Governor Signs Bill to Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

Published on: September 15, 2016

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Solano, chair of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation, applauded Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval this week of numerous budget measures on resources, including a number of bills to help the state reach its climate change goals.

The governor signed legislation Wednesday establishing a $7.5 million Healthy Soils Program to support agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in soil, trees and plants. The bill, which funds the state’s cap-and-trade program, includes the language of Wolk’s Senate Bill 1350 to establish and fund the Healthy Soils Program.

“By providing farmers and ranchers with greater access to programs and other resources, the state will not only help agriculture adapt to climate change but will also help this sector play an important role in addressing climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and storing, or sequestering, carbon in the soil,” Wolk said in a press release. “I applaud the governor’s decision to establish and fund the Healthy Soils program, as well as other important programs such as those to provide clean drinking water to disadvantaged communities and protect our state’s natural resources.”

Senate Bill 859 will establish a Healthy Soils Program to support projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural operations and increase carbon sequestration, or storage, in agricultural soil. Benefits to increased health of agricultural soils include the ability to store more carbon and other greenhouse gases through sequestration, provide more nutrients for plants, retain more water, and reduce erosion — resulting in improved air and water quality, water conservation, enhanced wildlife habitat and healthy rural communities.


Dispatch From the Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands

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Author: Judith D. Schwartz | Posted on: August 19, 2015

A drive through Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert grasslands offers vast, near-boundless vistas—and a glimpse of a landscape in the balance. Passing the ejidos, communal farmland given to people as part of land reforms after the Mexican Revolution, one sees land with sparse annuals and brush and the occasional flaca vaca: a skinny cow, often barely alive. Then there are the huge tracts of brown, bare ground, where Mennonite farmers employ intensive agriculture.

My guide, rancher Alejandro Carrillo, has watched this landscape degrade, nearly in real time. “When I was growing up this was the best land in the area, with grama grass up to that wire,” he tells me, gesturing to an indifferent brownish weedy plot lined with waist-high fencing and dotted with random brush, a far cry from the lush pasture he remembers. The consequences of land deterioration throughout Mexico’s largest state have been devastating to local communities as well as to wildlife—particularly to migratory grassland birds that winter in the region and whose populations have plummeted, among some species more than 80 percent. And yet Carrillo’s ranch, Las Damas Ranch, is an oasis of bird life. Carrillo, who has holistically managed Las Damas Ranch since 2006 after leaving a successful career in IT, now works with bird conservation groups to create habitat for the endangered birds. He and several other ranchers who practice Holistic Planned Grazing have established research and conservation partnerships with organizations including the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, the American Bird Conservatory and Mexico’s Pronatura.


California Releases Vision for Healthy Soils Initiative


Author: Valley Grower | Published on: September 15, 2016

Sacramento, California – California’s Climate Future and Soils: California’s Healthy Soils Initiative is a collaboration of state agencies and departments, led by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, to promote the development of healthy soils on California’s farm and ranch lands. Innovative farm and ranch management practices contribute to building adequate soil organic matter that can increase carbon sequestration and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The Healthy Soils Initiative is a key part of California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by increasing carbon sequestration in and on natural and working lands. Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s Executive Order B-30-15 (April 2015), codified by SB 32 in September 2016, established a new interim statewide greenhouse gas emission reduction target at 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The Executive Order points to carbon sequestration in California’s forests and farmlands as one way to help meet that goal. The Brown administration also recognized the importance of soil health in the Governor’s 2015-16 proposed budget by highlighting that “as the leading agricultural state in the nation, it is important for California’s soils to be sustainable and resilient to climate change.”

In building soil health, California can also make use of wasted resources bound for the landfill. Currently, some 12 million tons of compostable or mulchable organic waste is sent to California landfills annually, where it generates methane and other public health threats that must be managed or mitigated. The Healthy Soils Initiative presents an opportunity to return those organic materials back to the soil, where they can serve as a resource for California’s critical agricultural economy.



Is Going Organic Key to Saving Vermont’s Struggling Dairy Industry?

Author: Kyle Midura| Published on: August 31, 2016

HINESBURG, Vt. -Dairies across the Northeast face nightmarish market forces with high feed costs and revenue spoiled by low milk prices. But in Hinesburg, Matt Baldwin is preparing to fulfill his dream of opening a dairy farm.

“I’m going into this with my eyes wide-open,” he said.

He’s banking his farm and family’s future on strong demand for organic milk.

“This is the only way we see that we can financially justify doing it,” Baldwin said.

His fields are certified or heading that way, and he’s transitioning his newly purchased cows off antibiotics and onto a strict diet. Baldwin will hedge his bet by selling other organic crops as well.

“It’s an exciting transition that we’re really excited about and readily looking forward to doing,” he said.

“Organic is more stable because they’re able to balance supply and demand,” said Roger Allbee, Vermont’s former agriculture secretary.

Allbee recently penned an opinion piece arguing that if Vermont dairy has a future, it’s in organic milk production. He says Vermont’s farmers simply can’t compete with the sheer volume of milk produced in massive farms out West and globalization is not helping, either. But organic demand is growing, and Allbee says that is Vermont’s opportunity to maintain its traditional brand, and for dairies to rise back to the top.

“Dairy is a big part of what Vermont’s all about, certainly for its economy and certainly for tourism,” Allbee said.


Will Allen & Michael Colby: Dairy Marketing vs. Reality

Author: Will Allen and Michael Colby

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Will Allen and Michael Colby, who are co-founders, along with Kate Duesterberg, of Regeneration Vermont, a new nonprofit educational and advocacy organization that is working to halt the catastrophic consequences of Vermont’s adoption of degenerative, toxic and climate-threatening agricultural techniques.

The great divide between the well-marketed image of Vermont dairy farming and its stark and toxic realities is becoming harder and harder to ignore. The marketing shows healthy cows grazing on lush pastures. But the reality is cows on concrete, being fed a diet of GMO-corn and the toxic residues from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of herbicides sprayed annually on the corn and hay fields.

Instead of addressing the toxic legacy of the very non-organic dairying that dominates our agriculture, Vermont’s two giant diary corporations, Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry’s, and the state’s agricultural agency that acts more as their protector than regulator, continue to hide behind the myth and the marketing. It’s a head-in-the-sand approach that is bankrupting farmers, poisoning our rivers and lakes, accelerating climate change, and producing dairy products that may contain those same toxic residues that are so abundantly fed to the cows.

Vermont can do better, much better. And it has to start with addressing the cold, hard facts. Thankfully, Vermont farmers are required to report their pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer usage every year to the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (AAFM). And while some in the agency and within the agricultural community still try to spin the numbers to keep the myths alive, the reality can’t be ignored: Vermont is farming with more and more toxic chemicals.


Iowa Farmers Ripped Out Prairie; Now Some Hope it Can Save Them

Author: Darryl Fears

There’s a wild presence in Tim Smith’s corn and soybean field that most farmers kill on sight.

Smith made his way toward it, hoisting his long legs over row after row of soybean plants under a baking mid-morning sun. “It’s right over there,” he said. He stopped at the edge of a Midwestern prairie, a thicket of tall flowers and grasses more frightening to farmers than any horror movie madman lurking in a barn with a chain saw.

Most growers say prairie is a nuisance that can choke crops. But not Smith. He is proud of the three acres he planted in the middle of one of the most productive farms in the county. He was there to show it off, not spray it.

This affection for prairie bucks a farming tradition that dates back to when settlers arrived in the Midwest to farm centuries ago and ripped out wild grasses to tame the earth. Over time, prairie was nearly eradicated. Farmers today are still destroying the little that is left.

It is a colossal mistake, according to recent studies by researchers at Iowa State University. Not only does prairie, with its deep-rooted plants, soak up farm wastewater that pollutes rivers, it also enriches soil.


A Call to Action to Save One of America’s Most Important Natural Resources

Soil plays critical roles in food security, climate mitigation, ecosystem function, and buffering against extreme weather events.  Although it is essential for the stability of the planet, soil is disappearing at an alarming rate.

In the United States, estimates are that soil on cultivated cropland is eroding at an average rate of 5.2 tons per acre per year, while the average rate of soil formation falls between 0.008 and 0.51 tons per acre per year. Some parts of the Midwest are losing soil at a much faster rate, especially during extreme weather events—in some regions of the United States, erosion has been measured at over 100 tons per acre in a single storm. That means that a layer of soil that took over 350 years to form was destroyed in a single day.

Climate change is expected to increase pressure on soil as the frequency of extreme weather events increases, bringing forceful rain and flooding, which can strip away soil. Without coordinated action, the United States is on track to run out of topsoil—the medium upon which crop production depends—before the end of the 21st century.

Erosion is not the only threat to America’s soil. Many urban soils have been contaminated with lead or toxic substances, posing a threat to human health. In some cases, intensive forestry and rangeland practices have also resulted in release of substantial soil carbon into the atmosphere, slowing progress toward tackling climate change. Another threat has been the deposition of atmospheric pollutants in forests, which has leached essential nutrients from forest soils in many parts of the Nation.

In issuing a call to action for soil, OSTP seeks innovative actions from Federal agencies, academic scientists and engineers, farmers, entrepreneurs, businesses, advocates, and members of the public in a nationwide effort to impede soil loss, enhance soil genesis, and restore degraded soils.

Federal Agency Input on Soil: A New National Science and Technology Council Working Group

Under the National Science and Technology Council, OSTP has established the Soil Science Interagency Working Group (SSIWG), which will receive technical input from 15 Federal departments and agencies. This input will include identifying knowledge and technology gaps, identifying research and conservation priorities, fostering public-private collaborations, and working toward Federal actions to protect soil resources.

A National Call to Action

OSTP is issuing a nationwide call to action for farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, advocates, and the broader public to work together to develop innovative solutions to promote soil health and protect soil from degradation.  In order to meet a challenge of this scale, innovation and collaboration are needed at three key stages:


Food forests manage themselves

Author: Andrea Darr

On a suburban Kansas lot at the corner of 55th and Mastin streets, an experiment is underway: A food forest is growing crops, creating economic value and, most notably, doing most of the work on its own.

The 10,000-square-foot garden is not tended to daily, at least not by human beings. Insects do the job of managing pests, some plants act as natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil, and other plants form deep taproots that mine the soil for nutrients, bringing them up to the surface for the tree roots.

The area doesn’t have to be mowed, it doesn’t get sprayed and it doesn’t just survive — it thrives.

What is this system? The trendy term is permaculture, but it’s nothing new. It has been around for thousands of years.

“This is how nature manages itself,” says P.J. Quell, the property owner who has lent the site to Cultivate Kansas City to design, install, manage and harvest food grown from guilds of trees, shrubs and plants. Volunteers come annually to prune trees and spread wood chips. That’s about the extent of work involved.

Of course, it took much effort at the beginning of the project, designing for maximum sunlight, digging swales to capture and hold water, and planting. There are 39 varieties of fruit and nut trees and 12 varieties of shrubs, several with which people are familiar — pears and plums — but also many that are relative unknowns: pawpaws, jujubes, serviceberries and aronia.


Restoring the Everglades Will Benefit Both Humans and Nature

Author: Peter Frederick

Everglades National Park (ENP) is our only national wetland park, and one of the largest aquascapes in the world. Perhaps more than any other U.S. national park, ENP’s treasures are hard to defend. Lying at the southern end of an immense watershed the size of New Jersey, ENP is caught between the largest man-made water project in the world upstream and a rapidly rising ocean downstream.

The park and the wider Everglades ecosystem have suffered immense ecological damage from years of overdrainage to prevent flooding and promote development. In 2000 Congress approved the largest ecological restoration project in the world – the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which is expected to take more than 35 years to complete and cost at least US$10.5 billion. In addition to repairing some of the damage to this unique ecosystem, the restoration is designed to ensure reliable clean drinking water supplies for South Florida cities and protect developed areas from flooding.

The plan is making progress – but the closer it gets to its goal, the more the details matter, and some of those details have become roadblocks. As I complete my 30th year as an ecologist studying and trying to restore this great place, it is increasingly clear that restoration can work and will benefit both wild spaces and people. However, that view rests heavily on the assumption that we will commit to fixing a central problem – water storage.

Managing water flow

The Everglades drainage area stretches over 200 miles, starting near Orlando and reaching south to the Gulf of Mexico. At least 100 miles of it is made up of the wide-open grasslands called the Everglades. Nearly 83 percent of the Everglades lies outside of the national park, mostly on agricultural or state-protected lands.


How Farmers Could Be the New Climate Warriors: Agricultural Carbon Credits

Author: Brian J Barth

Environmental advocates have all but given up on their long-cherished goal of a federally-mandated cap-and-trade program to rein in carbon emissions, given the present state of gridlock on Capitol Hill. But amid protracted hemming and hawingover how such a system would stack up against carbon taxes or other broad incentives to reduce emissions, the state of California has stepped in where Washington policymakers fear to tread.

California formed its own state-mandated carbon market in 2012, restricting the emissions of 600 of the state’s biggest polluters, who produce 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. Lowering the “cap” will slash emissions in the state 16 percent by 2020. More recently, the California Air Resources Board, which oversees the state’s carbon market, linked arms with allies north of the border—Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba—to ink an agreement that will integrate the three Canadian provinces’ carbon markets with California’s in the coming years. Struck at December’s United Nations climate change summit in Paris, the deal makes environmentalists’ dream of an ad-hoc North American carbon market seem actually plausible. It’s precisely the sort of regional cooperation that President Barack Obama encouraged in the Clean Power Plan he released last summer.

Yet this bit of good news in the ongoing fight to regulate carbon emissions has gone largely unnoticed amid all the partisan bickering over such incendiary issues as fracking and the future of the coal industry. Typically, carbon offsets have been tied to things like wind farms and tree planting projects. But in California, the Air Resources Board’s new rules have opened the carbon market to farmers. Not only is this an important tool to encourage more responsible agricultural practices—farms are responsible for about 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally—but it seizes on the untapped opportunity offered by crop systems as a means to sequester carbon. In the same way that forests and grasslands act as a carbon dioxide sink, crop plants also pull carbon dioxide from the air, storing it in their tissues and converting it to substances that feed microbial life in the soil. The catch-phrase “carbon farming” has emerged to describe methods which maximize agricultural carbon sequestration, including such soil-building activities as cover cropping and no-till cultivation techniques.