Helping hundreds of farmers across more than 100,000 acres of California’s San Joaquin Valley adopt growing practices that conserve water, build soil health and deliver climate benefits is not an easy task. But it’s vitally important for the nation’s food supply.
The San Joaquin Valley, which supplies more than 300 food products worldwide, is facing unprecedented climatic challenges including wildfires, droughts and floods. Adding to the challenges are increasing real estate development pressures from a growing population. For example, the valley’s Fresno County is the third-fastest county to lose farmland in the state, and the #17 fastest in the nation, reports AFT’s Farms Under Threat: Choosing an Abundant Future. This has food security implications, because Fresno County is the third leading county in gross agricultural value in the United States.
According to Tom Stein, American Farmland Trust’s California regional director, the secret to success on this ambitious effort is strong collaboration between a wide variety of groups and subject matter experts. A big priority is helping the region’s farmers comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
“One single organization could never accomplish such demanding goals,” says Stein. “This team effort extends across the region, state and nation. We have a coalition of government agencies, businesses, non-governmental organizations, researchers, scientists, planners, policymakers and others working on this multi-year effort. The coalition is spearheaded by our staff and informed by AFT/Conservation Biology Institute research from our San Joaquin Valley Land and Water Strategy.”
AFT is half-way through phase one of implementing the San Joaquin Valley Land and Water Strategy – which combines research, policy advocacy, agricultural land protection and regenerative agricultural practices to protect the region’s farmland and dwindling water resources.
The collaboration is building strong regional partnerships, attracting multiple sources of funding (private, public and corporate partners) and training agricultural service providers on data gained from on-farm trials, soil health farmer profiles and case studies from AFT’s Soil Health Bottom Line program.
Resources are shared with farmers across San Joaquin Valley to accelerate regenerative agricultural practices that conserve water, build soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Accelerating Regenerative Agriculture
AFT is partnering with four Resource Conservation Districts, United States Department of Agriculture-Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), University of California, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), Asian Business Institute and Resource Center (ABIRC), General Mills, Daily Harvest, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA) and many others to host farmer demonstrations, tailgates, Learning Circles, business planning sessions and community resource fairs in English, Spanish and Hmong languages.
According to Stein, “This outreach helps foster understanding, addresses barriers and builds on-ramps that, when packaged with technical and financial assistance and support resources, can scale up the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices with these farmers.”
Nearly $1.5 million of NRCS funding was provided by AFT last fall to 37 farmers for implementing soil and water conservation practices in critically overdrafted groundwater basins. Another round of funding applications ended Feb. 3 with funds arriving in the summer. A third round is set to start in April with funds in the fall. The goal is to deliver technical assistance to 250 farmers and ranchers, and apply these practices on at least 100,000 acres.
Together with Conservation Biology Institute research, AFT created the Project Prioritization Tool to select and support projects with the greatest potential for soil and water conservation benefits. It also allows stakeholders to identify and prepare priority agricultural land acquisition and technical assistance projects, while supporting land use planning decision making.
AFT is partnering with The Freshwater Trust to pilot BasinScout™ in Madera County. It allows stakeholders to aggregate data, conduct cost-benefit analyses of different growing practices and survey large areas to prioritize conservation activities in locations conducive to conserving water.
Protecting Farmland at Greatest Risk
To protect productive farmland at high risk of development, AFT is partnering with California Farmland Trust and other land trusts, to protect the most productive, versatile and resilient agricultural land by acquiring select agricultural easements in the San Joaquin Valley. Easements are an effective, voluntary way to protect farmland forever.
AFT views each easement as a partnership with the landowner,” explains Stein. “The easements are written with flexibility, allowing for future barns, fencing, land clearing and other structures or activities essential for farming and ranching. AFT employees visit each property at least annually, maintaining close ties with the landowner.”
In recent years, AFT has acquired two agricultural easements. The first was Lost Wagon Wheel Ranch outside of Chowchilla, which was funded by an agricultural land mitigation agreement between the Department of Conservation and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
Last year, AFT purchased an easement for Riverdance Farms in Merced County. Funds were made available through the California Strategic Growth Council’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALC), administered by the Department of Conservation.
SALC is part of California Climate Investments, a statewide program that puts billions of Cap-and-Trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment — particularly in disadvantaged communities.
To support additional agricultural easements in the San Joaquin Valley, AFT was recently awarded SALC funding just announced by the Strategic Growth Council.
Supporting Farmers with Subject Matter Expertise
Providing culturally relevant and technically sound information to San Joaquin Valley farmers of all types is a priority for AFT. In the last year, AFT has hired three bilingual (Spanish-English) technical experts:
- California Senior Manager Deborah Nares
- California Outreach Specialist Anel Trujillo
- California Agricultural Specialist Harol Gonzalez Gallardo
These employees have significant experience in regenerative agriculture, business planning, land access, resource development, irrigation management, agronomy and other skills.
In December, AFT’s California senior agricultural specialist, Paul Lum, was honored by the Almond Board of California with its Almond Technical Achievement Award at the 2023 Almond Conference.
Almond Board CEO Richard Waycott, praised Lum’s ability to discuss, “all things farming, naturally and effortlessly pivoting from topics on irrigation equipment to agricultural conservation easements to financial decision making to conservation practices.”
It’s clear that the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural riches must be protected, even as the region faces severe climate challenges, development pressures and aging farming populations. The solution to keeping the nation’s leading farming region economically viable and climate resilient relies on collaboration and teamwork.
Learn more about AFT’s San Joaquin Valley Land and Water Strategy.
American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.8 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.