Sharing Strategies and Exploring Opportunities for Agriculture in an Era of Climate Change

On February 1, 2012, nearly 100 Yolo County farmers and ranchers, policymakers and other members of the agricultural community convened at the University of California, Davis to discuss findings from a report focused on agriculture and climate change. The report, a collaborative effort by researchers at UC Davis and a range of stakeholders, is intended to help local farmers and policymakers better plan for the future while generating strategies and planning information applicable to Yolo and other California counties. In addition to examining the study’s findings, the meeting was intended to provide an opportunity for feedback from farmers about ongoing mitigation efforts (reducing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere) and adaptation strategies (efforts to minimize local and global impacts) in Yolo County. The meeting also provided a venue for farmers to discuss particular challenges and opportunities associated with a changing climate.

Participants at a public meeting on climate and agriculture.

About the Event

Presentations

Louise Jackson, UC Davis Professor and Extension Specialist in Land, Air and Water Resources, opened the meeting with an overview of the report, titled Adaptation Strategies for Agricultural Sustainability in Yolo County, California. Following this, Neal Van Alfen, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, greeted the audience and introduced the keynote speaker, State Senator Lois Wolk. Within her talk, Senator Wolk described a number of policy developments related to climate and agriculture including the recent passage of the Renewable Energy Equity Act (SB 489) as well as the need for increased investment in research and outreach to help put technologies into the hands of farmers and ranchers.

Panels

The morning’s presentations were followed by two panel discussions. The first, on mitigation, featured John Young, Yolo Ag Commissioner, Tony Turkovich of Button and Turkovich Ranch, Martin Burger, Russell Ranch Research Manager and Ryan Haden, a Post-Doctoral Associate in Land, Air and Water Resources. The second, on agricultural adaptation to climate change featured Gene Miyao, UCCE Farm Advisor, Chuck Dudley, President of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, Jim Durst of Durst Organic Growers Inc., and Tim O’Halloran, Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District General Manager.

Breakout Sessions

As a concluding exercise, attendees were asked to participate in breakout sessions identifying the challenges and opportunities associated with climate change and its impact on one of six issue areas, as well as strategies for adapting. Issue areas included chill hours/temperature, energy, markets, pests, regulations, and water.

Major Report Findings

The report utilizes a range of models, survey tools and data analysis techniques to generate findings about agricultural mitigation and adaptation. The following are some of the major report findings, presented by section, as shared with event attendees:

Study 1 – Changing Crop Acreage

  • Over the past century, average winter temperatures have increased more than average summer temperatures. Declining chill hours (especially for fruit and nut crops), rather than increasing growing degree days, are more likely to impact future cropping decisions. Shifts in crop acreage, however, are more likely to result from market decisions, rather than temperature changes.
  • Crop price and availability of irrigation water are often more important for crop acreage projections than gradual shifts in temperature.

Study 2 – Climate Change and Water Management

  • A gradual increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation, as is anticipated to occur in light of climate change, is likely to lead to significant water shortages by the end of the century.
  • A water efficient, diversified countywide cropping pattern combined with improved irrigation technology, may help keep irrigation demand in the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District near its historic mean.

Study 3 – Tracking Greenhouse Gasses in Yolo County 1990-2008

  • Total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agricultural lands declined by approximately 10% due to a combination of factors including a reduction in irrigated cropland, a shift towards crops which require less nitrogen, and a reduction in the rate of nitrogen applied to certain crops.
  • More livestock and acres of rice increased methane emissions by approximately 20%.
  • GHG emissions per acre of urban land in Yolo County are >70 times greater than for irrigated cropland, highlighting the importance of farmland preservation and smart urban growth planning to mitigate emissions.

Study 4 – Farmer Perspectives on Climate Change

  • A slight majority of farmers in Yolo agree that global climate is changing. Farmers are more divided over whether or not global temperatures are increasing and if human activities are an important cause.
  • With respect to potential impacts of climate-change, farmers are most concerned about future policies and regulations, followed by shifting markets and water supply.
  • Farmers who are not in frequent contact with local agricultural organizations, or conservation programs tend to be less likely to implement voluntary mitigation practices and to participate in future government programs supporting adaptation and mitigation.

Study 5 – Land Use and Greenhouse Gases

  • When modeling emissions, those from urban land uses were 70 times as great as those associated with cropland.
  • Urban planning approaches that emphasize compact growth and infill of existing urban boundaries can help reduce emissions.
  • The focus on preservation of rural agricultural land, as modeled in the least GHG intensive scenarios is consistent with increased interest and demand for local food processing, storage, and distribution infrastructure (SACOG 2010).

Farmer and Community Interests and Concerns:

Throughout the event, participants shared questions and comments about the report as well as general observations about the impact of climate change on their operations. The following is a list of responses that featured prominently:

Regulations: Despite acknowledging the fundamental need for basic regulations and monitoring, many participants expressed concern over regulatory burdens related to climate change. Specific concerns included impacts on the processing sector of greenhouse gas emissions reporting, and the frequent contradictions between regulations in different agencies. In some cases, it was noted that climate and energy related incentive programs conflicted with regulations in pursuit of the same goal. Concern also appeared to center around the ability to maintain flexibility in making production decisions.

Williamson Act: A number of participants and speakers noted specific concern about continued funding of the Williamson Act, the 1965 law which provides property tax relief to landowners in exchange for a ten-year agreement to maintain the land in agricultural use. Attendees noted that while Yolo County has done a particularly good job of maintaining agricultural land through a variety of measures including the Williamson Act, reduced funding for this program might put some of this land at risk. It was suggested that money related to California’s Cap and Trade program might be utilized for the maintenance of Williamson Act contracts in light of the important role that agricultural land plays in mitigating greenhouse gasses in comparison to urban developed land.

Agriculture’s role in mitigating greenhouse gases: Event attendees expressed support for the report’s emphasis on “greenhouse gas mitigation via farmland preservation”, which was based on the finding that urban emissions were much higher per acre than emissions from cropland. Additionally, numerous participants noted the increased adoption and prevalence of on-farm practices aimed at increasing the efficiency of energy use, as well as water and nutrient applications, which all play a role in decreasing emissions.

Funding for Research: Numerous participants noted the importance of continued funding for research and extension support, which is increasingly at risk given state budgetary shortfalls. Farmers, agency representatives and policy-makers cited the importance of the report in laying the ground work for agricultural land preservation given its climate mitigating potential, and for pointing out recent advancements in production with regard to emissions reductions. As noted by several attendees, research will also play an important role in helping farmers to adapt to new climate-related production challenges including new pests, reduced chill hours and increased water demand.

Innovation and adaptability: Participants noted the high level of adaptability of agriculture in Yolo County with regard to climate change, pointing out the willingness of growers to not only modify production practices, but also to shift crop varieties and participate in government programs despite their voluntary status under cap and trade. Several participants expressed that financial support or incentives would help support farmers in their adapting and innovating.

Importance of water conservation: All participants acknowledged the growing challenges for agriculture in the county with regard to water availability and the likelihood of crops requiring more water given the higher temperatures predicted under climate change. Several participants noted the potential to save water through the use of drip irrigation, and also highlighted its capacity to dramatically increase yield. The importance of drip irrigation as a means of reducing nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide, was also noted by several researchers and farmers. Since drip irrigation can reduce groundwater recharge conjunctive use, whereby groundwater and surface water are managed in concert to minimize undesirable effects on various water users and the environment, was also cited as an important adaptation strategy.

Increasing local demand: Increasing access to locally grown agricultural products was noted by several participants as an efficient way of benefiting from increased demand while decreasing transportation related greenhouse gases, and building awareness among urban dwellers for the value of Yolo County agriculture. Specifically, it was suggested that a local Yolo Grown branding campaign be considered to help capitalize on this market opportunity while mitigating GHGs.

Restoration and carbon credits for working lands: Though recognition of the value of restoration was universal amongst participants, in terms of habitat value and carbon sequestration, many expressed concern over the conversion of working lands. Instead, participants suggested that lower quality lands or edges or riparian corridors be pursued as restoration targets first. It was also suggested that carbon credits be granted for permanent crops such as orchard crops and vines.

Participant Comments:

  • "I work a lot with private land owners and I find them to be extremely innovative and creative once something is set before them." --Representative, Yolo RCD
  • "I look at the last 100 years of climate and realize I’ve lived the majority of that and realize that as we look at climate and weather, we have these swings between wet and dry and warm and cool and there is no doubt in my mind that agriculture in Yolo County, agriculture in California and the US, will be able to successfully adapt to climate change -- Representative, Yolo County Farm Bureau
  • "..as I listen to the discussion about AB 32 and the 1 billion dollars that is going to be coming into the state... I’m not hearing a discussion about how the state is going to use this to fund the Williamson Act. The Williamson Act is probably the most important land conservation tool that we have." -- Representative, Yolo County Department of Agriculture
  • "Inputs are relatively expensive so the days of being wasteful are greatly diminished" --Representative, UC Cooperative Extension
  • "I think there is a new ethic, where farmers begin to take responsibility for their own activities on the farm. On our farm we reflect upon that on almost a daily basis and annual basis… Disturbing the soil (less with tillage) is one of those ways and managing soil microbiology in a way that enhances plant growth and enhances the fertility of our soils so that we don’t have to apply as much nitrogen." -- Yolo County Farmer
  • "If we have spaces on our farms or in our communities where we can plant things, trees especially, but also native grasses or things that can play a role while providing habitat….it looks like a real big project if you take 150 miles of canals, but if you take one mile a year it may not be such a big project. Those are the kinds of things we’d like to see financing for because they not only provide climate benefit but they also provide an environmental benefit that we all can enjoy and participate in and help our ecosystem" -- Yolo County Farmer