Planting Seeds - Food & Farming News from CDFA

California Biodiversity Day a time to recognize state’s extraordinary natural environment

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

Today is California Biodiversity Day, and CDFA is pleased and proud to recognize this day along with the Natural Resources Agency, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and other government agencies and partners that spend every day working hard to restore, to preserve and enhance California’s biodiversity.

Our state is a biodiversity hotspot — we have 1,500 species that are only found here in California, the most of any other state; we have a fabulous Mediterranean climate, one of only five in the world; we have the highest point and the lowest point in the continental US; and we have multiple microclimates that contribute to our biodiversity.

Biodiversity is the foundation for healthy, thriving agricultural production system. Our farmers are right there on the edge of natural working landscapes, food security, and interacting with our natural environment, and it all starts with soil. We sometimes forget that a quarter of diverse species are under our feet… in soil. One handful of soil contains more microorganisms then all the people on the globe. That’s pretty remarkable!

Our farmers take care of that soil with a number of different practices. They are always looking to sequester organisms that will give them longer-term productivity by storing carbon in the soils, and that increases water holding capacities, stops erosion, and helps to preserve biodiversity. It also improves the resiliency of our plants and helps us fight climate change.

I’m really pleased that CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program is a key part of the state’s biodiversity initiative across agencies. We have been able to invest more than $40 million in incentive grants to our farmers to use compost to sequester carbon and plant cover crops, hedge rows, riparian habitat and pollinator habitat, all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building up our productivity and sustainability.

Here are a couple of specific examples, out of many — almond growers have put in hundreds and hundreds of acres of pollinator habitat, and rice growers have spent the last two decades making their rice fields a winter home to a multitude of species along the Pacific Flyway.

In closing I would like to reiterate that biodiversity is essential in California. It makes our state a special and unique place, and I call on all of us to share a commitment to preserve it, restore it and enhance it. Let’s celebrate our biodiversity today and every day!

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California’s fresh corn season continues into September

This video was shot at Davis Ranch in Sloughhouse, Sacramento County.

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Central Valley technology initiatives preparing students at all levels for tech careers throughout the ag value chain

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

Secretary Ross with a student in the fourth through sixth-grade Makers’ Space in McFarland’s Browning Road STEAM Academy

Last week it was my pleasure to participate in an event at Reedley College called AgTechX.  It was co-sponsored by Western Growers, which earlier this year announced an exciting new collaboration—the Global Harvest Automation Initiative–aiming to automate 50 percent of ag harvests within 10 years.

The technologies that were discussed during the AgTechX session were a diverse set of innovations to lead us into the future – from the collection of data for making better decisions, to easing work in the field for highly perishable specialty crops. And they also included robotics!

At the meeting, Western Growers CEO Dave Puglia introduced a new Agtech career development pipeline in partnership with community colleges like Reedley as well as the University of California and California State University systems. It is critical that we invest NOW in training our current workforce in ag tech and specialized certifications for everything from food safety to water conservation practices. We have the potential to create career ladders for farmworkers and attract the next generation to agricultural careers, so a highly skilled workforce is available as new technologies are implemented. Bottom line:  No one should be left behind as we transition to the food and agriculture climate-smart economy!

California’s community college system plays a crucial role in making opportunities available for all. It was an honor to spend time with Reedley College President Dr. Jerry Buckley and discuss the amazing programs offered by a college in the center of the country’s most productive agricultural region!

As inspired as I was by my time at Reedley College, I spent the following day with McFarland Unified School District Superintendent S. Aaron Resendez and Assistant Superintendent Ambelina Garcia Duran and their passionate team members.  What I saw surpassed my expectations and left me very enthusiastic about the future and the youth who will be leading it!

Meeting younger students in McFarland.

We have heard from a number of Silicon Valley veterans that the second language of our future is – coding!  I saw that at work in McFarland, starting at Browning Road STEAM Academy (science, technology, engineering, agriculture, math).  Of course, I can’t visit a grade school without meeting a few of the youngest students being introduced to agriculture – kindergartners planting pumpkins, making the connection to where food comes from, and also learning about seed spacing and growth!

When I met with some 4th, 5th and 6th graders I watched them coding and utilizing 3D printers!  And one of the students presented me with a prosthetic hand the class produced with a 3D printer! The students have utilized this technology to make a prosthetic arm for a local child in need.  Talk about inspirational! 

I also visited McFarland’s middle school and high school and found equally inspiring and compelling stories about how dedicated, visionary administrators and teachers, working with the hardworking families of the community, have identified pathways for a better future for their children.  One pathway is a partnership with Bakersfield City College featuring multiple opportunities for early college credits and career readiness.   

My trip left me excited and optimistic about our future!  The possibilities of new technologies, the energy and innovation of our youth, and the collaboration of our private sector with educators are the essential ingredients for a healthy, vibrant agricultural sector that will make California a better place to live because of what we grow and how we grow it.  The work I saw in Reedley and McFarland makes me confident that California agriculture can create the solutions to our many challenges and will seize the opportunities before us.  

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California and Baja California – Growing International Collaboration

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross with Governor-Elect of Baja Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda.

Today, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross met with Governor-Elect of Baja Marina del Pilar Avila Olmeda to discuss agricultural cooperation, workforce development, climate smart agriculture, and technical assistance. California and Baja share many agricultural characteristics and opportunities for collaboration. The Governor-Elect is the first woman popularly elected as Governor in Baja California.

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New detections of West Nile Virus in California horses – prevention tips from CDFA

Horse in a pasture

A total of five California horses have tested positive in recent weeks for West Nile Virus, all in the Central Valley. One of the horses is deceased, and only one had been vaccinated.

Horse owners are encouraged to have their animals vaccinated to make sure they are maximizing protection against the disease. And once vaccinations occur, horse owners should be checking regularly with their veterinarians to make sure they stay current.

Californians can also do their part to prevent the disease by managing mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus. Here are some tips:

  • Draining unnecessary standing water found in wheelbarrows, tires, etc.
  • Cleaning water containers at least weekly (i.e., bird baths, plant saucers)
  • Scheduling pasture irrigation to minimize standing water
  • Keeping swimming pools optimally chlorinated and draining water from pool covers
  • Stocking of water tanks with fish that consume mosquito larvae (Contact local mosquito control for assistance) or use mosquito “dunk” available at hardware stores.

It’s important to remember that mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they feed on infected birds. Mosquitoes then spread the virus to horses.  Horses are a dead-end host and do not spread the virus to other horses or humans. For more information on West Nile Virus, please visit this link.

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Secretary Ross participates in PBS story about national wildfire and drought concerns

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Organic food moving into mainstream — from The Conversation

Organic produce

By Kathleen Merrigan, former USDA deputy secretary and current director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University

Organic food once was viewed as a niche category for health nuts and hippies, but today it’s a routine choice for millions of Americans. For years following passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which established national organic standards, consumers had to seek out organic products at food co-ops and farmers markets. Today over half of organic sales are in conventional grocery store chains, club stores and supercenters; Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Target and Safeway are the top five organic retailers.

Surveys show that 82% of Americans buy some organic food, and availability has improved. So why do overall organic sales add up to a mere 6% of all food sold in the U.S.? And since organic farming has many benefits, including conserving soil and water and reducing use of synthetic chemicals, can its share grow?

One issue is price. On average, organic food costs 20% more than conventionally produced food. Even hardcore organic shoppers like me sometimes bypass it due to cost.

Some budget-constrained shoppers may restrict their organic purchases to foods they are especially concerned about, such as fruits and vegetables. Organic produce carries far fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown versions.

Price matters, but let’s dig deeper. Increasing organic food’s market share will require growing larger quantities and more diverse organic products. This will require more organic farmers than the U.S. currently has.

There are some 2 million farms in the U.S.. Of them, only 16,585 are organic – less than 1%. They occupy 5.5 million acres, which is a small fraction of overall U.S. agricultural land. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. farmland is dedicated to growing animal feed and biofuel feedstocks like corn and soybeans, rather than food for people.

In my view, converting more agricultural land to organic food production should be a national goal. Organic farmers produce healthy food, promote soil health and protect watersheds. Ruminant animals like dairy cows when raised organically must graze on pasture for at least 120 days each year, which reduces their methane emissions.

The list of climate and environmental benefits associated with organic is long. Organic farming consumes 45% less energy than conventional production, mainly because it doesn’t use nitrogen fertilizers. And it emits 40% less greenhouse gases because organic farmers practice crop rotation, use cover crops and composting, and eliminate fossil fuel-based inputs.

The vast majority of organic farms are small or midsized, both in terms of gross sales and acreage. Organic farmers are younger on average than conventional farmers.

Starting small makes sense for beginning farmers, and organic price premiums allow them to survive on smaller plots of land. But first they need to go through a tough three-year transition period to cleanse the land.

During this time they are ineligible to label products as organic, but must follow organic standards, including forgoing use of harmful chemicals and learning how to manage ecosystem processes. This typically results in short-term yield declines. Many farmers fail along the way.

The transition period is just one of many challenges for organic farmers. Greater federal government support could help. In a recent report, Arizona State University’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, which I direct, identified actions the Biden administration can take within existing budgets and laws to realize the untapped promise of organic agriculture.

Current USDA assistance for organic producers is paltry, especially given the billions of dollars that the agency spends annually in support of agriculture. Two-thirds of farm subsidy dollars go to the top 10% richest farms.

Our report recommends dedicating 6% of USDA spending to supporting the organic sector, a figure that reflects its market share. As an example, in 2020 the agency spent about $55 million on research directly pertinent to organic agriculture within its $3.6 billion Research, Education and Economics mission area. A 6% share of that budget would be $218 million for developing things like better ways of controlling pests by using natural predators instead of chemical pesticides.

Organic food’s higher price includes costs associated with practices like forgoing use of harmful pesticides and improving animal welfare. A growing number of food systems scholars and practitioners are calling for use of a methodology called True Cost Accounting, which they believe reveals the full costs and benefits of food production.

According to an analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation, American consumers spend $1.1 trillion yearly on food, but the true cost of that food is $3.2 trillion when all impacts like water pollution and farmworker health are factored in. Looked at through a True Cost Accounting lens, I see organic as a good deal.

Link to story on The Conversation web site

Visit this page to view CDFA’s 2019-2020 Organics Report

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CDFA’s climate-smart agriculture programs increase resilience of livestock operations — from Western Farm Press

Cows in a field

By Dana Yount

When liquid manure sits in storage lagoons on dairies or other livestock operations for too long, methane can form and contribute to climate change. To address concerns about methane emissions, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) developed the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), which supports farmers in reducing their methane emissions with both financial and technical assistance.

The objective of CDFA’s AMMP is to encourage dairy and livestock producers to adopt climate smart practices to reduce methane emissions in animal agriculture systems. The program incentivizes the development of manure management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as protect water and air quality.

These practices fall under four main categories: pasture-based management, solid separation, conversion from flush to scrape, and alternative manure treatments and storage. For example, running manure through a solids separator helps to reduce potential surface and groundwater pollution as there is less nitrogen and other elements in the separated liquids. In the most recent round of grants from the program, livestock and dairy operations could apply for up to $750,000 to implement these kinds of methane reduction practices.

In addition, producers can receive technical assistance from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Climate-Smart Agriculture educators. This team was established with the support of UC ANR, the Strategic Growth Council, and CDFA, and has educators based in ten counties around the state. The effort is led by Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources, in collaboration with several UC ANR county based Advisors.

Read the full story here

Learn more about CDFA’s Climate Smart Programs here

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USDA offers disaster assistance to California farmers and ranchers affected by wildfires and drought

From a USDA News Release

California agricultural operations have been significantly impacted by the wildfires and ongoing, severe drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has technical and financial assistance available to help farmers and livestock producers recover. Impacted producers should contact their local USDA Service Center to report losses and learn more about program options available to assist in their recovery from crop, land, infrastructure and livestock losses and damages.

“Production agriculture is vital to the California economy, and USDA stands ready to assist in the recovery from these wildfires and extreme drought conditions,” said Gloria Montaño Greene as Deputy Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC). “I assure you that USDA employees are working diligently to deliver FPAC’s extensive portfolio of disaster assistance programs and services to all impacted agricultural producers.”

USDA Disaster Assistance for Wildfire and Drought Recovery

Producers who experience livestock deaths due to wildfires may be eligible for the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP).

Meanwhile, for both wildfire and drought recovery,  the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP) provides eligible producers with compensation for feed losses as well as water hauling expenses associated with transportation of water to livestock. For ELAP, producers will need to file a notice of loss within 30 days and honeybee losses within 15 days.

Livestock producers may also be eligible for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) for 2021 grazing losses due to drought. LFP benefits may be available for loss of grazing acres due to wildfires on federally managed lands on which a producer is prohibited, by a federal agency, from grazing normally permitted livestock. FSA maintains a list of counties eligible for LFP and makes updates each Thursday.

Additionally, eligible orchardists and nursery tree growers may be eligible for cost-share assistance through the Tree Assistance Program (TAP) to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes or vines lost during the drought. This complements Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) or crop insurance coverage, which covers the crop but not the plants or trees in all cases. For TAP, a program application must be filed within 90 days.

“Once you are able to safely evaluate the wildfire or drought impact on your operation, be sure to contact your local FSA office to timely report all crop, livestock and farm infrastructure damages and losses,” said Jacque Johnson, Acting State Executive Director for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in California. “To expedite FSA disaster assistance, you will likely need to provide documents, such as farm records, herd inventory, receipts and pictures of damages or losses”

FSA also offers a variety of direct and guaranteed farm loans, including operating and emergency farm loans, to producers unable to secure commercial financing. Producers in counties with a primary or contiguous disaster designation may be eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses. Loans can help producers replace essential property, purchase inputs like livestock, equipment, feed and seed, cover family living expenses or refinance farm-related debts and other needs.

Risk Management

Producers who have risk protection through Federal Crop Insurance or FSA’s NAP should report crop damage to their crop insurance agent or FSA office. If they have crop insurance, producers should report crop damage to their agent within 72 hours of damage discovery and follow up in writing within 15 days. For NAP covered crops, a Notice of Loss (CCC-576) must be filed within 15 days of the loss becoming apparent, except for hand-harvested crops, which should be reported within 72 hours.

“Crop insurance and other USDA risk management options are there to help producers manage risk because we never know what nature has in store for the future,” said Jeff Yasui, Director of RMA’s Regional Office that covers California. “The Approved Insurance Providers, loss adjusters and agents are experienced and well trained in handling these types of events.”


Outside of the primary nesting season, emergency and non-emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres may be authorized to provide relief to livestock producers in areas affected by a severe drought or similar natural disasters. Producers interested in haying or grazing of CRP acres should contact their county FSA office to determine eligibility. 

The Emergency Conservation Program and Emergency Forest Restoration Program can assist landowners and forest stewards with financial and technical assistance to restore fencing, damaged farmland or forests.  

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is always available to provide technical assistance in the recovery process by assisting producers to plan and implement conservation practices on farms, ranches and working forests impacted by natural disasters. 

Long-term damage from wildfires and drought includes forage production loss in pastures and fields and increased wind erosion on crop fields not protected with soil health practices. Visit your local USDA Service Center to learn more about these impacts, potential recovery tactics, and how to take steps to make your land more resilient to drought in the future. 

“USDA can be a very valuable partner to help landowners with their recovery and resiliency efforts,” said Carlos Suarez, NRCS State Conservationist in California. “Our staff will work one-on-one with landowners to make assessments of the damages and develop approaches that focus on effective recovery of the land.”  

Assistance for Communities 

Additional NRCS programs include the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program, which provides assistance to local government sponsors with the cost of addressing watershed impairments or hazards such as damaged upland sites stripped of vegetation by wildfire, debris removal and streambank stabilization.  

Eligible sponsors include cities, counties, towns, or any federally recognized Native American tribe or tribal organization. Sponsors must submit a formal request (via mail or email) to the state conservationist for assistance within 60 days of the natural disaster occurrence or 60 days from the date when access to the sites become available. For more information, please contact your local NRCS office. 

 “EWP provides immediate assistance to communities to mitigate potential hazards to life and property resulting from the fires and particularly the severe erosion and flooding that can occur after the fire,” Suarez said. “We can work with a local sponsor to help a damaged watershed so that lives and property are protected while preventing further devastation in the community.”  

In addition to EWP, Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) is another valuable service that NRCS can provide following a wildfire. NRCS technical assistance can help fire victims with planning cost-effective post fire restoration practices.  

More Information

On, the Disaster Assistance Discovery ToolDisaster Assistance-at-a-Glance fact sheet, and Farm Loan Discovery Tool can help producers and landowners determine program or loan options. For assistance with a crop insurance claim, producers and landowners should contact their crop insurance agent. For FSA and NRCS programs, they should contact their local USDA Service Center.

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Fairgrounds serving in essential supporting role in ongoing wildfire fight

CDFA’s deputy secretary overseeing fairs, Michael Flores (in light blue shirt), visiting with a fire crew at the Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds in Yreka, which is one of seven fairgrounds in Northern California that have served as base camps this year in the ongoing spate of wildfires. Fairgrounds are also serving as evacuation centers for residents and their animals, including horses, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys. This is one of a number of ways California’s fairgrounds support their communities as a vital local resource.
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