On Tuesday, March 24th, over 60 growers, researchers, policymakers, technical service providers and advocates convened at Rominger Brothers Farms in Winters. This was the first stop on a tour of four Yolo County farms that each demonstrate unique strategies for agricultural resilience to climate change.
CalCAN’s Renata Brillinger welcomed participants and introduced the dual goals of the farm tour: to hear from farmers how they cope with impacts of climate change, and to understand what farmers need from the array of sectors represented by the folks in attendance.
Rominger Brothers Farm
A Model for Water Conservation & Diversified Farming
Bruce and Rick Rominger are fifth-generation family farmers, managing 4,000 acres just north of Winters, California. Bruce led us on a tour of the diversified farm, where the Romingers grow a variety of crops including wheat, corn, alfalfa and oat hay, processing tomatoes, wine grapes, sunflower and onions for seed, and more.
Our first stop was at the tomato fields, where we heard from Bruce about the many benefits of his subsurface drip irrigation system.
Drip systems allow for close monitoring of water use. The Romingers set up tensiometers at 1 and 2 foot depths throughout their fields, and read them every other day. By closely tracking water usage, Bruce explained, the farm is able to ensure plants receive just enough water to trap it in the root zone and prevent leaching into groundwater.
In addition to minimizing total water use, subsurface drip irrigation systems use water more efficiently, yielding “more crop per drop,” Bruce said.
Drip systems can also serve as a climate friendly vehicle for fertilizers. Fertigation via drip tape can significantly reduce nitrous oxide emissions. Although drip irrigation and fertigation offer benefits to air quality and water quality, Bruce explained that the most attractive benefit is yield: “Nobody’s telling me I can’t put nitrous oxide in the air or water–they might in the future–but for now, we use drip to grow a better crop more efficiently.”
The tour moved on to one of the Romingers’ tailwater ponds. There, Bruce gave us an introduction to another component of the farm’s innovative water conservation techniques. Irrigation runoff flows into a silt trap, moves into a larger pond where more silt settles and biological activity helps to break down chemicals, then finally the water filters through a drainage ditch.
Bruce discussed the myriad benefits this system offers, including groundwater recharge and the recycling of silt back to the field. The tour wrapped up with a lively Q&A session, and the group then headed to Yolo Land & Cattle Co.
Yolo Land & Cattle Co.
Rotational Grazing on Dryland Paddocks
The Stone family has been raising cattle since 1976. Today, Casey and Scott Stone manage 7,500 acres, raising and selling grass-fed beef directly to consumers. After eating lunch provided by Casey’s wife, Angela, participants were taken on a hay bale wagon tour of the ranch.
Casey led participants through his network of rainfed ponds. The ponds are maintained by mob grazing, which involves grazing a large concentration of livestock in a small area for a short duration. Mob grazing (also known as flash grazing) is just one component of the Stones’ extensive rotational grazing system.
The rainfed ponds serve to replenish groundwater and also support forage for grazing. Solar pumps assist with transporting water, but most of the work is done by gravity.
Most of the ranch is managed without irrigation, with only one 50-foot well on the entire ranch. Dryland farming promotes the ranch’s resilience against drought and unpredictable climate events.
Rather than spraying herbicides, Casey explained that the Stones “use controlled grazing as a means to deal with problem weeds” and simultaneously improve the nitrogen content of the soil.
Throughout the tour, Casey emphasized that the variety of innovative conservation projects currently underway would not be possible without support from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).
Yolo County RCD Restoration Project
Building Riparian Habitats for Wildlife and Climate Benefits
Our next stop was the Cottonwood Slough riparian restoration project. Jeanette Wrysinski, Senior Program Manager at the Yolo County Resource Conservation District, introduced participants to the project and discussed its climate benefits.
The half-mile long project involves planting native perennial grasses alongside the Cottonwood Slough. Jeanette explained that the long term goal is to create a habitat corridor so wildlife can move down to the Sacramento River.
The riparian corridor offers a wealth of benefits, such as trapping carbon in the long roots of perennial grasses, the shading of water through permanent vegetation, and supporting beneficial insects and pollinators.
Jeanette emphasized the importance of partnerships between landowners and government agencies, reiterating that the project would not be possible without the cooperation of the surrounding farmers and fiscal support from NRCS.
Innovator in Climate Resilience
The last stop on the tour was at Hedgerow Farms, where John O’Brien and Emily Allen introduced us to the climate benefits of diverse hedgerows and riparian plantings. At Hedgerow Farms, the mission is to add wildlife habitat to their 450 acres of productive farmland.
John, who works for the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, showed us a canal around which native grasses were planted. “I look at these hedgerows and see structural diversity, habitat for reptiles and birds, and shade for water,” John said. Acknowledging that there are some trade-offs to hedgerow planting, he noted that growers can largely avoid having to remove land from production by simply planting their hedgerows along the field edge.
Emily, Sales Manager at Hedgerow Farms, discussed some of the benefits of riparian plantings along the canal, emphasizing the creation of habitat for beneficial insects. Hedgerows can be “purely trees, have a diverse understory, or ideally can have trees, shrubs, and understory,” Emily said.
John agreed, “Structural diversity means more carbon sequestration.”
“By planting native grasses, sedges, and flowers, these areas become more than a weedy patch to spray herbicides on,” Jeanette added. Instead, growers can contribute to water quality and provide valuable wildlife habitat.
Sam Earnshaw, who ‘wrote the book’ on hedgerows for Community Alliance with Family Farmers, elaborated the list of benefits hedgerows can bring in an ecosystem stressed by climate change impacts: promoting beneficial insects, pollination, wind protection, dust protection, erosion control, and replacing weeds with resilient habitat for wildlife.
The tour concluded with a few moments for silent appreciation of the surrounding beauty and biodiversity. Point Blue Conservation Service’s Wendell Gilgert had the final word: “We’ve heard or seen about 20 birds in the 20 minutes we’ve been here, which gives you an idea of the biodiversity these hedgerows support.”
Many thanks to Rominger Brothers Farm, Yolo Land & Cattle Co., Yolo County RCD, and Hedgerow Farms for hosting the farm tour.