For UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), attention to climate change goes beyond an increase in severe wildfires, droughts, floods and heat in California, and their impact on natural resources, agriculture and the state's economy.
The program focuses on the health and resilience of people in California, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change – those who can't afford air conditioning, who work outside on farms and in construction, those who are already disadvantaged by a low income, racial inequity or advanced age.
“UCCE climate change efforts must account for people and communities that face socioeconomic and political barriers to prepare for, adapt to and recover from the effects of climate change,” said Clare Gupta, UCCE public policy specialist.
UCCE advisors, educators and specialists are working in their local communities across the state to prepare residents to adapt to the warming climate and make changes that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to make climate change less severe. They convened Oct. 7-8 at UCCE's Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in San Mateo County to learn about projects currently underway to confront the crisis, share resources for adaptation, identify future research and education needs, and add their voices to a growing chorus of experts speaking out to protect the future of planet earth.
“We are at a momentous time,” said Janaki Jagannath, a law school student and climate activist who spoke at the meeting. “California is waking up to environmental justice problems and climate change.”
The plight of underprivileged California residents at the forefront of climate change impacts became crystal clear to UCCE small farms advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard when she was hired during the state's devastating 2011-2016 drought.
In the summer of 2014, many small-scale family farms in the San Joaquin Valley saw their wells dry up due to dropping groundwater levels. Some Hmong farmers were calling suicide hotlines, in fear of losing their crops and livelihoods. Dahlquist-Willard said these farms, with shallower wells and limited resources to cope with the effects of drought, are more vulnerable to climate change.
“I worry about the snowpack,” she said. “Every winter during the drought, I would look at the mountains and wonder if there would be more wells going dry next summer. When surface water from the snowmelt isn't there, farmers use more groundwater. And the snowpack is probably going to be less reliable due to climate change.”
To help Hmong farmers and other small-scale farms prepare for the next drought, Dahlquist-Willard and her team began helping them with applications for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), which provides grants to improve irrigation systems. Improvements funded by SWEEP help farmers use less water and cut back on electricity for pumping.
So far, 38 Fresno and Tulare farmers have received SWEEP grants with technical assistance from Dahlquist-Willard's program, for a total of 878 acres.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which goes into effect in 2020, also imperils small-scale farmers. The new law will limit both large-scale and small-scale farmers' ability to pump groundwater, however, small-scale farmers often are not in a position to influence the agencies that will be governing groundwater use.
“There will be competition for water under SGMA,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “Whether the small farms still have access to water depends on how the rules are set up.”
SGMA poses another threat to vulnerable rural community members. Experts predict the imposition of regulations on groundwater use is likely to put 500,000 to 1 million acres of California farmland out of production, reducing jobs for farmworkers and putting a strain on businesses in the rural communities where they live and shop.
The expected shift in crops grown in California due to climate change also potentially reduces income for workers who have specialized in specific crops, said Federico Castillo, UC Berkeley agricultural ecology professor.
“They work longer hours to compensate,” Castillo said. “Their income is impacted.”
On a recent trip to Huron, a San Joaquin Valley city with highest proportion of Latino residents in the U.S., Castillo said he passed by vast solar farms that now cover formerly productive farmland.
“Solar farms are a benefit for society, but there are not local benefits. The problem is, this displaces farmworkers,” he said. “We have to think hard about economic policy. This is just one example. There are many others.”
In addition to the threat climate change poses to their employment, farmworkers are particularly susceptible to the warming temperatures the world faces. Castillo is studying the potential impact of weather extremes on people who do the planting, weeding, irrigating, pruning and harvesting that makes California's $50 billion annual agricultural output possible.
“Heat and humidity impacts ag workers negatively,” Castillo said. “It impacts the heart, liver and kidneys.”
What's more, many farmworkers don't have health insurance and don't visit medical doctors. Some, particularly those who hail from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Castillo said, rely on home remedies, putting their health at still greater risk.
Sylvia Chi, policy director with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, spoke about her constituency's concern about the future.
“How do we deal with labor market displacement from phasing out fossil fuels?” she asked. “We need to transition all communities.”
Transition in farming
A large part of UC Cooperative Extension research and extension targets the agricultural industry, which joins other industries in emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting in our warming climate. A key part of mitigation is tied in new brands of farming that aim to address these issues: climate-smart, emergent, sustainable, regenerative and conservation farming.
A component of all these farming philosophies is soil health. Improving soil health traps more carbon underground, where it can't immediately escape into the atmosphere and contribute to increasing warming. Improving soil health has co-benefits, such as improving soil fertility, water infiltration and yield.
The CDFA Healthy Soils grant program offers financial incentives to eligible farmers for implementing soil-building practices. CDFA provided UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), UCCE's parent organization, with $1 million to hire climate-smart educators to provide technical assistance to farmers applying for Healthy Soils and SWEEP grants to improve their irrigation systems, plant cover crops, eliminate or reduce tilling, and implement other practices. A target in their effort is helping underprivileged farmers determine eligibility and navigate the complicated application process.
UC ANR hired nine community education specialists, who are now working with farmers in Mendocino, Merced, Glenn, Yolo, Solano, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Kern, Ventura, San Diego and Imperial counties. Their contributions to farmers in those areas go beyond the grant applications and reach farmers that can't take advantage of CDFA grant programs.
“Because this is a new program, we have the luxury of helping figure out our role,” said Britta Baskerville, the community education specialist in Mendocino County. “We're all coming up with ways to educate farmers in climate-smart practices.”
Climate change resilience
The UC ANR Infomatics and GIS Program is supporting climate change resilience by creating an online networking platform for local governments, such as city councils and boards of supervisors, to empower their communities' resiliency efforts. Called the California Resiliency Alliance, the resources include case studies, planning guides, incident maps, and weather watches, warnings and advisories, plus a platform for sharing information across public-private sectors and across industry sectors.
IGIS is also involved is gathering peer-reviewed data sets for downscale climate projections. UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Lucy Andrews is conducting interviews to identify climate needs and social vulnerability information. The information will make the state's Cal-Adapt website, the primary repository of knowledge about the California climate of the future, an even more useful tool.
“Our strategy is to make climate data accessible,” said Andy Lyons, IGIS statewide program coordinator. “People can get climate data and decision support tailored to specific audiences.”
Diversity in the UC California Naturalist program
California Naturalist's new Climate Stewards Initiative, which will provide training to extend information about climate change mitigation, resilience and adaptation, is being created with diversity, inclusion and equity woven in from the outset. Trainees will learn about psychology, sociological and cognitive sciences, in addition to the hard sciences that touch climate change – meteorology, physics, natural resource management and biology.
“The certified climate stewards will be able to communicate and work with others as to how climate change will affect them. It will be an ongoing social learning community that provides a transition from a sense of helplessness to a sense of empowerment,” said Sarah-Mae Nelson, the UC Climate Stewards Initiative academic coordinator.
Traditional CalNat certification courses are provided fully in-person and partially outdoors. Climate Stewards training will be available in a hybrid online/in-person format to increase the course's availability to a wider circle of community members.
“The flexibility will increase accessibility,” Nelson said.
Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a series of bills aimed at improving California's wildfire prevention, mitigation and response efforts. AB 38, a bill aimed at reducing wildfire damage to communities, incorporates University of California research to help protect California's existing housing.
“Prior to AB 38, the State's wildfire building policy focus was centered around guiding construction standards for new homes and major remodels,” said Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forest advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. “How do we help incentivize homeowners to upgrade and retrofit the 10 million or more existing homes in California to help them become more resilient to wildfire? AB 38 is an attempt to start that important work and to protect Californians.”
AB 38, introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa) provides mechanisms to develop best practices for community-wide resilience against wildfires through “home hardening,” defensible space and other measures based on UC ANR research. This bill is especially important to Wood because wildfires in 2017 destroyed lives and hundreds of homes in his district and because of his work as a forensic dentist following the Santa Rosa and Paradise wildfires.
“AB 38 was a huge effort by many partners as we sought the best policy solutions to address what is today one of our state's biggest challenges,” said Assemblymember Wood. “I could not have accomplished it without the support and guidance of the people at UC Cooperative Extension Humboldt-Del Norte, especially Dr. Steve Quarles and Yana Valachovic. Their expertise proved invaluable as we worked through this process.”
Studies conducted by Steve Quarles, emeritus UC Cooperative Extension advisor, and his continued work at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety have identified building materials and designs that are more resistant to flying embers from wildfires. Embers are small, fiery pieces of plants, trees or buildings that are light enough to be carried on the wind and can rapidly spread wildfire when they blow ahead of the main fire, starting new fires on or in homes.
Evaluating the homes lost in wildfires that ravaged Paradise, Redding and Santa Rosa have also informed Valachovic and Quarles' recommendations.
Hardening a home to withstand wildland fire exposure does not have to be costly, but it does require an understanding of the exposures the home will experience when threatened by a wildfire.
Their recommended best practices for hardening homes against wildfire can be found in UC ANR Publication 8393 “Home Survival in Wildfire-Prone Areas: Building Materials and Design,” which can be downloaded for free. More information is also at the ANR Fire website https://ucanr.edu/fire.
A UC Cooperative Extension survey of California registered and unregistered marijuana growers will help researchers, policy makers and the public better understand growing practices since cannabis sales, possession and cultivation first became legal for recreational use.
“This survey is a starting point from which UC scientists could build research and extension programs, if possible in the future,” said lead author Houston Wilson, UC Cooperative Extension specialist with UC Riverside. A report on the survey results was published in the July-December 2019 issue of California Agriculture journal, the research publication of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“I'm there, I'm seeing it. I wanted to know more about this,” Wilson said. “To me, it's a new crop. We've never studied it.”
In 2016, when legalization was in the works, Wilson decided to conduct a survey to better understand the scope of cannabis production in California. A year later, Wilson took a position with the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside as an orchard/vineyard IPM Cooperative Extension Specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. He maintained his interest in cannabis and continued to lead the survey project and analyze the data.
The new research report is part of a growing body of knowledge about an industry that represents an estimated $10 billion in retail sales— likely the most valuable of all crop sectors in the state, but largely a mystery to scientists, regulators, growers and civic leaders. Cannabis production has not been widely researched in California because of its legal status before Proposition 64 passed in 2016 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2018.
Under federal law, cannabis remains illegal.
“Since UCCE is federally funded, and cannabis is not legal at the federal level, we cannot conduct any research that has potential to increase yield, improve quality or profitability,” said Robin Sanchez, UC ANR attorney and interim director of administrative policies and business contracts. “We are very careful to conduct research only about its scope and impact, but not production practices.”
Wilson and his colleagues gathered the information in July 2018 from 101 growers who responded to an online survey. Survey questions focused on farm size, operational features, pest and water management, labor, farm revenue and grower demographics. Respondents were recruited by 15 cannabis grower organizations, who together were able to supply approximately 17,500 contacts.
The respondents were aged from 34 to 72, with 69% male and 29% percent female. Two-thirds were married or living with a partner. More than half had household annual incomes from $50,000 to $99,000; and about 10% from $100,000 to $200,000. Thirty-four percent of growers earned 80 to 100% of their annual gross income from cannabis, while 33% reported no income from cannabis at all.
Most of the respondents produce cannabis in Humboldt, Mendocino and Nevada counties – 55% combined. The rest hailed from 12 other California counties, the furthest south in Los Angeles, and one respondent from Josephine County in Oregon.
Of the growers who responded to the survey, 74% were classified as small-scale growers because their farms were sized at 10,000 square feet or less. The rest were almost evenly divided as medium (10,000 to 20,000 square feet) or large. The majority of respondents (53%) reported that they had not applied for a state license to grow cannabis.
Highlights of findings
- Growing outdoors in open air with sunlight was the most common practice (41%). Twenty-five percent of growers combined outdoor and greenhouse production. Just 10% said they grow the crop entirely within greenhouses.
- Total yield per plant varied by growing location. Outdoor crops yielded on average 2.51 pounds per plant (about 40 ounces per plant), greenhouse crops yielded about 10 ounces per plant, while plants grown indoors with artificial light averaged about 3 ounces per plant.
- The average growing season for outdoor growers was 190 days and they harvested one crop per year.
- In the fall of 2017, the average cannabis sales price was $853 per pound for flowers and $78 per pound for leaves and other non-flower parts.
- The respondents reported using no synthetic pesticides in their cultivation of the crop, suggesting reliance on organic pesticides, biologicals and biocontrol.
- Most growers reported that groundwater was their primary water source for irrigation. Of those, 97% of the water extraction happened from June to October. Many growers said adding water storage was either cost prohibitive or limited by regulatory constraints.
- Growers reported using more than 30 different soil amendments and foliar nutrient sprays. The most common was organic fertilizer, followed by composts and various animal manures and meals, compost tea and worm castings.
- Growers are dealing with 14 different insect pests, 13 diseases and nine vertebrate pests, including gophers, mice, rats, deer and wild boars.
- Powdery mildew was the most commonly reported disease, and mites, thrips and aphids were the most commonly reported insect pests.
- Growers who hired laborers for harvest paid a per-pound piece rate from $50 to $200. The growers who hired seasonal hourly workers offered a starting pay of $15 to $20 per hour.
Project co-authors were UC Berkeley visiting scholar Hekia Bodwitch, Nature Conservancy senior scientist Jennifer Carah, UCCE biocontrol specialist Kent Daane, UCCE natural resources specialist Christy Getz, UCCE climate and water specialist Theodore Grantham and UCCE land use science specialist Van Butsic. Daane, Getz, Grantham and Van Butsic are affiliated with UC Berkeley.
In 1953, amid reports that cannabis was growing around San Mateo County, the local sheriff's office and the UC Agricultural Extension Service in Half Moon Bay issued a booklet entitled Identify and Report Marihuana. The booklet envisioned “total eradication” of cannabis. The authors couldn't have imagined that, in 2017, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors would pass an ordinance allowing greenhouse cultivation of cannabis in the county's unincorporated areas.
A lot can happen in 60-plus years — such as voter approval of Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot measure that altered California law to allow the recreational use of cannabis by adults.
That said, federal restrictions still inhibit many aspects of research (see page 104 for more detail). Cannabis research is also inhibited by funding constraints. The $10 million in annual research funding that Proposition 64 allocated to California universities has not begun to flow, and the Bureau of Cannabis Control — the entity responsible for disbursing the money — reports that it is still establishing guidelines for doing so.
Despite these obstacles, UC cannabis research in the legalization era is well underway, as attested by this special issue of California Agriculture. The research articles presented here fall into three broad categories — research into cannabis production, into the economics of the cannabis industry in California and into the social and community impacts of cannabis. The three articles focused on cannabis production include the results of the first known survey of California cannabis growers' production practices, by Wilson et al. (page 119). In the article “Characteristics of farms applying for cannabis cultivation permits” (page 128), Schwab et al. combine data on cannabis farms with information about applications for cultivation permits, establishing that, of farms within the dataset, those seeking permits tended to be larger and to have expanded faster than other farms. And on page 146, Dillis et al. analyze data submitted to the regional water quality control board to characterize the water sources used by cannabis cultivators in the Emerald Triangle region (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties).
Articles focused on the economics of the cannabis industry include a study by Goldstein et al. (page 136) analyzing online retail prices for cannabis flower and cannabis-oil cartridges as changes in regulation and taxation have taken effect in recent years. Valdes-Donoso et al. (page 154) analyze data from sources including California's cannabis testing laboratories to estimate the cost per pound of testing under the state's regulatory framework.
Four articles explore the social and community impacts of cannabis production. On page 161, Valachovic et al. report the results of a survey of timberland and rangeland owners in Humboldt County, who shared their experiences with the rapid expansion of cannabis production in their region and its attendant social, economic and environmental challenges. LaChance (page 169) interviewed noncannabis farmers, ranchers and others across Humboldt, Mendocino and Sonoma counties, eliciting their views on issues such as increased land prices amid cannabis legalization. For the article “Growers say cannabis legalization excludes small growers, supports illicit markets, undermines local economies” (page 177), Bodwitch et al. surveyed cannabis growers to gain insight into their experiences with the state's system for regulation of commercial cultivation. Finally, on page 185, Polson and Petersen-Rockney employed ethnographic methods to study cultivation regulations in Siskiyou County and their effects on the county's Hmong-American community. The special issue was conceived by Van Butsic and Ted Grantham — UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) specialists based at UC Berkeley — and Yana Valachovic — a UCCE forest advisor and director for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Butsic, Grantham and Valachovic developed the issue in collaboration with Daniel Sumner, a UC Davis professor of agricultural economics and director of the UC ANR Agricultural Issues Center, and with the staff of California Agriculture.
Before the San Joaquin Valley was cultivated, vast grasslands stretched from the Sierra to the Coast Range with soil that contained significant organic matter – a diversity of live and dead plant material and microbes that are key to soil health.
Tilling the soil for farming exposed it to air and allowed the organic matter to oxidize, releasing greenhouse gasses and reducing organic matter to about 1 percent of soil volume. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources research has shown that soils with low organic matter inhibit water infiltration, nutrient cycling, biological diversity and carbon sequestration.
But techniques have been developed to return soil to a more natural, more healthful state.
Farmers, students, researchers and community educators gathered at Gary and Mari Martin's farm in Mendota Sept. 13 to share ideas and strategies for extending information to the greater farming community that will increase adoption of conservation agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farmland and at the same time improve soil health.
For two years, the Martins have opened their farm to research led by UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell. For the project, UC Davis doctoral student Geoff Koch is studying soil health indicators and greenhouse gas emissions at the Martins' farm and at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center, where plots have been cultivated using traditional methods and conservation practices side by side for 20 years.
Expanding the use of conservation agricultural practices is not limited to Central California.
“Our government endorses these principles of soil health,” Mitchell said. “It's part of a national campaign aimed at improving the health of our country's soils.”
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Emphasize biodiversity
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Keep soil covered with plants and plant residues at all times
Employing these techniques in the research project at the West Side Research and Extension Center for 20 years has shown that annual cover cropping has added 37 tons of organic matter per acre to the soil, captured 15 tons of carbon per acre and used only about 12 inches of water per acre.
At the workshop, three University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) climate-smart educators invited farmers to contact them for assistance in applying for state funds they can use to implement climate-smart farming practices.
Climate-smart educator Emily Lovell said the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) pays up to $100,000 to improve irrigation efficiency, reduce water use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers can use the funding to, for example, convert to drip irrigation systems, install moisture sensors or set up a weather station.
Lovell said it is a competitive and complex application process.
“We help with the applications,” she said.
Climate-smart educator Shulamit Shroder described the CDFA's Healthy Soils Program (HSP), which incentivizes farmers with up to $75,000 to implement such practices as planting cover crops, using no-till or reduced tillage techniques, applying mulch or compost, or planting hedgerows. The applications are due in February 2020.
For more details on the CDFA Climate Smart Agriculture programs and for technical assistance on applying, contact a local UCCE climate-smart educator.