Reinventing Agricultural Conservation in California – Assessing a Foodshed and Empowering Stewardship

Last year, TIME Magazine ran a cover story that called California “an apocalyptic mess … dysfunctional … broke.” Then it concluded, “It is still the dream state … the greenest and most diverse … the most globalized … an unparalleled engine of innovation.” Think of it what you will, California is unquestionably an agricultural leader, producing one-eighth of all U.S. food and fiber – more than 300 different crops – on just three percent of its farmland. Following is the second of a three part series that explains how American Farmland Trust is helping to reinvent agricultural conservation in the cornucopia on the Coast — written by our California Director, Edward Thompson, Jr., who has been with the organization since it was founded 30 years ago.

San Francisco Bay Area Foodshed

While no longer an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is renowned for its food culture and encompasses some of the most unique farming areas in the state. The scenic San Mateo coast where pumpkin patches overlook the crashing Pacific surf. Coyote Valley south of San Jose, the last remnant of a beautiful fruit-growing region once called the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” and now known as Silicon Valley. The Brentwood agricultural reserve, famous for its pick-your-own sweet corn. The rolling hills of Marin County where dairy farms supply milk for artisanal cheeses. Sonoma County, whose orchards and fields of vegetables mix with vineyards that compete with those in the adjacent Napa Valley in both wine production and agri-tourism. Farther afield, Solano County leads all Bay Area counties in total agricultural production, featuring such specialties as endive, lambs and organic walnuts.

This bounty, too, is under siege by urban development. Much of the Bay Area’s farmland has already been lost. But the arable lands that remain are agricultural gems that lend character to the region as well as help feed it. Robust land use policies now protect most of these lands from development. But for them to survive as productive farms and ranches, rather than “open space,” it will require an economic development strategy that addresses the unique challenges facing agriculture in this heavily urbanized area and creates more opportunity for producers to capitalize on the Bay Area’s passion for good food.

In 2008, AFT asked the question: “Could the City of San Francisco feed itself entirely from farms and ranches within 100 miles of the Golden Gate?” Later that year, we answered the question in a study called Think Globally, Eat Locally, an assessment of the San Francisco “foodshed.” It didn’t come as a surprise that 20 times as much food is produced in the region as the city consumes each year. But the main message was that neither San Francisco, nor the other Bay Area communities that are home to the region’s six million people, are taking full advantage of the extraordinary capacity of northern California’s farms and ranches to produce fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and other agricultural products.

Among those who got the message was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who convened an urban-rural leadership roundtable to recommend ways the city could increase consumption of locally-grown food to better feed its neediest residents, reduce the city’s environmental impact by shortening its supply lines, and create new economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers in the city’s foodshed. Last year, the committee made five recommendations, one of which was to create an economic development strategy for Bay Area agriculture that would ramp up production of fresh food specifically for local markets while safeguarding the land on which it is produced. AFT embraced this recommendation and in partnership with the Greenbelt Alliance and Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), as well as with agricultural and civic leaders throughout the region, we are now working on such a strategy. Our sights are set on recreating the kind of regional food supply chain that once existed in most metropolitan areas, in effect, taking local food to scale.

Environmental Stewardship

An integral part of AFT’s mission is to help farmers and ranchers protect the environment through better stewardship of the land. Over the past decade, two Californians, cattleman Steve Sinton from San Luis Obispo and the late Ellen Straus, a Marin dairywoman, have won AFT’s annual Steward of the Land award for the environmentally sound practices they and their families use on their ranches. In recent years, we have been building a program to encourage environmental stewardship by producers of fruits, vegetables and other so-called “specialty” crops that epitomize California agriculture.

The centerpiece of our program is the BMP Challenge, which offers farmers a risk-free way of trying new farming methods that can improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gases and achieve other environmental benefits. BMP stands for “beneficial management practices” that include such things as planting crops by drilling seeds into the ground without turning over the soil and more carefully calibrating the amount and timing of water and fertilizer applications. A significant obstacle to the widespread adoption of such practices is uncertainty about what impact they will have on crop yields and, hence, the farmer’s bottom line.

To address that challenge, AFT’s Agricultural Conservation Innovations Center (ACIC) pioneered an arrangement with farmers that guarantees they won’t lose money because of yield reductions associated with the use of beneficial management practices. Over the past few years, we have entered into indemnification agreements with dozens of farmers on thousands of acres, primarily of Midwestern corn. Funds to pay off losses typically come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the field trials are carefully monitored to assure, not only that practices are being correctly applied, but also that any loss of yield is, in fact, attributable to the use of the practices and not to other factors like the weather.

Last year, we launched our first BMP Challenge in California by partnering with six dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who grow corn to feed their cows. (We started with this crop because we have a track record with it and a good idea of the risks associated with trying the new practices.) On a total of 600 acres, the farmers used conservation tillage to plant their crop and a new fertilization and irrigation regime, the result of which was to reduce nitrogen runoff and percolation into groundwater and to sequester carbon in the soil. After a successful first growing season in which none of the farmers suffered a significant loss of yield, we are expanding the corn field trial to 1,400 acres and preparing to conduct new trials with growers of processing tomatoes, one of California’s signature specialty crops.

To supplement the BMP Challenge, AFT has collaborated with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to publish an on-line Guide to Beneficial Management Practices for Specialty Crops. It matches more than 60 environmentally beneficial practices with the leading fruit, vegetable and other crops grown in California, and provides links to the NRCS technical field manual as well as to federal and state programs that finance the adoption of the practices. It’s kind of a one-stop-shop for growers who want to try BMPs and is now being publicized so that more growers become familiar with it.

We’re also participating in the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) – a collaboration of dozens of conservation and farm groups, and businesses that market and distribute fruits and vegetables. The goal is to design standardized methods of measuring the environmental impact of agricultural practices, so that growers and those in the supply chain will have information that consumers are increasingly demanding. We co-chaired a SISC subcommittee that designed metrics for on-farm use of water, a critical input to production in California and a flash point in the debate over the environmental impact of agriculture. And as we begin a BMP Challenge for specialty crops, we hope to test the water metrics in the field with the expectation that they will encourage growers to make more efficient use of water, both for their own economic benefit and for the benefit of California’s environment.

Part III:  Innovation and California’s Agricultural Vision

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  1. Pingback: Reinventing Agricultural Conservation in California – Focus on Farmland | The Farmland Report

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