Time and again, research shows that students who plant, grow and harvest fruits and vegetables can’t wait to eat them. With hopes of converting that enthusiasm into lifelong healthy eating habits, Farm to School programs throughout California encourage and facilitate school gardens. Here’s an example at Silverado Middle School in Napa.
If ever there was a glaring example of the havoc and heartache climate change can cause to a farming family, the assortment of chain restaurants, stores and 300 apartments on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale is the one.
The 16-acre development in the heart of Silicon Valley is where Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s family had a cherry orchard and fruit stand, called C.J. Olson Cherries, that was a landmark for about a century in the agricultural region once known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight.
The orchard, at the corner of El Camino and Mathilda Avenue, was bulldozed in 1999, one of the last farms in Sunnyvale to be plowed under. But Jacobson said it wasn’t high-tech urbanization that compelled the family to develop the land after more than a century of farming it.
“For five years, from about 1991 to 1996, we didn’t get any cherries,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, who blamed a sudden, dramatic decrease in the number of cool, frosty nights that cherries need to blossom. “It had everything to do with climate change. It was the 1990s and it was getting warmer already.”
That’s the kind of collapse that climate scientists are predicting could become common in California over the next few decades, as average temperatures increase anywhere from 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Every degree of warming is expected to worsen what, in many ways, is already a crisis for the state’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry. And a crisis here is a problem everywhere, given that California produces 50 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and 90 percent of its nut crops.
But agriculture is beginning to fight back, employing groundbreaking technology and techniques that experts believe will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve the health of livestock, increase food production and maximize the effectiveness of the state’s over-tapped water delivery system.
The Golden State is a role model for the rest of the nation in the deployment of water recycling systems using reverse osmosis, drip irrigation and the seasonal rotation of crops to improve the soil. Grazing is being altered in many places so that it mimics the way native ungulates once used the land; riverside farmland is being flooded during the off-season to help fish spawn; and improvements in livestock nutrition are being developed to reduce methane emissions.
“The ag industry has the capacity to be one of humanity’s great hopes for dealing with climate change, but it’s really going to have to shift course,” said Jacob Katz, lead scientist at the conservation group California Trout, who works with rice farmers to create floodplain habitat for salmon and restore the once carbon-rich peat soils in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Adaptations could protect California agriculture from the worst effects of climate change, but the industry will still face problems due to more droughts, less snowfall and shorter winters as global warming ramps up.
Studies have shown that temperatures have already increased 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the Central Valley — like Chico, Davis and the Sierra foothills — since the 1940s. And various studies have also shown dramatic declines since 1950 in tule fog, resulting in fewer hours of temperatures below 40 degrees in growing regions.
That, as Jacobson’s family found out, can be a killer for tree crops like cherries, apricots, peaches, almonds and pistachios. They all rely on the cold to bring on dormancy, a physiological process that helps them produce buds, flowers and fruit during the growing season.
“The last four years have been the four warmest in historical record keeping, and the temperatures are only getting higher and higher,” said Jacobson, who transitioned from family farming in his youth to climate modeling, with a concentration on how warming impacts agriculture. “This is going to keep going on and it’s going to manifest itself in the form of droughts, and in some places, more extreme weather.”
What exactly will it mean for California farmers and ranchers?
Josué Medellín-Azuara, the associate director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Merced, said the biggest issue will be irrigation. Decreases in the Sierra snowpack mean less melting in the summer, so more rainwater will need to be stored in the winter. Hotter temperatures would also mean crops and orchards will retain less moisture.
“Plants may actually lose water more quickly because of the heat, so they may actually need more water than they need now to survive,” Medellín-Azuara said. This at a time when California is expected to experience more droughts.
Christopher Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute and the former co-chairman of a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group, projects crop losses of up to 40 percent by 2050, depending on the location.
Field’s color-coded models show reductions in crop output, or yield, in virtually every growing region — particularly in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, where oranges, walnuts and avocados are grown — even if warming is kept below the accepted international target of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wine grapes and almonds would have to be moved farther north, and most other California crops would either disappear or yield a small fraction of their current production if the Earth warmed 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, which could happen by the end of the century if nothing is done to curb emissions, according to his studies.
“There are likely to be places where farming occurs that will stop,” Field said of his worst-case projections. “You might see a decrease in vineyards in the Sierra foothills, where it is already quite hot for vineyard production. … In general, the places that could still support agriculture tend (in the models) to be in mountainous counties in the northeastern part of the state, where it isn’t suitable for agriculture.”
With 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, more than 95% of the land in California currently used to grow crops — excluding wine grapes and possibly marijuana — will no longer be usable.
Exacerbating the situation is the shift by California farmers over the past 25 years away from annual crops to nut trees, which require year-round watering.
Farmers can fallow fields of lettuce and other annual crops during droughts and replant them later. That’s not an option for nut trees, which need 10 years of growth and a steady supply of water before they yield enough to pay for themselves.
But there likely won’t be enough water to keep all the trees alive, and farmers from Fresno to Sacramento face higher prices for precious water. It is why implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is so important, said Ellen Hanak, an economist and director of the Water Policy Center for the Public Policy Institute of California.
The law was passed in 2014 in response to the alarming depletion of groundwater reserves in the Central Valley during the five-year drought.
Hanak said recharging the overused California aquifer will require investment in programs to recycle and inject water into the ground and necessitate a 10 percent reduction in farming acreage over the next 20 years.
“This region has been using more groundwater than it has naturally replenished for decades,” Hanak said. “Fixing that is going to be a heavy lift, but it’s going to be better for the economy and for jobs.”
But if projections are accurate, hardly any land will be suitable for agriculture where crops are currently being grown unless major investments are made in adaptive farming and conservation.
Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the UC Davis animal science department, said that is why sensors are being installed to monitor water use, and more ranchers are adopting regenerative farming and grazing techniques that ensure the land sequesters more carbon than it emits.
Mitloehner said new anaerobic digesters, which convert manure into energy, and advances in nutrition are reducing methane from manure and burping cows. He said the dairy and livestock industries are on pace to meet the requirements of a 2016 law that requires agriculture to curb methane emissions 40 percent by 2030.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state agency in 2019. Throughout the year this blog will feature a number of items to commemorate this milestone. Today we continue with the Centennial Reflections video series, featuring CDFA employees remembering their histories, and the agency’s.
CDFA Secretary Karen Ross recently took representatives of the Governor’s Office and Cal-EPA on a tour of two Central Valley farms to show how they are successfully utilizing CDFA Climate Smart Agriculture grants and benefiting from the work that CDFA and its partner agencies are doing to facilitate adaptation to climate change through public policy.
At the Magneson Dairy near Ballico in Merced County, the group learned about the dairy’s use of an Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) grant to reduce methane emissions by converting to dry manure management practices. The dairy installed a solid separator, built a concrete slab for composting, purchased a compost turner and build a compost pack barn for their heifers. The compost is spread on pastures to increase fertility and improve forage quantity, thereby increasing pasture time for the cattle and avoiding manure accumulation in the barns.
Gemperle Farms in Turlock is involved in two Healthy Soils Program grant projects. An incentives grant supports the planting of cover crops to enhance carbon sequestration and improve soil fertility and water penetration. A demonstration project, in partnership with Community Alliance with Family Farmers and UC Davis, seeks to measure the net greenhouse gas flux in a cover cropped orchard.
CDFA wishes to thank CalCAN—the California Climate and Agriculture Network—for its assistance in setting up the tours.
CDFA’s Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation supports agricultural production and incentivizes Climate Smart Agriculture practices, resulting in a net benefit for the environment through innovation, efficient management, and science.
Big research is happening at the Kearney Agriculture and Extension Center in Fresno County.
Sorghum, a crop that looks similar to corn, is under a microscope.
Jeff Dahlberg, director of the center, said that sorghum is very drought tolerant.
“What we are looking for is the mechanism behind the drought tolerance in sorghum and if we can elucidate the genetics behind that, what we believe is we can use those genetics to see if the genetics in corn, or in rice, or in wheat,” he said.
Dahlberg said they ultimately want to figure out if they can make other crops like sorghum drought tolerant.
“I think the genes may be there. We just don’t have the tools yet to search for the genes in those crops,” he said while talking about other cereal crop,” he said.
Dahlberg mentioned sorghum can be used as animal feed and a corn substitute in the ethanol market.
He added sorghum uses less water, leaving more water for other crops.
Dahlberg explained doing the study in California is the perfect spot because we don’t see too much rain in the summer. So they can control how much water the crop gets.
“We’ve been really thrilled with the data that’s been coming out of this, like most research, we are learning so many things we don’t understand. We are finding things like ‘Wow, why is this happening’,” he said.
He mentioned that there are over 100 genetic markers that the center is looking at to figure out what makes the crop drought tolerant.
Besides the amount of water it soaks up, scientists are also studying what’s happening in the soil.
Devin Coleman-Derr, research scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture, said their goal is to help other plants survive under drought stress.
“Like humans take probiotics, there may be a use for microbes in sort of promoting better and better yields in the field,” he explained.
Coleman-Derr was helping to collect samples and researchers were cutting up the roots to put them into tubes.
“There’s a lot of potential benefits that is captured under there, various bacteria and fungi that the plant normally brings in to help it when it undergoes periods of stress. We like to figure out who those are and try to capture some of those so we can bring it back to the field in the following year,” he said.
Dahlberg said they are still in the early stages of their research and have a long way to go but are excited about their current findings.
When school cafeterias develop relationships with local farmers and ranchers, students and families may be in a position to make healthier food choices. That’s the first step in a process we call “Farm to School.” It’s an approach that starts local and also helps the environment by reducing food waste and sequestering carbon in soil.
For example, at King Middle School in Berkeley, the Edible Schoolyard Project (a recipient of CDFA grant funding) sequesters carbon by adding compost to the school garden – a process that provides science lessons for students. The compost piles are created in part from leftover lunch food, and the result is healthier garden soil.
Compost is a viable alternative to food waste at a time when up to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In 2010, that led to 133 billion pounds of food sent to landfills–with a value of $161 billion.
The food waste challenge also raises concerns about the waste of land, water, and energy inputs to create that food; as well as air pollutants created while transporting and disposing discarded food.
As our nation becomes more educated about food waste and its environmental impacts, the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have set a goal to cut our nation’s food waste by 50 percent by 2030. California and CDFA are committed to reaching that goal.
Farmers and ranchers in California and around the world are addressing climate change in many ways, including researching and developing new, innovative agricultural practices. Among those innovations are dairy digesters, which capture on-the-farm methane from cow manure and send it via underground pipeline for energy production. Not only does this reduce greenhouse gas emissions and produce energy, but it also offers a potential new revenue stream for the farmers.
To foster a better understanding of dairy digesters and their role in Climate Smart Agriculture on a global level, the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation is collaborating with Denmark to host a webinar titled, “Environmental and Economic Importance of Anaerobic Digestion and Renewable Natural Gas.”
This free webinar brings together farmers, research scientists and government representatives from Denmark and California to discuss strategies and practices to help growers everywhere better understand and deal with impacts of climate change. The event will be held on October 24, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. PDT.
California continues to work in collaboration with international partners to foster knowledge-sharing partnerships to address climate change impacts on agriculture. This webinar is the eleventh in a series of international discussions focusing on climate smart agriculture. For more information, contact Dr. Amrith Gunasekara at email@example.com.