A farmer’s perspective from the fire zone – from the UC Food Observer

A view of the Thomas Fire this week from the author’s farm in Ventura County

By Chris Sayer


This week is California Soils Week

I have been chewing on an appropriate commentary, but hadn’t found quite the right angle on it. What was there I could say that was new?

And then the fire came.

A dear friend was one of the first evacuees; fleeing her home with trailered horses before the news even broke to the world. The last three days have been a literal whirlwind of bad news. I haven’t been able to keep track of all the friends and acquaintances who have suffered from this fire. Homes, farms and businesses are gone.

And we have several more days of Santa Ana winds to go.

I’ve been fortunate. Though evacuated from one ranch, I’m safe at the other. I’ve lost nothing but sleep. Writing was something I haven’t had time for. Besides, how could I worry about the soil at a time like this?

Yet it occurs to me that this will be a disaster of the soils as well. As I write this, nearly one hundred thousand acres of my home county have been scorched. On barren hillsides and rangeland, the soil lies wounded and vulnerable.

A friend is putting together a GoFundMe to obtain seed to help restore grazing land and secure slopes. Many details to be worked out. And we’ll need some rain. But soil is built upon the leaves and roots of plants, and we know how to make that happen.

We can help the soil help us to recover.

That seems like exactly what I should write about for California Soils Week.

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California Soils Week: GrowGood community garden tour

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (left) and CDFA Secretary Karen Ross (right) learn about GrowGood from its Executive Director Mary MacVean.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross joined Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Strategic Growth Council Executive Director Randall Winston and other guests in the Southern California city of Bell today to tour an innovative community garden, GrowGood, that works to provide food security to the homeless and needy as well as training and jobs. The group learned that the site has produced nearly 10,000 pounds of food this year.

The visit is part of California Soils Week (December 4 to December 7). The week’s theme is “Healthy Soils, Healthy Lives,” in recognition of the fact that California’s soils help feed the world, conserve water, improve air quality, fight climate change, and provide opportunity.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross (right) with Strategic Growth Council Executive Director Randall Winston and GrowGood Farms Executive Director Mary MacVean.

Posted in Agricultural Education, Food Access, Healthy soils | 2 Comments

CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork Looks Ahead to Fertile Future

As 2018 draws near, CDFA’s Office of Farm to Fork can look back on all that happened in 2017 and know that there will be an even-stronger commitment to improving all Californians’ access to California-grown foods by working to reduce food insecurity and advancing farm-to-school relationships. We are pleased to share the details of this work through the release of the 2016 – 2017 Annual Report, a redesigned website, and a new strategic plan.

In 2017 the Office assumed leadership of the California Farm to School Network, an organization dedicated to increasing student access to food grown within our state and educating them about the production of that food. The network connects 4,300 stakeholders, including farmers and school districts, across the state with the collective goal of improving the quality of student meals and inspiring lifelong healthy eating habits.

The Office of Farm to Fork is also operating the California Nutrition Incentive Program (CNIP), which encourages the purchase and consumption of healthy, California-grown fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts by nutrition benefit clients at certified farmers’ markets. The program is a win-win for farmers and low-income Californians. Since launching this past summer, CNIP has provided over $500,000 in fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income shoppers. More details can be found here.

Throughout 2017 the Office also continued its commitment to provide stakeholders and the public with reports, program profiles, and best practices farm-to -school an food access. Materials are available on the newly redesigned www.CAFarmtoFork.com and are arranged by topic.

There is still a long road ahead, but the Office of Farm to Fork is pleased with the roadmap that has been created to this point and will be working to leverage all available resources for the benefit of Californians well into the future.

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Compost drop for California Soils Week

It’s Compost Drop Day at the California State Capitol! Elena Yates of CalRecycle hands a packet of compost and an informational poster to a staff member in the office of Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva (D -Fullerton). The outreach is of part of the first-ever California Soils Week, which continues through Thursday with a theme of “Healthy Soils, Healthy Lives.”

CDFA’s Jaydeep Singh meets with a staff member in the office of Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella).

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CDFA Honors Craig McNamara’s tenure and leadership on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross with State Board President Craig McNamara at this morning’s session.

After more than 16 years on the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, with the last 7 years as Board President, Craig McNamara is stepping down from his position on the Board to participate as a 2018 Fellow in the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute program.  The fellowship program offers an extraordinary opportunity for individuals to advance social impact at the local, national and global levels.

“Craig has been a visionary leader for the State Board and has been an unwavering advocate for California’s farmers and ranchers to both me and the Governor,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “I’m happy for Craig in his new pursuit, but will deeply miss his counsel and thoughtfulness on the issues impacting the agricultural community.”

Under Craig’s leadership the Board further advanced the California Ag Vision, helped to double farm contributions to food banks, addressed agricultural immigration issues, and was a critical voice for agriculture in a variety of water discussions related to drought and sustainable groundwater management.

As Craig departs the State Board he leaves behind a legacy of dedication to California’s farmers and ranchers and a reinvigorated Board mission of engagement and representation of the diversity of California’s agricultural sector to the governor and CDFA secretary.

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture advises the governor and the CDFA secretary on agricultural issues and consumer needs. The state board conducts forums that bring together local, state and federal government officials, agricultural representatives and citizens to discuss current issues of concern to California agriculture.

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Climate Smart Agriculture – Chile trip concludes

We ended our Climate Smart Agriculture delegation visit last week by visiting the La Serena region of Chile. This region, North of Santiago, is a cool season agricultural region very similar to Ventura and Salinas, California. This region received little rain during the drought and there is an overall downward trend in how much water the region has been receiving over time.

The Government has worked to build several small reservoirs and on-farm irrigation ponds in this region to ensure agricultural needs. One reservoir we visited provides 50,000 acres with water and is capable of holding water to overcome short term droughts and floods that can impact the communities that live in the region. Specialty crops grown here include lettuce, table grapes, grapes for pisco (distilled alcoholic drink) and citrus. At this particular reservoir, operation managers collect weather data and share this information with the growers through smart phone apps. Management of the reservoir was moved from a public project to a privately operated system, after construction, with growers and others paying for operation and maintenance costs.

Manager of the Puclaro Dam outside La Serena speaks to the Climate Smart Agriculture delegation.

The La Serena region is also home to a few of the research stations associated with the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA). Very similar to the University of California Research Extension Centers, INIA focuses on on-farm agricultural research and extension services distribution to farmers through field days (irrigation efficiency and pesticide applications were among the top priorities). Grower outreach and on-farm adaptation of new technologies and practices has proved challenging in the small farm community, but INIA remains dedicated to providing assistance to small farmers in helping them adapt to a climate change.

Climate smart agriculture delegation visits INIA and discusses irrigation/water use efficiency and vegetable production research

In reflecting on the California-Chile Climate Smart Agriculture mission, I am very happy at the outcome, humbled to travel with a wonderful group of intelligent and curious stakeholders and look forward to additional information sharing to come through webinars and other activities between California and Chile.

California’s Climate Smart Ag delegation – (left to right) Brooks Ohlson, Jeffrey Creque, Ellen Hanak, Don Cameron, DeeDee D’Adamo, John Chandler, Secretary Karen Ross, Doug Parker, Sebastián Pacheco (Punto Azul), Frank Muller, Paul Robins, Derek Azevedo, Aaron Lange and Josh Eddy



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Video – Kicking off California Soils Week!

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross joined the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners today to kick-off the first-ever California Soils Week, which is being celebrated from December 4 to December 7.

Secretary Ross led a ribbon-cutting in front of an informational panel display at the State Capitol. With her (L to R) are NRCS acting conservationist for California Raymond Dotson; Michael Dimock, president, Roots of Change; Mary Kaems, principal consultant for California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon; and Brian Shobe of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN).

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Soil Power! From the New York Times

This is California Soils Week (December 4 to December 7). World Soils Day is on December 5. 

By Jacques Leslie

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.

Now scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists and farmers believe the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm shift in agriculture, triggering the abandonment of conventional practices like tillage, crop residue removal, mono-cropping, excessive grazing and blanket use of chemical fertilizer and pesticide. Even cattle, usually considered climate change culprits because they belch at least 25 gallons of methane a day, are being studied as a potential part of the climate change solution because of their role in naturally fertilizing soil and cycling nutrients.

The climate change crisis is so far advanced that even drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t prevent a convulsive future by itself — the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere ensures dire trouble ahead. The most plausible way out is to combine emission cuts with “negative-emission” or “drawdown” technologies, which pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and into the other pools. Most of these proposed technologies are forms of geoengineering, dubious bets on huge climate manipulations with a high likelihood of disastrous unintended consequences.

On the other hand, carbon sequestration in soil and vegetation is an effective way to pull carbon from the atmosphere that in some ways is the opposite of geoengineering. Instead of overcoming nature, it reinforces it, promoting the propagation of plant life to return carbon to the soil that was there in the first place — until destructive agricultural practices prompted its release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That process started with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and accelerated over the last century as industrial farming and ranching rapidly expanded.

Read More

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Climate Change in the Southern Hemisphere: irrigation efficiency and other adaptations in Chile

Delegation members Jeff Creque of the Carbon Cycle Institute and Paul Robins of the Monterey County Resource Conservation District check out some Chilean soil.

Irrigation efficiency, water conservation and water management are three terms that resonated over and over as we visited specialty crop farms and talked to water managers during our ongoing visit to Chile. These are important issues that Chile and California share, given that both counties have recently experienced historic droughts with significantly reduced snowpacks and greater reliance on groundwater.

We visited an avocado grower who pumps water approximately 1,600 feet up steep slopes with electrical water pumps for a highly efficient drip irrigation system. With little rain in the San Felipe region (north of Santiago), using efficient irrigation technologies like those incentivized in CDFA’s SWEEP program are critical to ensuring agricultural food production in this region.

Secretary Ross with Chilean avocado grower Gonzalo Bulnes.

Providing growers with access to an adequate water supply is a priority shared south of Santiago, as well. A water management agency in the Cachapoal River-area supplies approximately 100,000 acres of agricultural land with water and is investing in cloud seeding to stimulate additional precipitation. The government of Chile is also participating in this project and is assisting this agency and others in an effort to maintain water deliveries not only to agriculture, but to other sectors such as mining and urban areas.

The delegation visited Escuela Agricola El Carmen De San Fernando, a high school providing irrigation instruction among other courses.



Irrigation efficiency and water management are supported through innovative education pathways in Chile. We visited a high school that focuses on teaching its students about irrigation and public/private partnerships. They get hands-on experience with renewable energy use and water pump improvements. Understanding these technologies and providing growers with human resources and expertise to operate efficient irrigation systems is critical to future food production.

We also saw that if a grower selects the right plant variety, greater on-farm water efficiency can be achieved. A company we visited called SubSole has planted newer varieties that produce double the yield with half the water use. The company produces specialty crops like table grapes, avocados, kiwis, cherries and pomegranates and has invested heavily in  sustainability and food safety programs to provide a high level of environmental and social responsibility certifications to buyers and consumers. SubSole uses very little nitrogen fertilizer for its table grapes because it has built organic (carbon) content in soil through the addition of compost and mulching; management practices that will soon be incentivized in CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program.

Many specialty crops farms in Chile are supported by agronomic experts from the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA). INIA is a government supported organization whose work is similar to the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Cooperative Extension Services. These extension services are critical to ensuring growers have the right expertise as they invest in efficient irrigation systems and technologies to combat climate change events. What we have learned so far is that Chile is very similar to California and it is working hard to adapt to a changing climate through investment in specific technologies, education and outreach activities.

Secretary Ross is in Chile this week for an exchange on climate change adaptation. Joining her in the delegation are representatives from the agricultural, academic and policy sectors. 

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Video – Climate Change in the Southern Hemisphere: specialty crops in Chile

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross and a delegation from the agricultural, academic and policy sectors is in Chile this week for an exchange on climate change adaptation. In this video, delegation member Dorene (Dee Dee) D’Adamo, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, shares what is being learned about specialty crop production, Ag education, and other elements of Chilean agriculture.     

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