Agriculture

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California’s Farm Belt Didn’t Dodge the Summer Heat Wave

Abnormally warm summer temperatures were felt across much of interior California

By Nicholas Christen and Craig Miller

Craig Miller / KQED

Even tomatoes can only take so much heat. A belt from Bakersfield to the northern Sacramento Valley produces a third of the nation's canning tomatoes.

Autumn is here, so says the calendar. Living on the coast, it might be easy to think that California escaped the heat wave suffered by much of the nation this summer. While that may be true for most of the large coastal population centers, it was a different story for much of the state’s interior farm belt.

Throughout June and July, even Central Valley spots escaped much of the heat felt by the Great Plains, though Cal Expo officials blamed the heat, in part, for tamping down attendance at the state fair. Then things heated up quickly — especially in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys — through August and into September.  Valley towns including Redding, Red Bluff, Sacramento, Merced, Madera, Fresno, and Bakersfield, have been on the order of three-to-five degrees above normal for the duration of August and September. Continue reading

Heat and Harvest: Calif. Farms on a Climate Collision Course

The Midwestern corn belt isn’t the only place threatened by climate change

New pests, a shrinking water supply and rising temperatures will alter agriculture in California.

Craig Miller

Tightening water supplies, encroaching pests and dwindling winter "chill hours," vital to many crops, are just some of the climate challenges facing California farmers.

Heat and Harvest, a new series from KQED Science and the Center for Investigative Reporting looks at the multiple climate challenges confronting California farmers. It’s no trivial matter. California’s Central Valley is widely known as “the nation’s salad bowl,” and there’s more than bragging rights at stake. Ag contributes more than $30 billion a year to the state’s economy.

Previously, Climate Watch has focused on efforts in the ag sector to conserve water or lower the carbon footprint. Some farmers are trying new technologies, others are experimenting with renewable energy. But meeting climate challenges on multiple fronts will, for some farmers and ranchers, be a matter of survival.

Here are links to some previous reporting from Climate Watch, from ag’s potential role in California’s emerging cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, to innovation on the renewable energy front and new conflicts over land use. Continue reading

Planting the Seeds for ‘Greener’ Farms

Sustainable ag makes its bid for cap & trade revenues

Craig Miller

Reducing tillage is one technique farmers are trying out to cut carbon emissions.

Supporters of sustainable agriculture are looking forward to some “sustenance” of their own, after an eleventh-hour win in Sacramento. Just as the state’s last legislative session was drawing to a close, Assembly Bill 1532 passed by a vote of 51-28, sending to the governor’s desk a system for allocating cap-and-trade auction revenues, which are expected to reach into the billions of dollars by the end of next year.

AB 1532, authored by Assembly Speaker John Pérez, lays out an approach for ensuring that all proceeds from the sale of permits be used to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Among the eligible activities identified in the bill are farming and ranching practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon, such as reducing soil tillage, improving energy and water efficiency, and reducing synthetic fertilizer use through compost, cover crops, and crop rotation. Continue reading

Satellites Helping Save Water on California Farms

Researchers at CSU have teamed up with NASA to test water-saving technology on California crops

Craig Miller

Watering fields in the Sacramento Valley: traditional irrigation methods have required a lot of guess-work.

By Vinnee Tong

Near the Central Valley town of Los Banos, Anthony Pereira opens a tap to send water into the fields at his family’s farm. Pereira grows cotton, alfalfa and tomatoes. And he is constantly deciding how much water is the right amount to use.

“Water savings is always an issue,” he says. “That’s why we’re going drip here on this ranch. We gotta try to save what we can now for the years to come.”

Thanks to some new technology, that might get a little easier. To help farmers like Pereira, engineers at NASA and CSU Monterey Bay are developing an online tool that can estimate how much water a field might need. Here’s how it works: satellites orbiting the earth take high-resolution pictures — so detailed that you can zoom in to a quarter of an acre.

“The satellite data is allowing us to get a measurement of how the crop is developing,” says CSUMB scientist Forrest Melton, the lead researcher on the project. “We’re actually measuring the fraction of the field that’s covered by green, growing vegetation.” Continue reading

Climate, Corn, and the Coming Market Chaos

Climate change has an outsize effect on corn price volatility

mhall209/Flickr

Climate change -- and the ensuing heat waves -- will create more volatility in the corn price market.

By Michael D. Lemonick

Farmers know all too well that the prices they get for what they grow can fluctuate from one year to the next, sometimes wildly. Drought or heat can reduce crop yields; so can frost and floods. For corn producers, the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates the addition of ethanol to gasoline, is yet another source of volatility. It puts extra demands on whatever supply there is, making corn more expensive for consumers even as it puts more money in farmers’ pockets. And overlaid on top of it all is climate change, which exerts its on push on the ups and downs of weather.

Scientists have looked at different pieces of this equation, but researchers from Stanford and Purdue have analyzed the entire equation, in a paper just published in Nature Climate Change, and determined which factor causes the most trouble: it’s climate change, and for Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh, that came as a surprise. “I genuinely expected that climate would be a minor player relative to these other influences,” he said in a telephone interview.

Continue reading

Fish vs. Farms Conflict Escalates in Central Valley

Proposed law would stop salmon restoration, deliver more water to Central Valley farms

REUTERS/Robert Durrell/Pool

The San Joaquin River flows from the Sierra Nevada to the Central Valley, where much of its water is diverted to aqueducts.

UPDATE: The House has passed the bill, with a vote of 246-175. It now goes to the Senate.

Meandering through the halls of Capitol Hill is a bill that would dramatically change California’s water picture. Sponsored by Tulare County Congressman Devin Nunes, the sweeping proposal would pipe more water to farms, and challenge the largest river restoration project in U.S. history.

Environmentalists and farmers tangoed for 18 years in federal court over the fate of the San Joaquin River, finally agreeing to restore water to some 60 miles of dry riverbed, and bring back the salmon that died off when the river was dammed just above Fresno.

“Most people associate the San Joaquin as a dry toxic river,” says Chris Acree, director of Revive the River, a Fresno-based non-profit. “Now that this water is back in that river, it allows us to identify ourselves with this river as a living river. This restoration program really is the broadest collaboration between agencies, landowners, stakeholders, and water users, where everybody has a voice.”

But Congressmen Devin Nunes says many Central Valley farmers have been left out of water decisions that put fish before farmers. His bill would not only reverse plans to restore salmon to this river, it would relax pumping restrictions in the Delta designed to protect other endangered fish.

Continue reading

After a Dry February (sigh), Drought Looms on Central Valley Farms

Farmers, used to water shortages, prepare for bad news

Sasha Khokha/KQED

Pistachio trees on a drip irrigation system. Drip systems can dramatically reduce water loss from evaporation.

UPDATE: Despite snow closing Interstate 5 over the Grapevine Pass on Monday, state snow surveyors returned from the Sierra today with more forlorn figures. The third snowpack measurement of the season showed water content in the accumulated snow at just 30% of the average for this date and 26% of the average for April 1, typically when the snowpack reaches its peak for the season.

Even though more snow is on the way, as I explain in my radio story for The California Report, Central Valley farmers are getting ready to face a fourth dry year in the last five.

I visited with Fresno County farmer Ryan Ferguson in his pistachio orchard near the Lemoore Naval Air station, to ask him how he’s coping with the news that he may get just 30% of the water he’s asking for from the canals of the federal Central Valley Project. Continue reading

Keeping Central Valley Crops and People Safe From Floods: A Costly Proposition

Big plans to revamp the Valley’s piecemeal flood management system…if there’s money for it

Now that the state’s revamped Central Valley Flood Protection Plan (big PDF) is out for public perusal, the question is whether the political will — and the cash — will be there to make it happen.

David McNew/Getty Images

California's status as an agricultural powerhouse is largely due to the fertile lands in the Central Valley, which are also prone to floods.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins run through the valley and can overflow their banks threatening more than a million people and an estimated $69 billion in assets, according to the report. The current flood management system has been in place for about a hundred years and was designed specifically to keep water from the rivers off the land so that people could grow crops. Now the system has varied uses including conservation of habitat, water supply and water quality. The old system really isn’t up to the job anymore and almost everyone agrees that it will take a serious investment to bring it up to snuff.

Continue reading

Making Hay While the Sun Shines: A Flap over Solar Panels in Farm Country

The same things that make the San Joaquin Valley ideal for growing crops, plenty of sun and land, is also attracting large-scale solar power developers.

Hear the companion radio feature Wednesday morning, on The California Report.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

Aaron Barcellos and his yellow lab, Maddox. Barcellos hopes to plant rows of pomegranate trees next to rows of solar panels.

Farmer Aaron Barcellos bristles at the idea that putting solar panels on his land is “paving it over,” as some critics have contended. Harvesting electrons, he says, is not the same as pouring concrete to build houses or a shopping center. Solar isn’t permanent: he can simply pull out the posts holding up the panels when he wants to plow the land under again. In the meantime, using a small part of his farm to generate power for the grid is a good way to bring in some guaranteed income, helping him weather the ups and downs of drought and crop prices.

But on Barcellos’s farm, the ground closest to a PG&E substation is considered “prime” farmland. That means he has to get permission from county supervisors to take his land out of the Williamson Act, which gives farmers a tax break for keeping prime farmland in agriculture. I explore that controversy in my radio story on today’s California Report.

Continue reading

Making Renewable Energy from Farm Waste

Katrina Schwartz

Cast off walnut shells await the "biogasifier." Lester has more than enough for an entire year stored in his warehouse.

By Katrina Schwartz

California is just a few votes away from changing the rules to allow farmers to connect machines that create bioenergy to the electrical grid, a privilege that has thus far been reserved for farm-generated wind and solar energy.

Passage of the bill — SB 489 — would mean they could use the byproduct of their crops as fuel to create electricity.

Russ Lester, the owner of Dixon Ridge Farms, has been leading the charge to get the rules changed. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to shrink the carbon footprint of his organic walnut farm and processing plant in Yolo County. Brian Jenkins of the California Biomass Collaborative at UC Davis calls Lester the “guinea pig” of bioenergy. Continue reading