Judith Redmond, a California farmer, wants people to know that agriculture is a tool, not an enemy, in the fight against climate change.
“Not a lot of people understand how important agriculture is if we want to reach our climate, greenhouse gas reduction goals,” she said.
Sacramento seems to understand. In October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order calling on the state’s agricultural players to join the fight against climate change by preserving California’s biodiversity and storing and removing carbon from the atmosphere – all with the goal of conserving 30% of the land by 2030.
But the order gives farmers and ranchers little guidance on what that means, how to accomplish it, and even worse, no new funds.
“We’re really worried that we aren’t going to have the resources we’ve had in the last five years,” Kathryn Lyddan, director of conservation at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, said, referring to previous state allocations for sustainable farming practices. “It’s important for the state to really commit resources.”
Climate policy advocates, small farmers and farm organizations said working together to come up with viable solutions – and then securing funding for them – is the only way to move towards the goals of the executive order while preserving economically imperative industry.
The California agriculture industry is worth $50 billion and produces over 400 commodities, including over a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts.
The order says that both “natural areas and working lands” should be conserved. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the land can’t be used, Lyddan explained. Instead it can mean protecting agricultural lands from development through agricultural easements, focusing on urban development within cities instead. From there, groups like hers focus on implementing sustainable practices on the conserved land.
“I think one of the things that the executive order really emphasized was that it’s a concerted, intentional effort to use these things in concert that is going to be the most powerful,” Lyddan said.
Some farmers in California – the nation’s largest agricultural state – are already working towards more sustainable ways of farming that would fit well with the order’s goals.
Redmond owns Full Belly Farms, based in Capay Valley, a rural area 40 miles northwest of Sacramento. Since the farm opened in 1985, Redmond and her co-founders have been dedicated to organic, regenerative farm practices that have been proven to effectively reduce “the climate impact of agriculture,” she said. That includes things like using cover crops to restore nutrients in the soil, using compost to fertilize and reducing tillage to keep carbon in the ground.
Another northern California farmer, Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County, has redesigned his family’s cattle ranch to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, where his cattle graze on and fertilize the land to produce “healthy soil” that sequesters carbon, one of Newsom’s explicit goals.
The farm, which has won awards for its conservation efforts, sequesters more carbon than it emits.
These are the kind of sustainable practices that farmers can reasonably accomplish, Renata Brillinger, executive director of California Climate and Agriculture Network, an advocacy group known by its acronym CalCAN, said. Improving soil health continually actually helps farms themselves in a number of ways, she said, including making more fertile conditions and improving yields and water availability.
But these practices also have to “work for us economically and practically,” Redmond said. That economic soundness comes from the government-funded programs that CalCAN is working on, she said.
Brillinger added that “there was a growing interest” among farmers in climate-smart agriculture when government-funded grant programs began popping up over the last few years.
The Healthy Soils Program has funded farmers who want to sequester more carbon since 2016. The SWEEP program incentivizes water efficiency. But because of state budget cuts due to the pandemic, the finances of these programs are in jeopardy.
Most of the funding from these programs comes from cap-and-trade revenue and the California General Fund. But when Newsom revised the state budget in May, spending from the General Fund was cut, and cap-and-trade proceeds were projected to decrease.
“[Farmers will] move in that direction as long as it makes economic sense to do so, as long as they can stay in business while sequestering carbon and improving air and water quality,” Brillinger said. “Unfortunately, you know, just as these programs were getting popular and well known, we got this interruption in funding. There’s not going to be any money.”
Beyond the lack of funding, many in the agricultural community worry about what the executive order – nicknamed “30 by 30” – actually means for them, fearing government overreach.
“Whatever this ‘30 by 30’ effort entails, farmers, ranchers and timber operators must be viewed as partners—not as obstacles to be removed from the land we care for,” Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, wrote in a message to members. “Working lands only work if people are allowed to work them.”