Climate Smart Agriculture – Sonoma is leading the effort

Written By: Stephanie Larson, PhD
Published: August 3, 2020

The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is proud to join our County partners to promote climate smart strategies and engage in the Climate Ad Hoc Committee. This committee is a directive from Supervisors Gorin and Hopkins that will inform the Board’s strategic goal to achieve carbon neutrality in Sonoma County no later than 2030. The guiding principles of this plan are to (1) prioritize equitable outcome that improve quality of life for all; (2) connect local priorities to climate action and resilience; (3) identify and advocate for the necessary regional and state level policy solutions to enable Sonoma County to meet this goal; and (4) develop internal communication and coordination structures that can be replicated in counties across California to achieve similar goals. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations takes credit for first coining the term ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ in the lead up to the 2010 Hague Conference of Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change. The FAO defines climate smart agriculture as “a means of identifying which production systems and enabling institutions are best suited to respond to the challenges of climate change for specific locations, to maintain and enhance the capacity of agriculture to support food security in a sustainable way.” The FAO identified three pillars to the concept: (1) Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes; (2) adapting and building resilience to climate change; and (3) reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible. 

The UCCE, an extension of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) is an institution that continues to assist farmers, ranchers and private landowners are implementing best management practices to address climate issues. As the County based department that employs the best science available to assist private and public landowners make management decisions for both economic and ecologic practices.  

Increasing Agricultural Productivity & Incomes

UCCE, Marin and Sonoma Counties, provide experts to assist local livestock producers with the startup and workforce growth of having a Mobile Slaughter Unit (MSU) to process beef, sheep, goats, and pigs in the North Bay. Vince Trotter and Karen Giovannini have provided technical assistance, leading to the development of business plans and recognition of the need for a trained workforce that can operate a MSU. This local agricultural opportunity will provide a point of entry for many trade people interested in the meat industry. Through additional technical assistance, skilled laborers will obtain a greater skill level, leading to increased wages. Building up the local ecosystem of meat processing will increase the economic opportunities for small scale livestock and poultry producers and bring resilience to our rural economies. Our unique small scale producers’ biggest challenge is to expand their ability to process animals. Currently, to comply with USDA standards, these producers must drive over 3-4 hours one way, resulting in stress on the animals and producers, excess fuel costs and greenhouse gases, and is economically unsustainable for the producers. 

The fragility of national, consolidated meat processing as exposed during this pandemic, along with huge shifts in the markets for the sale of locally produced meat away from wholesale channels towards direct-to-consumer (DTC) reinforce the necessity to establish a flexible, locally-controlled ecosystem of meat processing.

To create a sustainable local food system, we need opportunities for young, entrepreneurs. Young generations are interested in getting into the meat business, many of our current producers are in their 30’s and 40’s. UCCE is working with Santa Rosa Junior College, and Animal Science instructor, Amy Housman, through SRJC’s Meat Science program. Efforts will explore a certificate program to support these local businesses with well-trained entry-level employees. 

Resilience to Climate Change

UCCE leads efforts to educate landowners on vegetation management tools(s), assisting with fuels reduction and ecological enhancement on private and public range and forest lands. Current UCCE advisors, Steven Swain and Michael Jones, are conducting research to determine which and what trees types to plant and/or remove to increase carbon sequestration, fire fuel reduction, habitat, etc. The Sonoma County research project, in collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, is aimed at developing a triage tool for quick and accurate assessment of fire damaged trees. Using this tool, UCCE aims to improve triage outcomes, which should increase the number of mature trees remaining after catastrophic fire. Because mature trees sequester much more carbon than young trees per year on a per-tree basis, this will improve post-fire sequestration. Furthermore, it avoids decaying root balls associated with large, dead trees, which release stored carbon back into the atmosphere, which should make large differences over decades in stored soil carbon between accurately triaged sites and poorly triaged sites.

California has seen a recent surge in catastrophic wildfires, and the North Bay area has been hit hard in recent years. UCCE advisors are working with various county groups that are exploring tools and alternative forest products (e.g. biochar, biofuels, bioenergy, poles and other small wood products) to help sequester or prevent the loss of carbon that can occur during forestland management. UCCE continues working with scientists from Cal Fire, Fire and Resource Assessment Program, who are conducting a research project at Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest to explore how various post-fire management strategies effect carbon storage, fuel build-up, and other ecological variables. As policymakers in our county explore initiatives to sequester carbon by preventing the removal or tree or by planting trees, it will be critical to consult local researchers in the policy making process. Research that supports and fosters the increased capacity for forestland management, through tools such as vegetation reduction and prescribed fire, will mitigate the potential release of carbon that could occur during a high-severity landscape level wildland fire. In other words, reducing fuel loads can help prevent large trees from being consumed during high-severity wildland fires, sequester more carbon. Essentially, by improving forest health and resiliency we can help to keep the carbon in the forest.

Carbon Sequestration / Reducing Greenhouse Gases

In 2020, the California Department of Food and Agriculture held solicitations for two climate-smart agriculture programs, with the intention of reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. These programs were the Healthy Soils Program and the Agriculture Manure Management Program. Lead by Dr. Randi Black and our Climate Smart Agriculture -Community Education Specialists (CES), UCCE provided technical assistance to farmers and ranchers interested in applying for funding to implement climate smart practices; NRCS, CDFA Healthy Soils Incentive Program (HSP) and the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP). HSP announced the winners of their 2020 Incentive Awards in May, which included 5 Sonoma County farmers totaling $232,886.63 awarded, with an estimated GHG reduction of 505.1 MTCO2e/year. The practices awarded include: Compost, Cover Crop, Hedgerow Planting, Tree/Shrub Planting, Windbreak/Shelterbelt Establishment, Reduced Tillage, Mulching, Prescribed Grazing, and Range Planting. 

Hopeful applicants for AMMP awards are awaiting an announcement from the CDFA to determine the recipients.

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