Covid-19, Climate, Challenge and Change

Posted on Tuesday, June 16th, 2020 by Renata Brillinger
Photo credit: USDA

The global pandemic has revealed in new ways how essential farmers and farmworkers are to the food supply chain. With this revelation has also come more widespread understanding of the challenges farmers and ranchers face while scrambling to adopt new workplace safety protocols in the fields and on packing lines, respond to dramatically altered markets, and seek relief funding so they can stay in business.

The realities and vulnerabilities of farmworkers, too, have been laid bare. Their exposure in the workplace and at home to Covid-19 and the barriers to health care and economic relief make us all vulnerable, dependent as we are on their labor and wellbeing.

“Our main challenge right now is getting enough masks and suits to protect our workers. That’s what keeps me up at night. I’m also worried about harvest in August when we need 200 workers to pick grapes in 10 days—social distancing will be impossible.

As a new farmer taking over the business from my dad, I’m in this for the long game. It’s always been hard to make long-term decisions in farming, especially with the uncertainty of climate change. And now it’s challenging to make even short-term decisions about what to plant this year.”

— Steven Cardoza, Cardoza Ranches (organic raisin grower, Fresno County)

California agriculture is ramping up for its busiest time of year as hundreds of varieties of vegetable, fruit and nut crops are planted and harvested over the coming summer months. Even as shelter-in-place orders are easing, farmers have other looming challenges ahead in the form of seasonal climate change impacts. Wildfire season is predicted to start early this year in parts of the state because of a dry winter. Parts of the state will face another year of water scarcity given that the snow pack is only about half of normal.

Despite these many challenges during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, California farmers found time to apply for Climate Smart Agriculture grants for improving soil health and reducing methane emissions on dairies.

In April, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) announced that $50.8 million in grant requests had been submitted by 79 dairy producers for projects that reduce methane emissions by improving manure management—about five times more than the money available in the AMMP program.

By mid-May, CDFA had received nearly 600 applications from farmers and ranchers for the Healthy Soils Program, a three-fold increase from the last round of applications to the program. CDFA recently announced program awards totaling $22 million to 316 farmers and ranchers carrying out healthy soils practices on more than 30,000 acres across the state.

Clearly these programs are valued by California’s farmers, eager to do their part to curb greenhouse gas emissions, improve the resilience of their farms, and improve their bottom line with these important investments.

“The milk industry was already being hit hard by an oversupply that drove down prices. It’s even harder now to find buyers even for powdered milk, and both dairy and meat processors are cutting contracts because they don’t have capacity right now.

The pandemic has made it all the more real about our reliance on local farmers and it makes the case for curbing climate change to protect their livelihoods. We are getting in touch with what is really important, and food and farmers are core to our survival. It’s also clearer how important it is to maintain and shore up local economies and food systems.”

— Rose Marie Burroughs, Burroughs Family Farms (organic dairy and almond grower, Merced County)

However, widespread support for the state’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs go beyond the state’s farms and ranches. This spring, more than 65 non-profits, food businesses and public health organizations sent in letters urging state legislators and Governor Newsom to invest in the climate solutions of our farms and ranches.

We expect a huge hit to our tourism business this year and really don’t know how many ‘u-pickers’ will visit our farm because of people just being afraid to go out. I worry about the small farm sector generally and how many will go out of business if the economy doesn’t open back up in time and they don’t get help.

The pandemic has shown how fragile our food security is. Maybe the fear people are feeling can be leveraged to make widespread change and protect family farms and local food systems. If you want to fight climate change, you need an army of small farmers who focus on keeping carbon in the soil by increasing biodiversity in the soil and above ground.”

— Ed Seaman, Santa Barbara Blueberries (blueberries, Santa Barbara County)

California has been a global leader in setting ambitious, science-based climate goals and allocating funds to programs that achieve it, including the Climate Smart Agriculture programs. Continued progress and financial investments in these programs will not only help keep California on track with its climate goals but will also reduce air and water pollution, protect our food supply, and provide an engine for economic development to rebuild rural economies hit hard by the pandemic.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN