As drought and climate change continue to pose challenges for farmers and ranchers in the Central Valley and all of California, a family farm in Oakdale, Stanislaus County, may offer a window to the future with a water-efficient cactus farm. Meet Darlene Ruiz and her father, Salvador Ruiz, a former farmworker.
Video in Spanish
CDFA’s Healthy Refrigeration Grant Program–referenced in the video–funds energy efficient refrigeration units in corner stores, small businesses, and food donation programs to stock California-grown fresh produce, nuts, dairy, meat, eggs, minimally-processed foods, and culturally appropriate foods.
The Ruiz cactus farm is an example of the essential contributions made by Latinos in California, as well as the type of water-efficient farming that fits California’s hotter, drier climate.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that the Biden-Harris Administration is making $500 million in grants available to increase American-made fertilizer production to spur competition and combat price hikes on U.S. farmers caused by the war in Ukraine.
“Under the leadership of President Biden and Vice President Harris, USDA is creating a resilient, secure and sustainable economy, and this support to provide domestic, independent choices for fertilizer supplies is part of that effort,” Vilsack said. “USDA believes in the growth of innovative, local businesses owned and shared by people who can best serve their own unique community’s needs, fill gaps, and build opportunities. Recent supply chain disruptions have shown just how critical it is to invest in the agricultural supply chain here at home. The Fertilizer Production Expansion Program is one example of many Biden-Harris Administration initiatives to bring production and jobs back to the United States, promote competition and support American goods and services.”
The Biden-Harris Administration’s Fertilizer Production Expansion Program is part of a whole-of-government effort to promote competition in agricultural markets. The funds are being made available through the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Grants will be used to support independent, innovative and sustainable American fertilizer production to supply American farmers. Funds also will expand the manufacturing and processing of fertilizer and nutrient alternatives in the U.S. and its territories.
The program will support fertilizer production that is:
Independent, and outside the orbit of dominant fertilizer suppliers. Because the program’s goal is to increase competition, market share restrictions apply.
Made in America. Products must be produced by companies operating in the U.S. or its territories, to create good-paying jobs at home, and reduce the reliance on potentially unstable, inconsistent foreign supplies.
Innovative. Techniques will improve fertilizer production methods and efficient-use technologies to jumpstart the next generation of fertilizers and nutrient alternatives.
Sustainable. Ideally, products will reduce the greenhouse gas impact of transportation, production and use through renewable energy sources, feedstocks and formulations, incentivizing greater precision in fertilizer use.
Farmer-focused. Like other Commodity Credit Corporation investments, a driving factor is providing support and opportunities for U.S. agricultural commodity producers.
Eligible entities are for‐profit businesses and corporations, nonprofit entities, Tribes and Tribal organizations, producer‐owned cooperatives and corporations, certified benefit corporations, and state or local governments. Private entities must be independently owned and operated to apply.
The maximum award is $100 million. The minimum award is $1 million. The grant term is five years.
The Department will begin accepting applications in the coming days via www.grants.gov. Notably, there will be two opportunities for submission.
The Department plans for a 45-day application window for applicants to receive priority for projects that increase the availability of fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphate or potash) and nutrient alternatives for agricultural producers to use in crop years 2023 or 2024.
The Department will also offer an extended application window, providing an additional 45 days (90-day application window) to receive applications for financial assistance to significantly increase American-made fertilizer production to spur competition and combat price hikes. This extended application window will support applicants who need more time to make additional capacity available.
The Department is hosting two informational webinars:
CDFA was joined today by CalFire and the University of California division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the 55th Annual California Native American Day on the West Steps of the State Capitol. CDFA provided information about integrated pest control practices to protect California’s agriculture, including citrus pest and disease prevention, in addition information about department grant programs, and the Farm to School Program.
This was the first in-person California Native American Day since 2019. This year’s theme, “Stand Strong Together,” celebrates and honors the historical and cultural contributions of California Native Americans. The California Tribal Chairpersons’ Association is the host organization for Native American Day, working in partnership with the Native American Heritage Commission and the Native American Day Planning Committee
CDFA’s Produce Safety Program works to ensure that California farmers understand how to implement all food safety practices required by the federal Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule.
As part of PSP’s Educate, Implement and Regulate strategy to accomplish this, three PSP inspectors recently gave a Produce Safety Rule presentation in Spanish to more than 50 organic growers at a workshop hosted by the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas. After the 30-minute presentation, PSP inspectors fielded questions from attendees particular to their small organic farms.
“Thank you CDFA for the Produce Safety Rule workshop,” ALBA posted to its Facebook page (@albafarmers). “It’s important to understand new policies and learn how to stay in compliance. The ultimate goal is to prevent any contamination.”
“Gracias CDFA por el taller de reglas de seguridad de productos agrícolas frescos de hoy. Es importante comprender las nuevas pólizas y aprender a cumplirlas. El objetivo final es prevenir cualquier contaminación.”
Note — In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, CDFA wishes to acknowledge the extensive work of ALBA to create opportunities for farmworkers through training in organic farm management, helping them advance their careers or pursue the dream of farm ownership. CDFA Secretary Karen Ross visited ALBA yesterday in Salinas and in the photo below speaks with a grower in the training program tending to kale and broccolini.
Elizabeth Hessom, a senior environmental scientist at CDFA, has been with the agency for a year and a half and currently works on the Healthy Soils Program, which helps producers to improve soil health, sequester carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
How did you get interested in this kind of work?
I’ve been working with CDFA for about a year-and-a-half on the Healthy Soils Program (HSP). I feel like it is a great fit based on my educational background and experience working on grant programs. I have always had an interest in environmental work and started exploring this field during my undergraduate degree, where I focused my research on drought impacts on California native plants. My interest expanded in my graduate work, where I was introduced to the world of soil and water science and learned about the potential of soils to benefit our climate and agricultural production. There are amazing things happening right below our feet!
After graduate school, I worked in the agricultural research sector getting hands-on experience in the field with a multitude of crop types. I then started working for the State, first with the State Water Resource Control Board and then for the Department of Conservation. I’ve been able to translate experience from their programs to help develop the HSP program even more. Now being at OEFI (the Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation), I’m excited to work with such an amazing team of scientists, farmers and ranchers, and technical assistance providers on meaningful climate-smart agricultural work.
What is it about this kind of work that you find fulfilling?
I find working on the HSP fulfilling because the program directly helps California farmers and ranchers while providing meaningful benefits to our environment – the practices the program funds help to improve soil health and water retention, sequester carbon, create pollinator habitats, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Being able to work closely with our grantees and hear about their successes and excitement in holistically improving their land makes this work very gratifying.
What do you hope the Healthy Soils Program can accomplish in the next year?
The HSP team continuously works to improve and advance the program. With the unprecedented funding of $85 million for the next solicitation cycle, one of our goals is to streamline our application and practice verification processes for the benefit of our applicants and grantees. The program may start looking towards more analytical concepts such as scientifically applying the data we collect and determining additional parameters for soil health. We hope to provide insight and share our experiences with other governmental agencies, the private sector, and international partners so more people can implement climate-smart agriculture practices to help mitigate climate change.
Through the Healthy Soils Program, CDFA has funded 688 projects, resulting in a reduction of more than 265,626 metric tons of greenhouse gas over the lifespan of the projects, which is like removing more than 231,000 passenger vehicles from the road each year.
Roberto Le-Fort and Dolores Howard farm a diverse number of crops just north of San Luis Obispo in the town of Creston, California, including apples, peaches, four varieties of basil, carrots, tomatoes, a multitude of herbs and spices, as well as summer and winter squashes and gourds, just to name a few. Le-Fort is a grant recipient from CDFA’s State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), which supports producers to reduce their on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and improve water efficiency.
With SWEEP funding, the Le-Fort farm is implementing the use of soil moisture and temperature sensors to assist with the timing of irrigation and a solar array to offset the energy used by irrigation pumps. Although soil management practices were not funded by SWEEP, the farm uses cover-cropping, mulching, and compost to support soil health and water retention in soil as part of its overall climate-smart ag practices.
1. What does this drought mean to you and what are you doing to adapt to it?
This drought and temperature increase affect all of us, but especially the people who must work in these extreme conditions. We are progressing towards changes in daily practices, such as careful monitoring of irrigation leaks and irrigation timing, using water multiple times, intense mulching, and experimenting with new crops that can be successful in these conditions.
Over the last several years, installing a high-efficiency micro irrigation system, native plant hedgerows, a riparian buffer strip, shade hoop houses, and more use of cover crops and mulches have all helped us to increase soil health, attract beneficial insects and diversify crops.
2. What is your advice to others for reducing water use and improving efficiency?
These incentives get you doing the practices; by the time you’re done, it’s just the way you do things. Having your data all in one place makes planning easier. Apply compost and other organic materials. Use irrigation timers and other helpful technology. Explore new options for crops and learn from others (new strategies and wisdom of elders).
CDFA is proud to have invested more than $123 million in grant awards for 1,111 projects by producers to upgrade their water efficiency infrastructure and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, this program has saved an estimated 47.1 billion gallons of water annually, enough to fill 70,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Further, these projects have reduced the equivalent of 93,000 metric tons of CO2 annually, representing 20,300 cars taken off the road for one year.
Alyssa Louie, a senior environmental scientist at CDFA, has been with the agency for seven-and-a-half years and currently works on the Dairy Digester Development and Research Program (DDRDP) and the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), both of which reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California, with the digester program also generating renewable energy.
How did you get interested in working for CDFA on climate-smart ag?
I’m a large animal and herd health focused veterinarian by training, and early on was drawn to ways in which our profession could be engaged with animal, public, and ecological health, food safety and security, and at the juxtaposition of agriculture with humans and wildlife. Working for the State of California and being exposed to its numerous and ambitious climate actions and goals, I developed a strong interest in climate change and its impacts on animal agriculture – how climate smart practices could work to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as help agriculture adapt to challenges brought on by climate change and thrive sustainably in tandem with the community and as stewards of the environment. The opportunity to work with cattle (well, their manure at least) and climate smart agriculture was something I couldn’t pass up.
What about this work do you find fulfilling?
Advancing climate smart agriculture practices in California allows me to support animal agriculture and livestock health and work to combat climate change. To do so in a fairly direct manner by awarding grants and seeing the results in new equipment, composting areas, barns that have increased efficiency of manure handling, nutrient management, animal health and comfort, and water use on these operations a year or two later can be gratifying and unique. The kind words of appreciation for the program and our efforts from grant recipients and supporters of California’s diverse cattle industry, hearing about their proactive commitment to sustainability, and getting to see cows eating, romping, and lounging during project verification definitely doesn’t hurt. Did I mention I really like cows?
What do you hope CDFA’s methane emissions reduction programs can accomplish in the next year?
The Alternative Manure Management Program is constantly striving to evolve and improve to help achieve the methane reduction goals of the State, and to aid with California dairy and livestock operators. Along with its sister programs and efforts in methane reduction (Dairy Digester Research and Development Program, organic waste composting, and short-lived climate pollutants), we’re hoping to expand goals to better integrate nutrient management in addition to methane reduction, improve access to technical assistance for application and project implementation, see projects awarded in new regions, and support research validating existing methane reduction strategies and exploring new ones such as addressing enteric emissions.
Combined, CDFA has awarded 232 projects through the AMMP and DDRDP programs, resulting in a reduction of more than 22.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gas over the expected lifespan of the projects.
Alfred Melbourne tromped through Three Sisters Gardens’ half-acre urban farm on a recent Friday morning dressed in black Ray-Ban sunglasses, cut-off shorts and a black tank top showing off his lean build and many tribal tattoos. Hummingbirds flitted through bean plants in West Sacramento’s Broderick neighborhood, next to rows of tomatoes and eggplants poking out from tangled vines. There were bell and serrano peppers, purple and Thai basil, two types of melons and patches of cilantro.
Some of that produce, planted and harvested by volunteers as young as 11, will end up on West Sacramento school lunch trays. It’s part of the “farm-to-school” movement making its way through the Sacramento region and California as a whole, one Melbourne wants to see grow. “We want the kids to see where their food comes from. We want them to actually connect with the land,” said Melbourne, a Hunkpapa Lakota tribe member. “Being native, we know that the land, the mother, has healing properties, so just making contact and seeing (how) a handful of seeds can turn into a whole field of food growing … we want them to be a part of that magic.”
As downtown Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Festival draws approximately 150,000 visitors throughout September, the city’s children finally seem to be inching toward healthier meals at school. The days of Sysco chicken patties and freezer-burned raw broccoli could slowly be on the way out thanks to a new state-of-the art central kitchen in Sacramento, shifting state politics and growing relationships with local farmers.
Longtime farm-to-school proponents received a boost from California’s first couple, particularly First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who’s made the movement one of her priority issues. After years of slow progress, millions of dollars are flowing toward locally sourced school lunches, helping offset some of the costs associated with higher-quality food.
The 2022-23 state budget included $60 million in farm-to-school grants, up from $8.5 million in the inaugural program two years ago and well beyond the $12 million the USDA doled out nationwide last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom also approved $600 million in school kitchen upgrades, visible in the new combination ovens coming to every campus in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
“I think we have an opportunity to heal our state and our country through our emphasis on farm-to-school,” Siebel Newsom said. “There’s only an upside if we do this right.” BIG INVESTMENTS The United States was just starting to push its way out of the Great Recession in November 2012 when Sacramento voters overwhelmingly approved a $414 million bond package centered on the city’s schools.
Measure R, as the smaller of the bond package’s two elements was known, included $68 million to fix up playgrounds, improve school safety and fund construction of a central kitchen to feed the district’s children.
Ten years later, Sacramento City Unified has transformed a former dumping ground for unneeded desks and books into a 50,000-square foot industrial kitchen in Tahoe Park. It has another 50,000 square feet of warehouse storage, plus parking and gas for a fleet of delivery trucks.
The Central Kitchen produced daily meals for 4,000 students this summer. That’s a gargantuan feat in its own right, but the end goal is much larger: feeding all 43,000 Sacramento City Unified students freshly prepared free meals from The Central Kitchen in the next three to five years.
That means giant sous-vide cookers preparing tender chicken breasts and thighs to be sliced for soups, salads and enchiladas. Chef Tom Lucero, formerly the corporate executive chef over Sienna Restaurant and Land Ocean American Grill, will eventually oversee more than 30 cooks processing produce and baking bread, muffins and pizza dough.
A roving food truck will also make use of those fresh ingredients, serving junior high students breakfast 45 minutes before class begins. The district wants to make school meals appealing enough — cool enough, really — that kids will seek them out, said Sacramento City Unified Executive Director of Nutrition Services Diana Flores.
“A lot of students do not even participate in school meals because they don’t either like the taste, they don’t like the stigma associated with eating school meals or they’re frankly just too busy socializing at lunchtime,” Flores said. “We want to have a meal that’s so great that we’ll bring them in to eat, so they do better in the classroom.”
The Central Kitchen now sources from more than 45 area growers, purchasing directly when possible to cut out distributors’ costs. It buys out Rancho Cordova-based Soil Born Farms’ entire lettuce crop, purchases Perry & Sons watermelons from Manteca and gets tomatoes, squash and cucumbers from Root 64’s one-acre farm just down the street in Tahoe Park.
Rice comes from SunWest Foods in Yuba City, while Sierra Sun Fruit Marketing supplies peaches from outside Fresno and Miller Citrus Grove hooks the district up with Penryn mandarins.
Statewide farm-to-school efforts began building since the mid-2000s, but typically lacked funding, district Assistant Director of Nutrition Services Kelsey Nederveld said. Sacramento voters helped remedy that with Measure R in 2012, and the state has prioritized it as of late.
New this year as well: free breakfast and lunch for all California public school students regardless of family income, thanks to a budget bill Newsom signed into law in July 2021.
A bounty of studies indicate students’ diets are a major factor in their academic performance. Nourish the stomach, nourish the mind, Siebel Newsom said — with the climate-friendly appeal of local sourcing a cherry on top.
“We have this huge opportunity in front of us to benefit not just children’s health and well-being and academic prowess, but also climate change by reducing transportation, reducing emissions through a circular economy,” Siebel Newsom said.
GROWN BY KIDS, EATEN BY KIDS
Melbourne’s story has become famous in local farm-to-fork circles. After serving 18 years in prison, he turned to gardening as a form of therapy. With support from the West Sacramento Urban Farm program, he eventually founded the nonprofit Three Sisters Gardens on the corner of 5th and C streets in 2018.
Three Sisters has since expanded to four urban farms, including one across the street from Elkhorn Village Elementary School, all with a holistic approach meant to benefit the earth and community. Melbourne eventually wants 50 farms in West Sacramento, part of a “land back” approach he says Native Americans need to flourish.
“We want to give them a sustainable food system in our own community using the land that we have available to us,” Melbourne said.
Three Sisters donates 40% of what it grows to local food banks or community members, and sells much of the rest at area farmers markets. The Natomas Unified School District was its only wholesale client up until the beginning of summer.
But Natomas isn’t as close as Melbourne would like, despite being just a 15-minute drive from the main farm. He’s ended that contract and beginning another one with Washington School District in West Sacramento, hoping to keep his produce as close to his historically-underserved community as possible.
“We’re working in the communities where the help is needed the most,” Melbourne said. “We’re trying to show people how to grow their own food at the same time as we’re giving food to the community … showing them how to fish as opposed to just giving them a fish.”