upper waypoint

California’s Sustainable Farms, Models for Agriculture in Warming World, Need Help Surviving It

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Farmworkers harvest cucumbers at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. (Liza Gross)

The bustle of birds and insect pollinators is the first thing you notice at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco in the Capay Valley, where Judith Redmond and her partners started farming four decades ago.

On this early morning in August, a hot, dry wind is blowing through the valley, fanning the flames that are devouring the parched lands on either side of Redmond’s 400-acre organic farm, where chickens, pigs and sheep forage alongside vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and flowers.

The day before, that wind fueled a fast-moving fire about 25 miles northwest of the farm that incinerated dozens of mobile homes. The massive Caldor and Dixie fires were continuing to spread to the east and north, and a gray smoky haze hung in the air.

But fire is just one of the farm’s climate-related challenges, Redmond said. “At the moment, all of us are very, very concerned about the water situation and the drought.”

Farmers have always labored at the mercy of the elements, but climate change has brought overlapping calamities of wildfires, drought, prolonged heat waves and power outages. Small-scale sustainable farmers with direct access to consumers through community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs hold the key to boosting agricultural resilience in the face of a warming world. They know how to reduce agriculture’s carbon emissions, curb water and air pollution and boost biodiversity. But economic incentives and policies still favor large industrial farms that rely on chemicals and fossil fuels and raise only a few types of livestock or crops.


Without access to the same subsidies, technical assistance and other resources available to large-scale operations, small farms are struggling to survive a rapidly changing climate.

“For a long time we were seeing an increase in both large and small farms, but in the last ag census we saw a decline in small farms,” said Jeanne Merrill, policy director at California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, a coalition of sustainable and organic farming organizations.

Diversified small and midsize farmers, who tend to 500 acres or less, can’t rely on the stable of consultants and university extension advisers that help larger operations get through extreme weather events, said Merrill. “It is getting much harder with water constraints, with heat events, with catastrophic wildfire to survive.”

Fires aren’t likely to make it through vast acres of irrigated crops on large farms, said Evan Wiig, communications director for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. But, he said, since 2017, the most destructive fire season in California on record at the time, “we’ve seen small farmers hit at an unprecedented scale.”

Judith Redmond, one of six owners of Full Belly Farm, samples a turkey fig. (Liza Gross)

Wildfires mostly skirted the edges of Full Belly Farm until a few years ago, when the Sand Fire torched a 25-acre field of heirloom wheat on its way to burning thousands of acres. Securing their “extremely expensive” fire insurance is a constant struggle, Redmond said. “Every year is more difficult.”

It’s no wonder that small farms are disappearing in California, even as experts say the need for sustainable farming has never been greater.

Sustainable agriculture is “urgently needed” to tackle the environmental and climate crisis, agricultural experts argued in a 2019 paper. But the U.S. agricultural system, they wrote, puts practitioners “at a distinct disadvantage.”

Federal farm policy is set up to support chemically dependent monocultures through things like crop insurance and university research assistance, said Liz Carlisle, a lead author on the study and assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s definitely not set up for something like a 20-acre diversified vegetable farm with a community-supported agricultural operation.”

There’s an entire apparatus built around industrial farming to standardize technologies like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to maximize production for just a few crops, said study coauthor Ryan Galt, who directs the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California, Davis.

The vast majority of federal money goes to funding commodities like corn and soy that provide cheap raw materials for meat and processed food, Galt said. “There are a patchwork of programs that help out diversified farming systems, but they’re pretty meager compared to those resources that are channeled towards propping up commodity production.”

Another major barrier to sustainable farming is access to affordable land. Close to 45% of California farmland is rented, which vastly increases overhead expenses and makes it harder for farmers to invest in long-term sustainability practices.

Early farmers who moved away from monocultures, harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizers that contaminate water resources were highly motivated to implement environmentally friendly practices, Galt said.

“Do you know the kind of will and intelligence that takes? They had to really go against the grain and be supermotivated,” he said. “There weren’t any incentives for them to do it.”

Replacing fossil fuels with biology

Agriculture accounts for 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from industrial practices used to manage crops and livestock.

Most of the work on U.S. farms runs on fossil fuel power, Carlisle said. “The fertility comes from synthetic fertilizer. For the most part, that’s fossil fuel derived. The pest control comes from synthetic pesticides that are fossil fuel derived. And, of course, a lot of work is done by diesel-powered tractors.”

In contrast, smaller farms rely on people power and organisms in the farm system to do the work, Carlisle said. Fertility comes from the manure of an animal or from soil-building cover crops. While pest control comes from planting flowers that attract beneficial insects, or from creating a functioning ecosystem where no single population of organisms gets out of control.

“You also have the work that would be done with a diesel-powered tractor more frequently done by people,” Carlisle said.

Redmond and her partners have long experimented with such fossil-free approaches to produce environmentally sustainable, chemical-free food as pioneers of the CSA movement. Everything they do is geared toward farming for “more layers of life.”

They see building soil health as critical not just to fertilizing crops but also to boosting the farm’s resilience to climate change. They avoid or minimize tilling the soil, which supports healthy microbial communities and sequesters carbon. The use of so-called cover crops—non-cash crops planted to prevent soil erosion and nurture soil health—adds organic matter to soil, which helps retain moisture in the event of drought and absorbs water during floods. Using compost and pasture-grazing their sheep also feeds soils while planting hedgerows flush with native vegetation attracts pollinators.

This low-carbon, high-touch approach to farming keeps their farmhands employed year-round.

As Redmond walks along a field of ornamental broomcorn and flowers, sparrows and chickadees dart past dragonflies to a grove of Asian pears. Decades ago, Redmond’s crew started planting bushes, trees and shrubs that would grow naturally in the region to provide habitat and food for native beneficial insects. In turn, the beneficial insects control pests.

Last year, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s California Climate Hub highlighted some of the farm’s practices to show growers how they can adapt to changing climate conditions and maintain productivity.

Full Belly Farm has been doing “a lot of really innovative work” experimenting with practices like no-till farming while advocating for practices that nurture the land, said Emilie Winfield, who led the project at the Climate Hub while still a graduate student at the UC Davis.

“It felt like a natural choice to partner with them, because they’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time,” said Winfield, who now coordinates the Marin Resource Conservation District’s North Coast Soil Hub. Plus, she added, they’re going to see “fairly severe impacts from climate change.”

Average maximum temperatures in the region are likely to increase by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit within the next 30 years, according to Cal Adapt, bringing more heat waves, lower soil moisture and more plant stress.

To protect their diverse pepper crops, Redmond and her partners erected a large shade structure over two-acres of jalapeños, Jimmy Nardellos and several other pepper varieties. The shade cloth keeps the peppers from getting sunburned, reducing stress on the plants, and plastic mulch retains water in the soil.

“The plants just look absolutely healthy and happy,” Redmond said.

But some tomatoes have lost their flowers in the heat. No flowers means no fruit. And heat can also disrupt pollination in corn, which loses kernels when pollen fails to find every silk tube.

The region has seen several searing heat waves this season, which increases water demands. Full Belly Farm has two wells on the property, and in a normal year draws water from the creek that flows along its eastern edge. This is not a normal year.

Nearly half of the state, including the Capay Valley, is in “exceptional” drought. Redmond’s local water district ended water deliveries that feed the creek and farmers to the south in late June.

Redmond said the farm will probably rely on groundwater, as it did when the creek went dry during the devastating five-year drought that ended in 2016.

“But we’ve really changed our plans for the fall,” Redmond said. “We’re growing less, we’re not going to have cover crops. There’s various pieces of land that we rent that we’re just not going to be able to plant because there’s just not enough water.”

Creating a sustainability safety net

For agriculture to reduce its carbon footprint and survive the challenges of a rapidly changing climate, experts like Carlisle and Galt believe, it will need to replace fossil-fuel intensive management with “knowledge-intensive” management. Farmers like Redmond acquired a deep understanding of how to harness the region’s natural resources over years of experimenting with different strategies to figure out how to boost productivity.

It’s the difference between seeing biodiversity as an asset to the farm or a threat, Carlisle said.

“In most indigenous food systems, there was not a clear distinction between wild lands, and a farm,” Carlisle said. “Ecological agriculture is a functioning ecosystem that looks, in many ways, like the surrounding natural ecosystem. It’s just managed for the purpose of growing human foods.”

So-called agroecology requires valuing human knowledge and labor, but the current system has been optimized to minimize both, Carlisle said.

“Less than 2% of the population farms in the United States,” she said. “What we need to be optimizing for in a world where we’re facing climate change, and a lot of other challenges, is minimizing fossil fuel use, and embracing the idea that people can have really good lives and really good jobs on farms, if we actually prioritize that as a society.”

That’s the approach many European countries have taken, said Galt of UC Davis, referring to initiatives in the European Union, which has invested in organic farming as the future of its agricultural production. But there’s still not much direct federal support for U.S. farmers who want to pursue sustainable practices, he said.

California has a suite of climate smart agriculture programs, including the Healthy Soils Program, which subsidizes practices like cover cropping and no-till farming, and the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, or SWEEP, which provides funds for irrigation that conserves water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

But those programs ran out of money and didn’t get funded in the pandemic budget that passed last year, said CalCAN’s Merrill. In the budget bills Gov. Gavin Newsom signed earlier in the summer, both healthy soils and SWEEP received increased funding.

“Those are good things, but there was no money yet for farmland conservation or the alternative manure management program,” Merrill said, referring to practices like pasture grazing that reduce potent greenhouse gas emissions in contrast to industrial dairies that store animal waste in large open pits.

With a historic surplus delaying passage of the final budget, “there’s a lot yet to be decided,” Merrill said. “Will we see funding that prioritizes climate resilience for small and midscale farmers? That’s the outstanding question.”

Even when programs offer financial incentives for sustainable practices, the hurdles to accessing those funds can be high.

“We need to think about what a system looks like that really supports small and innovative farmers,” said Winfield of the Marin Resource Conservation District. “If the applications are too lengthy or if some of the reporting is too time consuming, we’re putting a lot of demands on farmers’ and ranchers’ time.”

Carlisle believes every sustainable farmer needs access to someone who can answer questions about how to manage vegetation that could fuel wildfires on their property, for example, or help crops tolerate droughts. That technical assistance, she said, should be linked with cost-sharing public funds to help farmers implement recommended measures.

“A lot of the things we’re asking farmers to do, in adapting to climate change and mitigating climate change, have tremendous public benefit,” Carlisle said. “We’re asking them to manage public resources like the atmosphere and the soil and the watershed. So we need to have programs like the healthy soils initiative available to pitch in for things that farmers are doing on behalf of all of us.”

But the funding for those programs is woefully inadequate to cover the scale of transition needed for farmers to adapt to climate change, Carlisle said. If taxpayer money is going to support agriculture, she said, “let’s target it for public benefit.”

Instead of insuring commodity crops like corn, for example, farmers could be paid for cover cropping as ecological insurance to mitigate the risk of flooding.

Sustainable farmers provide “multiple, pretty massive benefits” for society without compensation, Galt said.

“If you look at Full Belly, you’ve probably greatly reduced the amount of runoff pollution from the farm compared to a conventional farm. You’ve created a ton of wildlife habitat that benefits the area around you and you’re absorbing more water more slowly in the ecosystems, so you’re not contributing to flash floods downstream. And you’re sequestering carbon in the soil, which is benefiting all of us,” he said.

Galt added, “They also provide really good wages and benefits to farmworkers, which we don’t often see on farms.”

Yet the only thing farmers get in return for all these services, Galt said, is the revenue from selling whatever they produce on the farm.

And that’s making it hard for some small farmers to compete in the highly consolidated agricultural industry. A recent survey of dozens of small farms that sell to consumers through farmers markets and CSAs in four mid-Atlantic states found that most farmers earned near poverty-level wages.

As California struggles to cope with another disastrous fire season in the midst of a punishing drought, Galt sees an opportunity. “The costs of climate change are becoming really apparent,” he said. “Can we use this moment and do something quickly?”

Redmond and Full Belly Farm aren’t waiting for policymakers to give sustainable farmers their due. “We’ve learned to adapt to a changing environment,” she said.

In talking with other farmers, she said, she realized that everyone’s in the same day-to-day, season-to-season planning mode, figuring out how to survive the abnormal vagaries of climate change.

“We have to keep going. We have to keep harvesting. We have to keep our crew employed,” she said. “I think that’s where most people are at.”


InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

lower waypoint
next waypoint