Climate Impacts on Agriculture: Lessons from CalCAN Listening Sessions

Posted on Tuesday, December 4th, 2018 by Lauren Lum


The impacts of climate change are being felt across the state as wildfires intensify, temperatures increase and weather no longer follows historical patterns. These changes severely affect farmers and ranchers whose livelihoods are at risk with greater weather extremes.

To better understand what resources farmers and ranchers need to adapt to the changing climate, CalCAN staff held twelve listening sessions with farmers, ranchers, agricultural professionals and researchers over the course of three months this fall. We asked each group: What climate impacts are you or those your work with experiencing? What resources are needed to better support farmers and ranchers in adapting to climate change?

These listening sessions were incredibly enlightening and underscored how urgently solutions are needed to help California farmers and ranchers hold on to their crops, livestock and livelihood as climate change worsens.

CalCAN will use these insights from the ground to inform our policy platform for the year ahead. Below we summarize what we heard in our listening sessions and what it will mean for CalCAN’s work in the year ahead.

What We Heard

For some, the worst impact is the feeling of uncertainty. “We planned for a hot summer and then had the coolest we’ve had in six years. We try to change crop plans and plant earlier or later, but it’s tough,” said David Cooper, a small-scale fruit and vegetable farmer in Glen Ellen. This experience resonated with many farmers across the state, as they are no longer able to rely on historical weather patterns for their planting guide.

Ted Loewen, a stone fruit grower in the Central Valley, noted the changes in harvest dates as well: “We’re seeing unusual weather patterns and the fruit is ripening sooner. Our start date for harvesting has been a week to two weeks earlier than the previous years.”

Farmers depend on consistent weather to know when to plant, when to harvest, when to hire labor crews and when to have processing contracts. When a farmer has to harvest two weeks earlier than planned, it can throw off an entire production schedule and create a bottleneck for labor, processing timelines and transportation of product. The market is not set up to account for this unpredictability and inconsistency.

Farmers along the Central Coast and in Southern California experienced severe heat waves this year that caused significant losses. Along the central coast, Roxanne Sanders, a small-scale diversified vegetable farmer, brought up how the extreme heat led to unusually high levels of scarring and sunburn: “We had 21 days over 100 degrees…We have had a lot of sunburn on our melons and squash.”  This negatively affected the quality and volume of product they could sell.

In the Imperial Valley, where the number of days with temperatures greater than 112°F are predicted to increase from 10 to more than 80 by 2100, Dr. Oli Bachie, with Cooperative Extension, mentioned two other heat-related impacts: “When we look at what climate impacts farmers are experiencing, one of the major issues for the lower desert is heat stress during the summer… What we have seen is crop failure to develop seeds, or seed abortion… Another area we see from the terrible heat is crop scalding. This is a situation where you irrigate the crop, such as alfalfa, and then the water boils, so it is just like you are growing crops in steam, and therefore you end up burning crops. This is very common.”

These impacts brought to light how research and public plant breeding is needed to support farmers who are experiencing the loss of chill portions, crop scalding and other heat-related damages. Farmers need varieties that require fewer chill portions, have shorter growing seasons and are more heat- and salt-tolerant.

Extreme heat can even wipe out a crop in less than a few hours. In the Santa Barbara region, which experienced a record-breaking heat wave this July, some avocado growers faced severe losses. Sigrid Wright, CEO of the Community Environmental Council, said that some avocado growers “lost this year’s crop and next year’s crop with one single heat wave. It destroyed what was just harvested in the bins and the buds on the trees which would have been next year’s crop.”

Ellee Igoe, a small-scale diversified vegetable farmer in San Diego, also experienced the worst from extreme heat. “We lost 70% of my chickens and experienced multiple crop failures from that July heat wave,” she told us.

These experiences, coupled with stories we heard from wildfire victims, pointed to the need for better crop insurance and disaster recovery systems that are accessible to all producers and incentivize resilient practices.

From ranchers, we heard how continuing drought conditions have impacted available forage and water. Mathew Shapero, a UC Cooperative Extension Rangeland Advisor, said, “I hear ranchers say this used to be a 100 cow ranch and now it’s an 80 cow ranch.” Inadequate rainfall reduces forage and the herd size the land can support. Ranchers can buy feed to augment, but that increases costs, especially when local hay production is also down due to drought. Ranchers also told us it has become harder to provide water to their cattle. One rancher told us that the artesian wells on his property have gone dry and that one of his neighbor’s wells had gone dry too.

What It Means

Farmers and ranchers are hungry for solutions, information, and support that can help them make it through the worst droughts, heat waves, fires and floods.

Through these listening sessions, CalCAN sought to understand what effective agricultural climate adaptation policy should look like. What we heard was: it should look like a lot of things. Below is summary of some of the policy tool changes that are needed.

Strategies/Tools to Include in Agricultural Climate Adaptation Policies

  1. Re-investment in technical assistance through cooperative extension and RCDs
  2. Streamlined permitting processes for adaptation practices like building ponds, composting, and doing controlled burns on grasslands
  3. Farmer-to-farmer learning opportunities through demonstration projects, online videos, etc.
  4. Science-based, farm-level decision-support and adaptation planning tools to respond to individual producers’ unique objectives and needs
  5. Payments for ecosystem services, including groundwater recharge and carbon sequestration
  6. Research on many topics, but especially the economics of adaptation strategies, groundwater recharge, deficit irrigation, better long-term weather forecasting, and changing pest/disease cycles
  7. Public plant breeding to develop shorter-growing season crops and more heat-tolerant, salt-tolerant, low-chill, and drought-resilient varieties
  8. Marketing support for new crops/varieties
  9. Crop insurance that incentivize resilient practices and is accessible to all producers
  10. Disaster recovery funding that is robust, organized, and accessible

We also put together a list of principles from our listening sessions that should inform any agricultural climate adaptation policies, investments, and programs.

Some Principles for Agricultural Climate Adaptation Policies

  1. Approaches must be regional, integrated, and collaborative.
  2. Tools and research must be locally-relevant and needs-based.
  3. Practices and strategies must be economically viable for producers.
  4. Programs will have the broadest support if they are voluntary and non-regulatory.
  5. Programs must be streamlined, practical and accessible to the diversity of California’s agriculture.
  6. Programs must be attractive to all of California’s producers.
  7. Solutions that mitigate climate change must remain a top priority, because climate stabilization is still the best hope for long-term adaptation.

We are incredibly grateful to the farmers, ranchers, and other ag professionals who shared their knowledge and stories with us in our listening sessions. We will draw on their lessons and insights often as we actively try to shape climate adaptation policies and investments in California in the year ahead.

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