Understanding the Climate Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for EW10-005

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2010: $11,905.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Jeanne Merrill
CA Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN)
Renata Brillinger
California Climate & Agriculture Network
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Project Information


This project trained agricultural professionals on the expected impacts of climate change on agriculture, proven sustainable agriculture practices to mitigate climate change, and the status of climate change policy as it pertains to agriculture. In collaboration with a planning team representing the three agencies, we organized three workshops and farm tours for NRCS, Extension, RCD staff to showcase innovative sustainable farming practices that reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, produce renewable energy or make farming operation more resilient to climate change. The workshops were held in three distinct areas of California and featured regionally appropriate crops and practices.

Project Objectives:

The following performance targets were identified for this project:

– Establish planning committees to develop the agenda for the workshops.

– Conduct three workshops and farm tours in three diverse regions of California, attended by 25 to 35 people each for a total of 75 to 105 total project participants.

– Newsletter articles and media to promote the workshops.

– Two factsheets on related climate change and agriculture issues, focused on information relevant for California.

– Ongoing evaluation between workshops based on participant feedback and planning committee discussion to improve upon future events.


Climate change is the environmental challenge of our time, and presents significant challenges for agriculture. As a land-based system dependent on weather and the availability of natural resources, agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to the changes in climate predicted in the coming years and decades. Drier and hotter conditions, less available water, unpredictable weather events, and increased pest and disease pressures all combine to threaten the viability of the nation’s farming systems.

California agriculture is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate. In a state where water is already scarce, climate change scenarios predict that water flows will decline by eight to 20 percent in five of California’s major agricultural river basins, limiting a fundamental resource for the state’s agricultural industry (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011). Reduced winter chilling hours are predicted to have significant impact on the state’s nut and fruit tree yields (Luedeling et. al., 2011), and yields in high-value crops such as premium wine grapes are predicted to decline substantially in some California counties (Diffenbaugh, 2011). All of these effects — and others such as livestock heat stress, and increased drought and flooding — threaten to undermine the state’s $37 billion agricultural industry unless actions are taken to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Agriculture is also exceptionally positioned to assist with climate change mitigation through on-farm conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Only agriculture and forestry have both the potential to reduce their own emissions and also to play a vital and unique role in absorbing carbon and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Many of the practices embraced by sustainable and organic farmers and ranchers offer the best strategies for reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint and assisting with climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as providing other environmental and health benefits. These include practices that minimize nitrogen fertilizer, increase biodiversity, conserve natural resources, produce renewable energy and build soil organic matter – all of which help reduce GHG emissions, sequester atmospheric CO2 and/or adapt to climate change.

There is a growing body of research looking at the California agricultural practices that may offer climate benefits. The California Energy Commission (http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/research/impact.html) and the California Air Resources Board (http://www.arb.ca.gov/ag/ag.htm) has funded a number of studies by University of California researchers on climate change and agriculture issues. For example, UC Davis scientists found that organic soil management, cover cropping and conservation tillage can reduce GHG emissions and sequester carbon (De Gryze, S., R. Catala, R. E. Howitt, and J. Six). USDA research finds that pasture-based livestock systems have a reduced carbon footprint compared to confinement systems. Furthermore, a review of climate mitigating practices by the Agriculture Subcommittee of the Climate Action Team, made up of relevant California state agency staff, found that a number of sustainable farming practices may offer climate benefits, including perennial plantings of riparian zones, composting, changes in livestock diet and more (Climate Action Team Agriculture Subgroup, 2008). However, despite the growing scientific understanding about the linkages between climate change and agriculture, these issues are new to many agricultural professionals and the farmers and ranchers they work with.

In addition, as is documented in a report we recently published entitled “Ready…Or Not? An Assessment of California Agriculture’s Readiness for Climate Change” (CalCAN, 2011), the technical assistance resources available to California producers are inadequate for preparing them to cope with the coming challenges of climate change. Budget cuts have decimated the state’s Cooperative Extension services, and now there are only 119 Extension specialists for the whole state, compared to 900 in Texas. Resource Conservation Districts and NRCS staff levels have also been cut despite increased demands for farm bill conservation programs.

Finally, California is unique in the climate policy arena, having just finalized rules that will govern the implementation of a cap-and-trade program that goes into effect in January 2012. The launch of the country’s first mandatory carbon market will open up new opportunities for agriculture to sell carbon credits, and revenue may become available for public investments in agricultural efforts to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change. Increasingly, agricultural professionals will need to understand the science of climate change and agriculture as well as policies such as cap-and-trade that will affect producers.

Our project aimed to deepen the understanding of climate change and the role of sustainable agriculture in providing climate benefits (mitigation and adaptation) among California agricultural professionals, primarily NRCS staff, and secondarily Cooperative Extension and Resource Conservation District staff.

References cited:
Climate Action Team Agriculture Subgroup, 2008. Available at: http://climatechange.ca.gov/climate_action_team/reports/CAT_subgroup_reports/Ag_Sector_Summary_and_Analyses.pdf

CalCAN. 2011. Ready…Or Not? An Assessment of California Agriculture’s Readiness for Climate Change. Available at http://calclimateag.org/our-work/ready-or-not/.

Diffenbaugh, N.S., M.A. White, G.V. Jones, and M. Ashfaq. 2011. Climate Adaptation Wedges: a case study of premium wine in the Western United States. Environmental Research Letters. 6: 024024.

Luedeling E., E.H. Girvetz, M.A. Semenov, P.H. Brown, 2011. Climate Change Affects Winter Chill for Temperate Fruit and Nut Trees. PLoS ONE 6(5): e20155. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0020155.

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation. 2011. SECURE Water Act Section 9503(c) — Reclamation Climate Change and Water, Report to Congress.


Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Poppy Davis
  • Claudia Reid
  • David Runsten

Education & Outreach Initiatives



The project was led by the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), a coalition of California sustainable agriculture organizations working on the nexus between climate change and sustainable agriculture. To organize the workshops, identify locations and topics, and conduct outreach, we relied heavily on the input of a planning committee comprised of the following representatives of partner agencies:
– Erik Beardsley, Program Specialist, NRCS
– Karen Buhr, Executive Director, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts
– Lucinda Roth, Climate Change Specialist, NRCS
– Morgan Doran, County Director, UC Cooperative Extension, California SARE Coordinator
– Ted Strauss, State Air Quality, Climate Change, and Energy Coordinator, NRCS

Each workshop had the same format — the morning consisted of presentations from researchers and extension agents on the impacts of climate change on agriculture and the most effective practices for reducing on-farm GHG emissions, sequestering carbon and adapting to climate impacts. After lunch, participants visited a local farm for a tour and talk with a producer using some of the practices discussed in the workshop.

The selection of regions to serve was based on guidance from our partners at NRCS who wanted to serve three different areas. In addition to the planning committee input, we worked with local offices of NRCS to get input on the agenda for each workshop, potential speakers in the region, farms to tour, and for assistance with outreach and promotion.

The following is a short summary of the workshops and topics covered at each of the three events. Promotional flyers with complete details are included as attachments.

#1: Understanding Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation in California Agriculture
February 24, 2011
Attended by 25 participants
– Climate change impacts on California agriculture — Bryan Weare, UC Davis
– Climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in Yolo County — Louise Jackson, UC Davis
– Rangeland management and carbon sequestration — Morgan Doran, Cooperative Extension Solano County
– Dixon Ridge Farms — Tour of their innovative renewable energy and conservation measures — Russ Lester, owner

#2: Understanding Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation in California Agriculture
May 12, 2011
Attended by 28 participants
– Climate change impacts on California agriculture — Peter Van de Water, CSU Fresno
– Climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies — Johan Six, UC Davis
– How to improve the bottom-line and save energy — Jacqui Gaskill, NRCS
– Latest developments in Conservation Tillage research — Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension
– Farming D — Tour of the farm by Scott Schmidt, manager, to discuss conservation tillage techniques

#3: Soil, Water, Energy: Farming Strategies for Coping with Climate Change
October 21, 2011
Attended by 28 participants
– Climate Change Impacts on California Agriculture — Peter Van de Water, Earth & Environmental Sciences, CSU Fresno
– Managing Salinity and Water with Sustainable Agriculture — Donald Suarez, UC Riverside Salinity Lab
– Soil Building as a Climate Strategy — Milt McGiffen, Cooperative Extension, UC Riverside
– NRCS Renewable Energy Resources for Growers — Jacqui Gaskill, NRCS
– Salton Date Farm — Tour of the mulching and composting practices used to reclaim highly saline agricultural land

Outreach and Publications

The following fact sheets were produced with support from this grant (also included as attachments):
Climate Change Impacts on Agriculture
Climate Solutions in Agriculture

In addition, videos of five of the presentations from one workshop are available on line at http://calclimateag.org/workshop-video-presentations/. They have also been made available to NRCS staff on their resource website.

Finally, attached are the promotional flyers from the three workshops describing the presentations and speakers at each.

At each workshop, participants were asked to complete a short questionnaire (sample attached) rating their familiarity with the workshop topics before and after attending, and to provide us with input to inform future workshops.

Each workshop participant received a survey questionnaire that asked them to rank their understanding of the workshop topics before and after the presentations. With very few exceptions, respondents indicated that their understanding increased, often significantly. Only very small numbers of participants left the workshops feeling that their understanding was “low.”

The following are samples of some of the comments, both positive and critical, that we received. We used the feedback from each workshop to attempt to improve the next.

• Great presentation and real life examples that tied to subject matter
• Had I not had previous understanding, it would have been difficult to follow. However, great presentation and information.
• Informative enough for me to pursue more info
• We should conduct more on-farm real life scenarios research to better understand the impact of these practices
• This kind of dialogue is worthwhile
• Half day, free opportunities to discuss challenges and solutions is great
• Interesting and easy to follow from a layperson’s point of view
• Good info on local climate change taking place
• Very clear and understandable. Stayed away from political rhetoric.
• Too brief. Need more time for questions.
• This could have been the subject for a full day’s conference.
• Very informative and practical. Enjoyed facts about desert and non-desert areas.
• It’s very important to bring this message to more farmers, we need more in the room.
• Want more information on the impacts and on soil building as a climate strategy (e.g., biochar, microbes, micorhiziae, mulch, compost). Very well done. Great speakers, well laid out and good information. No wasted time with introductions or basic things. Appreciate the information and the different topics coming together. Thank you!

The survey also included questions asking for input into future workshops or tools to support agricultural professionals, and this input is summarized below under Future Recommendations and will form the basis for what we recommend going forward.

Outcomes and impacts:

By providing workshops and farm tours in three distinct regions of California, we provided information to agricultural professionals on the subject of climate change and agriculture, information that was relatively new to many of the more than 75 participants. The focus was on scientific background and practical applications for producers, as well as relevant policies. By providing this training and tools, we have made a contribution to the resources available to NRCS, RCD and Cooperative Extension for responding to farmer and rancher needs on subjects that are not currently well-resourced.

We see this project as a first step towards a more robust and comprehensive set of tools that will become increasingly important as the impacts of climate change are felt in California and as the state’s cap-and-trade program takes effect in 2012. By working closely with our partners at the three agencies, we have opened a conversation about collaborative opportunities and now have the foundation on which to build in the coming years.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The most important accomplishment of the project was to develop relationships among the primary partners (CalCAN, NRCS, RCD and Extension) built upon a common recognition of the importance of equipping agricultural professionals with tools for supporting producers with their climate change needs. In addition to collaborating on the workshops, we have also opened up a dialogue and information exchange among the partners on the subject of climate change. CalCAN has benefitted from this exchange beyond the specific tasks of planning for and hosting the workshops and producing the educational materials. For example, the team provided a presentation at the annual conference of the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. In addition, NRCS staff have been helpful advisors on various CalCAN projects.

We know that these agencies play an essential role in supporting California producers move towards greater environmental sustainability, and we value the partnership.


Potential Contributions

We believe that one of the important roles that the agricultural professionals at NRCS and RCD play is to monitor, synthesize and transfer to producers in practical ways the most relevant science and policy affecting on-farm conservation practices. Yet with increasing demands and decreasing resources on these agencies, it is hard to stay abreast of important topics. It is our hope that this project provided current and applicable information on an increasingly vital subject — climate change – that is complex and dynamic.

Based on our observations and the feedback from the workshops, it is our impression that the workshops met a need particularly at NRCS and RCD and that numerous staff were interested and motivated to expand their knowledge base.

Future Recommendations

Discussion at each workshop and feedback from participant surveys inform our hypotheses and recommendations. Here is a sample of some of the comments participants offered, all of which indicate a demand for more information and more resources devoted to the subject of climate change and agriculture science, practice and policy.

• We need crop/region specific info on this topic. Central coast, please!
• Making the science tangible, balanced and accessible
• Do outreach to all farmers and inform them of USDA programs. Also, provide seminars like this one to farming community.
• It would be helpful to have farmers/crop growers to provide their perspective as to the challenges and opportunities regarding the implementation of the practices discussed during the workshop (i.e., conservation tillage, energy efficiency, renewable energy)
• Repeat this workshop in different areas to make it more available to more NRCS folks
• Communication techniques to work better with growers and regulators to improve understanding of ag’s impacts to climate change
• Specific discussion on change in water system and anticipated challenges associated with glacial loss, etc.

• Application to more vegetable crops
• Need more info and guidance on implementing GHG practices into established or new NRCS programs
• More on biochar would be helpful.
• More information on policy and CA climate change regulations.

Based on our experience with these three workshops, we believe there is a mandate for providing more tools for agricultural professionals. We would like to provide workshops in several more key agricultural regions of the state, and we would like to incorporate more involvement by producers who could share their experience in applying some of the scientific findings on climate change mitigation and adaptation. We also think it is important to develop some educational materials for producers themselves that the agricultural professionals can have available to distribute.

While the one day workshop format was quite impactful and numerous participants indicated that they wanted more time to explore certain topics, we also recognize that there are very real constraints in terms of travel budgets and staff time. As such, we recommend the provision of both in-depth workshops and farm tours and also other tools that accessible on line and on paper. We think that webinars and video presentations should be considered in order to allow greater access and also cover more topics with possibly greater specificity (by region, by crop sector, by practice, etc.) at lower cost.

We are pleased to see that the 2011 RFPs from Western SARE included an emphasis on climate change. In the West, agriculture will be challenged with decreased water supplies, shifting crop production patterns, new pest, disease and weed pressures, decreased chill hours and more. Technical assistance and support for innovative sustainable agriculture responses to climate change will only be more in demand in the coming years.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.