Sharon Licht is a Communications Consultant for the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN).

Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center

Soil health management is key to solving the climate change problems attributable to farming systems. One way to improve soil health is through adopting sustainable conservation systems that include conservation tillage (CT), cover cropping and other practices. CT describes a variety of cropping methods that involve leaving the previous year’s crop residue on top of the soil and planting the next crop right into it. To increase organic matter both above and below the soil surface, cover crops of a single or multiple plant species can also be grown between major crop rotations. Since crop residues are left on the soil surface and not tilled under, CT reduces the number of tractor passes needed, thereby cutting labor and fuel costs. Minimizing mechanical disturbance to the soil reduces erosion and runoff, increases water infiltration rate and retention, and increases carbon sequestration—all important strategies in climate change mitigation. Precision irrigation is another conservation practice that seeks to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems, by reducing pumping time and energy use.

Starting in 1998, Dr. Jeff Mitchell of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and a group of farmers, researchers, and agriculture professionals have been collaborating in California’s San Joaquin Valley to optimize the techniques and benefits of CT. Together, they formed the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center with the goal of increasing the adoption of conservation farming systems to over 50 percent of California’s cropping acreage by 2028. CASI conducts research, demonstrations, and outreach to growers, agencies, and environmental and consumer groups.

CASI’s mission is twofold: improve the livelihoods of California farmers while conserving and improving natural resources. Working directly with growers and public agency representatives allows CASI researchers to develop projects that reflect an understanding of whole-farm systems and the importance of combining conservation practices to optimize climate benefits.

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In California’s Central Valley, farmers have Tom Willey with dirtbeen coping with diminishing water supplies, rising water costs, and other impacts of the ongoing drought. At CalCAN’s Climate and Agriculture Summit in March, Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms discussed the impacts of drought and how he has responded to water shortages on his farm in Madera County.

Since 1981, Tom has grown an array of organic vegetables on his 75-acre farm with his wife Denesse. Specialty markets, restaurants, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members enjoy Tom’s produce. Until recently, Tom served as Slow Food USA’s governor for the Central Valley, and he also advocates for sustainable agriculture through his writing, speaking, event organizing, and his monthly radio program, “Down on the Farm.”

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SL: You spoke at our Summit in March about challenges regarding the drought and water issues. Now that we’re in the heat of summer, what’s the status on your farm and the region generally?

TW: We lost a shallow well on the farm in the past month or so, and we had to come up with an alternative supply. Shallow wells are going dry all over the county. It’s impossible to drill a new one or deepen an older one unless you’re already on a waiting list for a driller—most are booked for up to a year or two. On our farm, we plumbed into our deeper (500 ft) irrigation well. This well is designed to pump 1,000 gallons per minute, but at the moment, performance is closer to 650 gallons per minute. What I can say is that another dry winter would definitely spell disaster.

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Field crop acreages are declining across the state, as water shortages and uncertainties continue to challenge California growers. Water scarcity has forced farmers to fallow land and sacrifice thirsty annual crops for more drought-tolerant perennials.

According to a recent USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) report, acreages are shrinking for several major field crops. Corn, sunflower, rice and cotton are among the victims of this historic drought. California growers planted 430,000 acres of corn this year, 17 percent less than the 520,000 acres planted in 2014. Sunflower acreage has dropped by 20 percent, with 35,000 acres planted this year, compared to 44,000 acres in 2014.

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Last month, the USDA announced its plan to invest an additional $21 million of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to support on-farm water conservation efforts in severely drought-stricken areas. The investment will expand financial and technical assistance to crop and livestock producers in eight states, including California, in an effort to promote practices that conserve water and build soil health.

Administered by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), EQIP supports on-farm conservation improvements through financial cost-sharing and technical assistance to growers. Over $27 million of FY 2015 EQIP funding is already targeted toward drought management practices in California. The additional funding will direct EQIP allocations to areas experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions, and focus on conservation practices that help farmers cope with drought, such as improving irrigation efficiency, implementing prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage. NRCS aims to both improve on-farm water use efficiency and also contribute to the long term resilience of crop, pasture, and rangelands against drought.

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Climate change is threatening several of California’s most valuable crops. Recent studies suggest that warmer temperatures, and the associated reduced winter chilling period, could render California’s climate unsuitable for growing a variety of fruits and nuts. Insufficient winter ‘chill hours,’ defined as the cumulative number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, can disrupt pollination, delay flowering, lower yield, and reduce fruit quality. California orchards are predicted to experience less than 500 chill hours per winter by the end of the 21st century, which will impacts the yields of walnuts, pistachios, apples, pears, and stone fruits like cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and plums.

Courtesy of UC Davis

Courtesy of UC Davis

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With California’s final cap-and-trade budget including funding for agricultural land conservation, it is increasingly important to understand the dynamics of farmland trends in the state. The more we know about land use trends, the more we can work to ensure that threatened farmland is adequately protected through the most appropriate tools and policies.

The Farmland Conservation Strategy Act, AB 1961, aimed to do just that. Co-sponsored by CalCAN, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and American Farmland Trust, the bill would have required counties with significant agricultural resources to inventory their farmland, define their goals and policies to conserve farmland and mitigate for its loss, and publish that information on the county website. However, heavy opposition from the California Building Industry Association led to AB 1961’s failure to get out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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