Communities around the globe are grappling with the consequences of climate change and working to come up with strategies aimed at mitigating its effects and building local climate resilience. As a Californian, I have experienced firsthand weather patterns that are growing increasingly extreme. The state is emerging from a historic 5-year drought, which left our hills brown year round and wreaked havoc on the state’s agricultural sector.

In the midst of the drought, many orchard owners along the I-5 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley found themselves cutting down large portions of their orchards as the trees died due to lack of water. During a tour of a Sonoma County cheesemaker’s facility several years ago, I was struck when the owner talked about how significantly the drought had forced them to raise the prices of their cheese – a combination of increased input costs for things like alfalfa and a lack of quality grazing material for their cows that season.

This year, the state has experienced one of the wettest winters on record, which has come with its own set of consequences for agricultural producers, including massive erosion and flooding.

With members of Congress still openly arguing about whether climate change is real while our President works to gut Obama-Era climate initiatives, the public conversation on climate change can often feel discouraging. Meanwhile, these volatile weather patterns have real consequences for farmers, who are finding their input prices and yields affected.

Finding Hope in California: Climate Smart Agriculture

I have drawn hope and optimism from the work going on in California to address climate change through the promotion of climate smart agriculture policy and practices. Across the state, agricultural producers, advocates, government agencies, and politicians are coming together to implement strategies that help farmers become more climate resilient, while simultaneously lowering their carbon footprint.

There are several initiatives that are particularly exciting. The State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), which provides funding for farmers to pay for on-farm improvements that simultaneously save water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is one example of a California initiative aimed at addressing climate change and helping farmers become more climate resilient.   

The California Healthy Soils Initiative is another such program. The Initiative is in its first year and has received $7.5M in state funding to help farmers institute practices on their farms that build soil health, including the planting of cover crops, use of compost, and installation of hedgerows.

These practices can help boost yields while minimizing chemical inputs, but also have important climate implications. Building soil health increases the soil’s ability to retain water, which is incredibly valuable in times of both flood and drought. Soil rich in organic matter also has significant carbon sequestration benefits, as carbon is stored in root systems instead of in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Driving around Northern California in the days after heavy rains this winter put these benefits on display – cover-cropped fields looked lush and green, while fields without cover-cropping were often severely flooded and experiencing increased runoff. This phenomenon is beautifully illustrated by the photograph below.

Source: UC SAREP

Source: UC SAREP

There has been a huge amount of excitement in the sustainable agriculture community surrounding the Healthy Soils Initiative, which many see as a return to sound agricultural practices that many farmers have relied on for decades. At the recent California Climate and Agriculture Summit, Secretary Karen Ross of California Department of Food and Agriculture proclaimed, “I have never been more excited about the possibilities,” in reference to the Healthy Soils Initiative and the future of climate smart agriculture in the state.

Not only can this momentum towards climate smart agriculture be seen through tangible policy change, but it can also be felt at gatherings of members of the environmental and sustainable agriculture community – such as the Green California Summit and California Climate and Agriculture Summit, which both took place this year. For me, these conferences clearly underscored the intersectionality of climate change and agriculture issues. It will come as no surprise to our readers that our agricultural production methods have huge implications not only for greenhouse gas emissions and food security, but also for issues of public health, wildlife conservation, and water and air pollution.   

Drawing the Connection to Agricultural Workers

Particularly impactful for me, was a panel at the California Climate and Agriculture Summit called “Integrating Social Equity into the Transition to Climate Smart Agriculture,” which focused on the degree to which climate-smart agriculture initiatives have reached, or have failed to reach, disadvantaged agricultural communities, and the specific public health risks that farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley often face.

The panel touched upon the connection between healthy soil, pesticide use, and the impacts of climate change on agricultural workers. Members of the Pesticide Action Network illustrated the health consequences of human exposure to pesticides and pointed to healthy soil practices as a public health strategy. This framing was rooted in the fact that transitioning away from high chemical input farming and toward more organic methods not only can have climate benefits, but also has the potential to reduce communities’ exposure to hazardous pesticides.

Gail Wadsworth, of the California Institute for Rural Studies, drew a strong connection between climate change and working conditions on farms. In the San Joaquin Valley, rising summer temperatures have begun affecting crop yields, and making it more difficult to grow products that historically have done incredibly well in the region, including cherries and other stone fruits.

While I’m used to thinking about climate change in terms of its impact on agricultural products, for some reason it hadn’t fully struck me that these increasingly extreme weather patterns are not only dangerous for California’s agricultural productivity, but also can be life-threatening for the farmworkers who make such production possible.

Wadsworth began with the statistic that heat waves are the most deadly natural disasters in the United States, killing more people annually than hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes combined. She suggested that heat waves need to start being included in government emergency response plans in the same way that earthquakes and other natural disasters are. Strategies could include public cooling spaces and ensuring that farmworkers feel empowered to take breaks that they are entitled to, something that is particularly critical during times of extreme heat.

The conversation hit home the fact that the effects of climate change are diverse and far reaching. It also underscored the important co-benefits of many climate-smart agricultural practices. Not only could an emphasis on building soil health help decrease greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture, but it could also help decrease the  use of pesticides, which make farmworkers and surrounding communities vulnerable to various health issues, and help make our state’s farms more resilient in times of drought and flood.

Looking Farther Afield

I have found that sustainable agriculture can be a bright spot in the conversation about climate change. It represents an area for intervention and innovation that has the potential to not only slow the rate of climate change, but perhaps even reverse it, through carbon sequestration in healthy soil. It also represents an area where transition to sustainable practices can have significant environmental and public health co-benefits. One of the most exciting things about being involved in this work is being exposed to the energy and enthusiasm of the sustainable agriculture community, which I believe will continue to drive movement towards more climate smart initiatives like those on the rise in California.

Of course, this momentum and focus on agriculture as a climate change solution are by no means unique to California, but can also be seen in efforts around the world. What innovations are you seeing related to climate and agriculture in your region?