Farms + Data: California’s farms are smaller than the US average, but they’re big on diversity – and productivity

Volume 2 - Top commoditiesCalifornia is America’s agricultural leader, providing $54 billion in crops and commodities in 2014. In a word, California’s farms are diverse. We grow approximately 400 crops and commodities, from almonds to zucchini. Our top five ag products include dairy, nuts, fruit, berries and livestock. The top ten also include leafy greens, vegetables and feed. That’s unmatched variety.

Our farmers are diverse, too.  Although California has just 2.9 percent of all the farms in America, we are home to 14.6 percent of the nation’s “principal farm operators” whose origins are  Hispanic/Latino/Spanish. The same goes for 35.1 percent of Asian farmers, 21.9 percent of Native Americans/Alaskan Natives and 6.4 percent of farmers claiming more than one race, as well as 4.9 percent of female principal farm operators.

Volume 2 - farm sizeAveraging 328 acres, California’s 76,400 farms are considerably smaller than the national average of 434 acres. Nearly three-quarters (74.2 percent) of our farms are under 100 acres, and another15.9 percent are between 100 and 500 acres. Only 3.1 percent are more than 2,000 acres.

California is the top dairy state with 19 percent of the nation’s milk supply in 2014. Dairy farmers earned $9.36 billion for 43.6 billion pounds of milk.

California also ranks first in crops at $30.4 billion, and we’re third behind Texas and Iowa in Livestock/Poultry at $12.3 billion.

Organic continues its rise
Volume 2 - OrganicIn 2000, organic agriculture in California had yet to break the 1,000-farm mark, and it represented a modest 157,804 acres. Fast-forward to 2014 and we have 2,805 certified organic farms with 687,168 acres. That’s 20 percent of the nation’s organic farms and 18.7 percent of the nation’s organic acreage.

California leads the nation in organic farming with $2.2 billion – that’s more than the rest of the top ten states combined.

Sources: CDFA Resource Directory, USDA Ag Census and Organic Survey, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

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Robots Wielding Water Knives Are the Future of Farming – from WIRED

By Matt Simon

JUST AFTER DAWN in the Salinas Valley south of San Francisco, a raucous robot rolls through a field spitting clouds of vapor. It’s cutting lettuce heads with water knives—super-high-pressure beams—and gobbling up the produce. The heads roll up its mouth and onto a conveyor belt, where workers in hoodies and aprons grab the lettuce and tear off the loose leaves.

Right across the road, workers are harvesting lettuce the agonizing old-fashioned way—bent over with knife in hand. “If you’re a beginner, it kills you because your back really hurts,” says Isabel Garcia, a harvester who works atop the robot. “It takes somebody really strong to be doing that kind of work.”

Garcia and the other workers here didn’t lose their jobs to a robot—they work in tandem with one. And just as well, because California farms are facing a serious labor shortage of perhaps 20 percent. Increasingly sophisticated robots have to pick up the slack, here and around the world. Because if humanity expects to feed its booming population off a static amount of land, it’s going to need help.

Here in the Salinas Valley, farmers and tech types are teaming up to turn this into a kind of Silicon Valley for agriculture. And they’re not stopping at water-knife-wielding robots. Because it’s data that will truly drive this agricultural revolution. It’s not just about robots doing jobs humans don’t want to do, but AI doing jobs humans can’t do. And AI can’t go anywhere without data.

For sure, the robots will definitely support the dwindling farming workforce. Fewer immigrant workers are coming to the fields, and their demographics are shifting. “Just with a changing population here in California, we’ve got an aging workforce,” says Mark Borman, president of Taylor Farms California, which operates the robot. “So people who are coming out to do agricultural, we’re not getting that younger population into the job.”

That means not only using robots to help fill those jobs, but modifying the product they grow to make things easier for the machine. Taylor Farms has selected a kind of romaine that grows more like a light bulb, which leaves a longer base for the water knife to more efficiently slice. So while workers are adapting to work with the robot, the farm is adapting the produce to work with the machine. This is what the future of agriculture looks like: Humans modifying food to fit robots as much as they modify their own behavior to suit the machines.

More and more, agriculture is about automation. Not that automation is anything novel. Farming has seen thousands of years of technological advances, from the horse-drawn plow to the combine harvester. But in this digitized world, the pace of automation is accelerating. “At the end of the day, a lot of the traditional work that’s being done in the fields, fewer and fewer people want to do that,” says Dennis Donohue, lead of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, a kind of incubator that tallies over 30 ag tech startups in downtown Salinas. “So parts of those functions are simply going to be automated.”

“We’re not looking to replace a workforce,” Donohue says. “We’re looking to maintain an industry and the food supply for North America.” In fairness, automation is also great for making money, whether it’s at the expense of workers or not. But Donahue has an existential argument on his side that, say, car factory operators don’t: Humanity is in danger of not being able to feed itself. By 2050, the world population could boom to almost 10 billion people. Farmers will have to feed those humans—not to mention their livestock—with the same amount of land. Hell, even less land, as ocean levels continue to rise.

Automation will chip away at the problem of production efficiency. But data technology solutions may be even more critical. Here in the incubator, a startup called AgriData is developing a way for machines to manage the productivity of fields. Its gadget rapidly scans trees to pinpoint fruits and determine their yield. Thus farmers can get a better sense of how their fields are producing to better time their harvests.

Up in the hills overlooking the Salinas Valley, one winery is using data to tackle an even more pressing problem: water. Hahn Family Wines has partnered with Verizon to digitize its fields, sampling the soil as well as the humidity around the plants. “With our soil sensors we’re measuring how far down that moisture is going and if it’s gone out the bottom of the soil,” says Andy Mitchell, director of viticulture. “Then we know we’ve put on too much water so we can cut back. It really helps us fine-tune our application methods.”

California may be out of its brutal drought, but there’s no telling how climate change will shape the coming decades. The state has to somehow provide water for 20 million people while watering a $50 billion agriculture industry. And that’s to say nothing of, well, literally everywhere else on the planet. But expect the technology growing here in the Salinas Valley to make its way around the world, water knives and all.

Link to article

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USDA Announces Farm to School Grant Awards – California among top recipients

Ten California programs receive funding to increase the availability of local foods in schools

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced projects selected to receive the USDA’s annual farm to school grants designed to increase the amount of local foods served in schools. Sixty-five projects were chosen nationwide.

Photo Courtesy: USDA Food and Nutrition Service A summer feeding program in Sacramento, California, features a farmers market with heirloom tomatoes.

USDA Farm to School grants can help farm to school programs get started or expand existing efforts. Funds support a wide range of activities from training, planning, and developing partnerships to creating new menu items, establishing supply chains, offering taste tests to children, purchasing equipment, planting school gardens, and organizing field trips to agricultural operations.

Grantees include schools and districts (large and small, rural and urban), Indian tribal organizations, agricultural producers or groups of agricultural producers, non-profit entities, and state and local agencies.

Programs awarded in California include:

CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork:
CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork will transition the California Farm to School Network (CFSN) to the Office and strengthen the already robust statewide organization with a five-pronged approach, which will result in an increase in fresh California foods offered at school meals across the state and an increase in sales for California farmers.

Tides Center/School Food Focus, a Project of Tides Center (San Francisco):
School Food Focus will increase school food demand for locally-sourced poultry products. Working in the Southeastern and the Western regions of the U.S., Focus will bring together four innovative school food service leaders and a range of small and mid-scale poultry producers, processors, and distributors to create mutually beneficial procurement pathways to better chicken and turkey products.

Karuk Tribe (Happy Camp)
This project will enhance students’ understanding of the connections between and the direct experience with traditional foods, physical health, and diet-related disease prevention. Karuk Tribe, with their partners, will expand and implement culturally relevant “Native Health” lesson plans and facilitate conventional and Native food cooking classes for a “hands-on” approach to their local food systems.

Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission
The FRESH initiative will develop a policy, which recommends a set percentage of Fresno Unified School District’s (FUSD) food budget for local produce and will increase connections between local growers and FUSD. This will be achieved by convening farm to school Meet-and-Greet events that will introduce local farmers to FUSD Food Services. The FRESH initiative will educate students about the role of fruits and vegetables through six experiential nutrition education and taste testing events to 250 students.

Food Bank of Santa Barbara County
The Food Bank of Santa Barbara County will provide fresh produce and nutrition education lessons to elementary-aged students in afterschool programs. Each lesson focuses on one special produce item and includes recipes, information about the ingredient, and a hands-on food demonstration in which children prepare and taste the recipe of the day. The lesson concludes with a mini farmer’s market that includes the main ingredient as well as three other fresh produce items.

Other California Farm to School grants include: Twin Rivers Unified School District (North Highlands); Oakland Unified School District; New Vision Middle School (San Bernardino); Natomas Unified School District (Sacramento); and Local Bounty (Moss Landing).

USDA News Release on the program and complete List of Awardees.


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June is fairs month – find a fair near you!

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Two California Projects included in Funding for Conservation Innovation

Two California projects are included in the mix of 33 that were recently awarded funding by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

The agency is investing $22.6 million in projects nationwide through the competitive Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. The aim is to help develop tools, technologies, and strategies to support next-generation conservation on working lands including market-based solutions to resource challenges.

Two projects for just under $2.65 million are being awarded to California ventures.

Leveraging water markets to secure water for nature and agriculture. Photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy, California.

The California chapter of the Nature Conservancy is receiving $1,869,439 to explore market-based approaches to water management for nature and agriculture. Two initiatives in the Central Valley and in western Ventura County, will explore the use of advanced metering infrastructure to facilitate water quantity trades as part of a solution to meeting new state groundwater regulations.

Streamlining regulatory compliance and conservation planning. Photo courtesy of the Freshwater Trust

The Freshwater Trust (TFT) is receiving $779,959 to develop an integrated planning, tracking, and adaptive management system for agricultural producers and regional coalitions in Solano County. Farmers and coalitions engaged in  multi-objective programs will be able to demonstrate progress in improving surface water and groundwater quality and quantity. The completed system would be broadly transferable and will be made publicly available.

Complete USDA NRCS News Release and Interactive Map

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California & Australia: Climate Smart Agriculture Webinar – June 19th

Although California and Australia are on opposite hemispheres, our climates – and the associated challenges — are profoundly similar. As California continues to lead the nation in agricultural production, we must look to our international partners to find innovate ways to produce high quality foods while also practicing water conservation.

Join the conversation as farmers, research scientist and government representatives from Australia and California discuss irrigation water management and technologies for use in specialty crop production.

California & Australia Climate Smart Agriculture Webinar   June 19, 2017 · 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. (PST)

Australia is one the world’s leaders in irrigation efficiencies and water management innovation. From 1997 to 2009, Australia faced the worst drought in the country’s history. However, through a series of policy innovations, Australia was successful in reducing water use and developing adaptive on-farm solutions for a changing climate.

California is working in collaboration with international partners to foster knowledge-sharing partnerships to address climate change impacts on agriculture. This webinar is the fifth in a series of international discussions focusing on climate smart agriculture.

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Mexican migrant workers came to California to pick grapes. Now they own wineries – from the Washington Post

By Dave McIntyre, Washington Post

The Smithsonian recognizes five families who have worked their way up in the U.S. wine industry

Outside Robledo Family Winery, south of Sonoma, on a cool April Sunday, the U.S. and Mexican flags whipped a stiff salute in the wind blowing off the San Pablo Bay. A third banner bore the winery logo. The flags represent three themes central to the lives of Reynaldo Robledo and many other Mexican migrant workers who have helped shape California’s wine industry: heritage, opportunity and family.

Robledo is part of a small but growing community of Mexican American families who started as migrant workers and now have their own wineries. They have emerged from the invisible workforce of laborers who prune the vines in bitter winter cold and tend them under searing summer sun. We read about them when they collapse from heat exhaustion in California’s Central Valley or perish in a winery accident. But they rarely appear in the glossy magazines that extol the luxury wine lifestyle, except as cheerful extras in harvest photos.

Five Mexican American families are helping craft the next chapter in the story. They started as migrant workers and now have their own wineries.

They came from Michoacan or Jalisco, two agricultural provinces near Mexico City. Their fathers left for El Norte as migrant workers — some under the Bracero guest-worker program, others crossing the border illegally but gaining legal status in a time when papers were easier to come by. They worked in California’s burgeoning agricultural industry before settling in wine country. They encountered some of Napa Valley’s most celebrated winemakers and contributed to California’s wine revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, a period that saw dramatic changes in viticulture and food culture as the United States became a wine-loving nation.

“Their story is the journey,” says Steve Velasquez, associate curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, which honored the families during its annual winemakers’ fundraising dinner in May. “A journey from Mexico to the U.S. to work in agriculture, from a handful of families to a thriving community of Mexican Americans, from vineyard workers to winery owners. . . . These families represent Mexican Americans who once just supported an industry but now help shape it.”

Reynaldo Robledo

Robledo Family Winery

Reynaldo Robledo, center, came to California in 1968 to work in the fields of Napa Valley. Nearly 50 years later, he runs his own vineyard, with the help of his children. Lazaro Robledo, one of Reynaldo’s seven sons, manages the tasting room at Robledo Family Winery. Also pictured is Reynaldo Robledo’s girlfriend, Leticia Trejo. Photo by Marvin Joseph, Washington Post

Reynaldo Robledo tears up with pride as he describes how in 2003, he became the first Mexican American migrant worker in California to open his own tasting room to the public. He displays mementos of other career highlights, including those White House dinners and a 2008 visit to the winery from Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Robledo’s story began more modestly, and he related it to me in quiet, hesitant English as we sat at a large table made of wood from his native Michoacan state while his youngest son, Lazaro, prepared to welcome the day’s first customers to Robledo Family Winery, in the Carneros region a few miles south of Sonoma.

Even as a young boy in Mexico’s agricultural Michoacan state, Reynaldo was used to being in charge. He was the oldest of 13 children whose father, grandfather and uncles spent eight months of every year working in apple orchards and vineyards in El Norte, and he assumed family responsibilities in their absence.

So as a teenager in Napa Valley, he was quick to seize opportunity, which was plentiful in those heady early years of California’s wine boom. Napa was rapidly transforming from a sleepy agricultural region of prune and walnut orchards into a viticultural powerhouse. An Italian American vineyard manager taught him how to graft vines, a skill that earned him as much as $4.75 per vine. He learned to drive a tractor. Before long he was a crew chief for a vineyard management company planting and managing thousands of acres of vineyards.

Learning the wine business literally from the ground up was not enough. Robledo dreamed of owning his own vineyards and putting his family name on a label. In 1984, he purchased a 13-acre junkyard in Carneros no one else wanted for about $126,000. He cleaned it up, planted vines and sold the grapes to Mumm Napa for sparkling wine. Today, Robledo Family Winery owns or leases 350 acres of vineyards in Carneros and Lake County.

While growing his business, Robledo was also raising a family. He married his childhood sweetheart, Maria, in 1970, and they raised seven sons and two daughters. It wasn’t all bliss and harmony. He and Maria divorced in 2012, and Reynaldo hints at some strong disagreements with his children.

“The boys didn’t understand the business,” he says. “In wine, you invest your money and you don’t see it for a few years. When people don’t understand the business, they want money right away.” Even so, in 2014 he formally turned ownership of the winery and vineyard management firm to five of his sons, including chief executive and winemaker Everardo and tasting room manager Lazaro Robledo, 64, also struggled with the clash of American culture and the patriarchal traditions he brought from Mexico.

“When we first made a sauvignon blanc, I told the family I wanted to call it Seven Brothers for my sons. That was a mistake,” he says with a laugh. “My two daughters were very angry.”

Another wine was less contentious. Los Braceros is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. “Braceros means strong arms,” Robledo explained. “A worker could bring his wife and one son. These grapes represent the family: father, mother and son.”

Amelia Morán Ceja

Ceja Vineyards

Amelia Morán Ceja of Ceja Vineyards and her daughter, Dalia. Amelia is the first Mexican American woman to be president of a California winery. Photo by Marvin Joseph, Washington Post

When young Amelia Morán moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to Rutherford, Calif., in September 1967, she worked in the vineyards after school. Her father, Felipe, was a manager for Oakville Vineyard Management, which tended the now-famous To Kalon vineyard for Robert Mondavi Winery. Mondavi, who would become the most influential vintner in California, was just in his second harvest, and the winery was not yet finished.

Amelia, 12 at the time, remembers enjoying the work and meeting a young boy her age who had just arrived from Mexico, Pedro Ceja, whom she would later marry. And she remembers liking the To Kalon cabernet.

“Pedro tells everybody I ate the grapes for the first two hours,” she says. “It’s true!”

Her other impressions of food in her new home were not positive. “It was all processed food,” she recalls. She began making her own lunches from recipes her grandmother taught her back in Mexico.

Today, Ceja is an enthusiastic ambassador for Mexican cuisine, filming instructional videos and demonstrating recipes in television appearances. “I want to take the best of Mexican culture — not the macho stuff, that’s no good — and incorporate it with the best from my adopted country,” she says.

Ceja, 61, is the first Mexican American woman to be president of a California winery. She co-founded Ceja Vineyards in 1999 with Pedro and his brother, Armando, the winemaker. They own or lease 150 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties and plan to break ground this year on a winery on their property in the Napa section of Carneros.

Two years ago, Ceja lobbied in Washington for revisions in worker protection regulations that had not been updated since 1992. Her activism grew out of the turbulent labor movement of the 1970s led by Cesar Chavez, who would stay with her family when her father was president of the local United Farm Workers chapter. “I marched with them on Route 29,” she recalls.

“People understood that in order to live a life of dignity, they needed the support of someone to advocate for them,” Ceja says. “Even today, the farmworkers are invisible, and we need to advocate for them. Through our wines we are paying homage to the true artists of wine — the workers.”

Though still a young winery, Ceja Vineyards is preparing for generational change. Amelia’s three children are all involved; Dalia Ceja, with an executive MBA, is sales and marketing director, and Armando’s daughter is assistant winemaker.

“There is an expression in Spanish, ‘Aun hay mas,’ ” Ceja says. “There is much more to come.”

Continue the article and meet three additional wine families here.

In addition, here’s a Growing California video featuring Ceja wines – ‘Love on the Vine’



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Farms + Data: Most California farms are family-run, and farmers are aging

Who’s on the California farm?
From 1980 to today, California’s population has grown from 23.7 million to more than 39 million. That’s up 65 percent – and the vast majority of those folks are in urban and suburban areas. Our rural population remains well under one million in California by USDA’s measure and has grown at a slower rate than the more urbanized areas, about 46 percent over the same period.

95 percent of California’s 77,400 farms are family-owned. Non-family corporations make up just 1.3 percent of farms in California. The remainder, 3.6 percent, are operated as cooperatives, estates, trusts, institutions, etc.

Volume 1 - farmer age graphThe average age of a California farmer rose from 56.8 years in 2002 to 60.1 in 2012. That’s a year and a half older than the national average of 58.3 years. More of those farmers are diversifying their businesses and/or working multiple jobs, too – 54.5 percent of operators listed “farming” as their principal operation in 2012, compared to 61.7 percent in 2002.

The number of men working as “principal farm operators” in California has decreased from 67,016 in 2002 to 63,873 in 2012.

Volume 1 - women graphSource: USDA Ag Census data, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)


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To Fight Climate Change, Heal the Ground – From the NY Times

California Today: To Fight Climate Change, Heal the Ground
By:Mike McPhate

Sheep grazed at a field planted with a cover crop at Skyelark Ranch in Brooks, in Yolo County. California is encouraging farmers to strengthen their soils to help draw more carbon into the ground. Credit Joe Proudman

The climate change fight has focused largely on cutting emissions.

But California is now considering another solution: dirt.

Whereas an overabundance of carbon in the air has been disrupting our climate, plants are hungry for the stuff.

The Central Valley’s farmlands essentially operate as a vast lung, breathing in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and converting it into plant tissues. That results in less of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

But the healthier the soil, the more carbon is stored in plants.

Enter California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, a statewide program rolling out this summer that is the first of its kind in the country.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that the soil beneath our feet has huge potential to sequester carbon,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

More than a quarter of California’s landmass is used for agriculture. Over generations, farming practices like monocropping and tillage have reduced the amount of organic matter in the soil, affecting plant growth. Some of that organic matter, which contains carbon, needs to be put back.

“If you don’t put carbon back in, you’re kind of mining the soil,” said Kate Scow, a professor of soil science at the University of California, Davis.

California’s initiative will give grants to farmers who take steps to reverse that nutrient loss. Those could include adding compost on rangelands or seeding fields between harvests with so-called cover crops such as grasses and mustards, which add organic matter to the soil.

State officials say such measures could eliminate from the air the equivalent of millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year.

For now, the soils initiative is funded with just $7.5 million, a drop in the bucket for a state with more than 76,000 farms. But officials hope it can be expanded after demonstrating enough interest from farmers.

To that end, they’ve pushed the program as a win-win by citing evidence showing healthy soils produce higher yields.

But many unknowns still need to be sorted out, said Cynthia Cory, director of environmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

California agricultural is dizzyingly varied. More than 230 crops spring from the Central Valley alone.

Even if the new measures are good for yields, whether they justify a farm’s time, labor and expense depends on its unique circumstances.

“We want to try it,” Ms. Cory said. “I don’t know if bad or good is the question. It’s just, ‘Is it worth it?’”

 Also, hear CDFA Secretary Karen Ross discuss the Healthy Soils Initiative – courtesy of 89.3 KPCC, Los Angeles

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Secretary Ross with 2016-2017 Executive Fellows

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross met today with the 2016-2017 class of state government executive fellows. The group discussed a wide range of issues, including state and federal agricultural policy, leadership strategies, and opportunities for millennials in public service. The Executive Fellowship Program is sponsored by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento and the Office of the Governor. Each of the fellows is currently serving an internship at a state agency. From left, Carlos Aguilera, Government Operations Agency; Lorine Cheung, Department of Business Oversight; Kaitlin Meyer, California Volunteers; Jenny Nguyen, Department of Public Health;  Claudia Espinoza, Cal Recycle; Annika Deurlington, Department of Finance;  Jaydeep Singh, CDFA; Secretary Ross; Coral Abbott, Strategic Growth Council; Patricia Vazquez,  Labor and Workforce Development Agency; Jesus Flores, Strategic Growth Council; Emma Johnston, Natural Resources Agency.

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