmers on paperwork requirements and to provide guidance on practices such as irrigation scheduling, pump monitoring, and compost application procedures. The budget also included the purchase of a compost spreader that will be available to any farmer in the area, and the cost of transporting compost to the farms.

At the time of this writing, four of CalCAN’s funders have generously contributed a total of $80,000 to fund the effort. The many benefits of the project include the following:

  • Supports the climate leadership of a group of Hmong and Latino farmers who are models and influencers of others in their farming communities
  • Increases the efficacy of the on-farm projects by providing technical expertise to implement them
  • Capitalizes equipment that can be used for many years by Climate Smart Agriculture grantees and others in the region
  • Provides full-time technical assistance specialist for almost 40 grant recipients as well as other farmers in the area
  • Builds capacity within UCCE Fresno for supporting a transition to sustainable, climate-friendly practices by socially-disadvantaged farmers

This could be a game changer for this community of small-scale farmers of color operating in a sea of large-scale, conventional agriculture. It’s a great example of what is possible with the collaboration of funders, advocates, farmers and technical assistance providers. We look forward to working with Ruth to tell the stories of these farmers and their leadership on climate solutions.

If you are interested in learning more or helping find the remaining $20,000, please contact CalCAN’s Executive Director Renata Brillinger. To see the job posting for the Cooperative Extension position, please click here.

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