Q&A: Sustainable Farming Expert Weighs in on California’s Historic Investments in ‘Climate Smart’ Agriculture

Gov. Newsom’s new $15 billion climate package includes more than $1 billion for sustainable agriculture, but the work is just starting.

Nick Edsall, orchard manager for Bullseye Farms, describes the benefits of cover crops and soil health during a farm tour for World Soil Day 2019. Credit: Becca Lucas

Nick Edsall, orchard manager for Bullseye Farms, describes the benefits of cover crops and soil health during a farm tour for World Soil Day 2019. Credit: Becca Lucas

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Late last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping package of bills to tackle the climate crisis, in what he called an “unprecedented investment in climate resiliency by any state in U.S. history.”

The $15 billion package allocates $1.5 billion for wildfire prevention and forest health, and more than $5 billion for drought and water resilience. But it also includes a record-breaking investment of more than $1 billion in “climate-smart” agriculture, intended to boost climate resilience and help farmers transition to practices that are more adaptive to climate change. 

“We have a responsibility to lead the way,” Newsom said. 

The investment in sustainable farming follows months of efforts by a coalition of nonprofit and public interest groups led by Jeanne Merrill, a sustainable farming advocate who is policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN. 

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Merrill, whose grandfather grew up on a dairy farm in Scotland, has worked on developing environmentally friendly agricultural systems since the 1990s. A policy wonk with a passion for social justice and grassroots organizing, Merrill has long advocated for investments to bolster the resilience of California’s food and farming systems, and has helped state legislators recognize agriculture’s potential to reduce greenhouse gases and store carbon in soil. She also coordinates the policy committee of the AB 125 Coalition, a diverse group of public interest organizations working to place a bond measure on the 2022 ballot that would invest more than $3 billion over five years to aid the state’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, combat climate change, improve food security for vulnerable communities and protect farmworkers. 

Inside Climate News spoke to Merrill about what the state’s groundbreaking investments in sustainable agriculture can accomplish and what still needs to be done. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Last month, Gov. Newsom signed bills making historic investments in climate-smart agriculture, including programs to boost sustainable practices, access to healthy, affordable food and farmworker health and safety. You’ve been advocating for these types of investments for a long time. Do you think the shock of the pandemic influenced this investment?

Merrill: Yes, certainly, the pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of our food and agriculture system and the real need to scale up our investments, not only in climate- smart agriculture but also in more resilient food and farm systems overall. This is an unprecedented budget, to have over a billion dollars focused on food and agriculture, resilience and economic recovery.

Jeanne Merrill, policy director for the California Climate & Agricultural Network. Credit: Amy Winzer
Jeanne Merrill, policy director for the California Climate & Agricultural Network. Credit: Amy Winzer

Climate-smart agriculture is a huge win for a coalition of groups that have been working to advance these solutions for a number of years now. We’ve gone through a very boom and bust cycle, with all of the climate-smart agriculture programs except for one defunded last year because of the uncertainties of the pandemic. And now, not only do we have investments in this current fiscal budget, but also commitments for ongoing funding next year and beyond. That’s significant because, in order to build momentum on the ground with farmers and communities, to put projects in place that make a difference for the environment and for agriculture, we need multi-year, stable funding. And that’s what this budget provides.

There’s a very large set of programs covered in this budget. Are there new programs that have never been funded before? Are there any that you feel are especially vital for sustainable farmers, given the challenges of the climate crisis?

Merrill: We have funding for existing programs, like Healthy Soils, the State Water Efficiency Enhancement Program and the Alternative Manure Management Program, which are about providing technical and financial assistance to farmers to be able to adopt climate-friendly practices on their operations that are also good for their bottom line. But some of the exciting new programs include new investment in technical assistance for underserved farmers, particularly farmers of color. There’s also new money, $7 million, for an organic transition program to support conventional producers who have been interested in getting into organic agricultural management. There’s also a new conservation management planning program, which is about working with farmers to develop conservation plans on their farms. And that will be particularly important as we see greater weather extremes. How we farm today is probably not how we can farm in the future, and so those conservation management planning programs will assist producers in thinking about incorporating climate science and other conservation considerations into their operations. 

The hurdles are high for farmers who want to get into sustainable farming or switch to organic farming. Will the new investments allow most people who want to start a sustainable farm or make the switch succeed? 

Merrill: Certainly it is a challenging environment for beginning farmers and those looking to get into owning their own farmland. Prices have gone up considerably in California, and access to capital can be challenging. There are a number of new programs that are focused on how to support beginning farmers and farmer apprenticeship. There’s $5 million for that in the new budget for this year and an additional $5 million proposed for next year. But certainly more needs to be done in terms of alternative finance and looking at ways to support farmers, particularly those who may not have great access to capital and to land. 

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The governor’s package included about $50 million for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP). How do SWEEP investments help sustainable farmers deal with drought?

Merrill: SWEEP has been a very popular program among farmers. Typically, there are many more applications to that program than the program has had funding for in the past. And it provides resources for farmers to save on water, save on energy, improve overall irrigation management and reduce related greenhouse gas emissions in terms of the energy used to move that water. We found that a lot of farmers are taking advantage of the program on all scales and operation types. And there was recently an advisory group to the Department of Food and Agriculture [CDFA] on how to essentially create SWEEP 2.0, so that we’re best meeting the needs of farmers in terms of achieving water savings, particularly in times of drought. And that advisory group has put together a great set of recommendations. 

Currently, SWEEP will fund anything from transitioning water pumps that are diesel to solar to drip irrigation, soil moisture monitoring and other tools to improve water use efficiency on farms. The advisory group saw that there are parts of the state where some of those SWEEP practices don’t work as well and had some recommendations on how we can better support dual-use systems, for example, where you may perhaps use drip on some occasions, but you may do flood or furrow irrigation [also known as surface irrigation] other times of the year.

We’re hopeful that CDFA, as it moves forward with the program, will adopt many of them to make the program work for a diversity of producers.

What’s left to be done to make California’s farms more resilient in the face of climate change and to ensure that our farmworkers and their families are safe as climate change brings more heatwaves and wildfires?

Merrill: That’s a great question. There’s a set of University of California researchers who have really looked at what climate change may mean for California agriculture. And it’s quite possible that we won’t be able to produce a number of crops in the valley, it’ll simply be too hot. So to be more resilient in California agriculture, what we’re finding is a lot of the practices that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sinks on agricultural lands can provide other benefits. When you increase soil organic matter, you also increase the water holding capacity of soil. And that matters, because in times of drought, as we are right now, your soil is better able to hold on to that water. And when we have times of flood, which is also anticipated in California—that we may go back and forth between precipitation extremes—greater water holding capacity in soils also provides resilience and tolerance to flood. 

So we need to bring together the practices that not only help you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also improve resilience. We need more technical assistance, more financial assistance, we need more research, we need more boots on the ground. And we need to support farmers in diversifying their operations and developing markets to do that. We need a biologically-based, biologically diverse agricultural system to support our food security and support the viability of agriculture. And we can get there. We’ve demonstrated that California farmers want these kinds of programs. It’s a matter of continuing to make them accessible, scaling them up, streamlining them and reaching the greatest number of farmers that we can.