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State releases proposals for making farming more climate friendly | News

During the past year the state has put together a long list of ideas for meeting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order to employ agriculture and other nature-based solutions in the fight against climate change. Some of the proposals Kern farmers will probably like, others maybe not so much.

Suggestions advanced in a draft released for comment Oct. 11 range from greater use of groundwater recharge and conservation easements to more support for sustainable pest management, solar projects and biomass as a feedstock.

The diverse set of proposals, if approved, would help shape policies touching many aspects of land use across the state — forests, grasslands and developed lands included. Of particular interest locally will be the substantial changes local agricultural producers and farmland owners may be asked to make, in some cases with incentives attached.

Among the document’s guiding principles is that farming is a beneficial activity on many levels and should be encouraged. At the same time, it advocates adapting California ag practices to accelerate carbon storage in soils, wood or other materials; harden field operations against the changing climate; reduce farming’s environmental footprint; and protect vulnerable communities.

The California Natural Resource Agency’s Draft Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy takes into account comments made during a series of meetings and listening sessions with farmers and others since last fall.

Ag producers have been skeptical of the effort but also somewhat hopeful about aspects of the initiative, including potential financial incentives for making requested changes.

Farming organizations welcomed the idea of having a seat at the table after Newsom announced his order Oct. 7, 2020, calling for concerted action promoting biodiversity, enhancing resiliency and conserving lands. They said they looked forward to better protections for farmland. Some emphasized their preference for farming over preserving land, and that for all the pros and cons, ideally there would be a net benefit to agriculture.

The industry’s reaction to details in the new draft has been quiet. The president and the executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau did not respond to requests for comment on the draft, and a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau said it was unclear what position the organization might take, writing by email its review may not have “percolated that far yet.”

The draft natural and working lands climate strategy defines unhealthy lands as those that release more greenhouse gases than they store, raise climate risks or are vulnerable to future climate change impacts.

It says “climate smart” ag practices increase soil carbon while improving fertility, production and growth of forage. Other benefits may include increased water storage, contributions to the economy, cleaner air and water, greater food security and biodiversity gains.

The draft points to photosynthesis as a driving factor. Plants take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in biomass, the paper explains, and they release carbon during fires, plant respiration and composition.

One problem it predicts for ag is that rising heat will favor pests and invasive species. It also weighs in against conversion of farmland for urban development.

Climate smart solutions should reflect local circumstances and will often require trusted partnerships, it says, given “the complexity of land ownership in California, importance of meaningful community engagement and opportunity to leverage resources.”

Orchards can store biomass at levels approaching forests, the draft notes, while row crops are less integral to carbon storage than the underlying soil. It adds that smart carbon management of cropland would need to be continued for the long term.

The draft calls for wider use of organic soil amendments, reduced tillage and better management of nutrients and irrigation.

Getting it right will lead to new habitat, efficient food management, strong pollination, fire buffers, groundwater recharge and generally helpful conditions for climate-vulnerable communities.

SPECIFICS

Here are some specific recommendations the draft makes with regard to cropland management:

• Make greater use of cover-cropping, manure, hedgerows and whole orchard recycling;

• Incorporate more livestock grazing and more groundwater recharge in working croplands;

• Plant water-wise crops;

• Repurpose fallowed or retired farmland for environmental, cultural and societal benefits such as habitat and dust control;

• Reinforce the use of biomass as a feedstock;

• Explore Williamson Act changes to help farmers who fallow their land under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act;

• Promote safer, more sustainable pest management practices;

• Develop incentives for solar companies to partner with ag producers on large-scale projects

• Train people to compost, and teach farmworkers to become farm managers or owners;

• Support historically disadvantaged, small-scale farmers through use of practices like farmer co-ops, land trusts, grants and zero-interest loans;

• Identify synthetic fertilizer alternatives;

• Do more to reduce fertilizer runoff and groundwater contamination from leaching; and,

• Consider crop insurance risk management for increasing or reducing incentives for different ag practices.

Whatever version of the document is eventually approved is expected to align state efforts and inform two far-reaching documents: California’s 2021 adaptation strategy and its 2022 scoping plan.

Anyone wishing to comment on the draft before the Nov. 9 deadline is invited to write a letter to the California Natural Resources Agency, 715 P St., Sacramento, CA 95814. Voicemails are also welcome, at 1-800-417-0668. Emails may be sent to CaliforniaNature@resources.ca.gov.

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