Adapting to Climate Change in California's Central Valley
1. Regeneration must be more than incorporating “new” agricultural practices into our current farming systems
Regenerate (verb): formed or created again; restored to a better, higher, or more worthy state.
These days, when people think of California’s Central Valley, they often think of massive monocropped fields. They think of air pollution and water tainted by the ceaseless production of industrial agriculture. It is true that in this valley, where much of our nation’s food is grown, most of the land belongs to industrial farm operators that net millions of dollars a year in profits. However, this is not the only type of agriculture happening here. Among the agricultural giants, the Valley is home to a large number of small-scale, diversified farms growing upwards of 70 crops a year on less than 50 acres of land. Many of these farmers operate outside of the industrial food supply chain, selling at farmers markets, farm stands, or through community supported agriculture (CSA) models.
Regenerative agriculture is becoming a popular concept for reversing climate change. More farmers are planting cover crops and spreading compost, thanks to incentive programs such as the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program. First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that these regenerative practices that are being presented as the future of farming are not new – the use of cover crops can be traced back over the millennia, practiced by indigenous land stewards and Black farmers in the southern United States who worked to regenerate soils depleted from heavily monocropped cotton production. For modern scientists to claim ownership over pioneering these practices is a form of white supremacy. We need to acknowledge the rich history of those who cared for our land long before industrial agriculture staked its claim in places like the Central Valley. Now, we are relying on the practices of those who came before us to heal our soil.
In order to adapt to our changing climate in the Valley, I believe that we must expand our definition of regenerative agriculture beyond farming practices that heal the soil and sequester carbon. This definition should also include the policies and societal shifts that allow people working the land to heal from the inequities that allow some to have so much, while others have so little. This means not only rebuilding our relationship with our land, but also lifting up small-scale, socially disadvantaged farmers so that they can heal from systemic racism, lack of access to food, and inadequate government support to create healthy, thriving communities. It means re-evaluating the entire system, not simply integrating practices that will sequester more carbon into our current ways of farming. After all, a massive monoculture is still a massive monoculture, even if you spread compost. Putting the responsibility on farmers and treating carbon sequestration as the silver bullet takes the responsibility off the industries and practices creating the most emissions in the first place. It does not require us to re-imagine our food systems from the ground up and it feeds into the idea that “if we all just do our part” things will get better, without inspiring the collectivism necessary to meet this moment.
Regeneration cannot continue to only be the recognition of a practice but must also include the context and human dimension of our food and farming systems. We are connected to our land, and it is the health and wellbeing of the soil AND the land stewards that will allow us to adapt. We talk about building healthy soils by feeding soil microbial communities, but what about building healthy communities by feeding the people who are growing the food? Regeneration means ensuring that our top food producing regions are not also our most food insecure. Humans need carbon, too. Only when we strive to create systems that are regenerative AND resilient – systems that do not allow us to put band-aids on our soil in order to keep farming in accordance with the status quo - can we really restore food production to a better, higher, or more worthy state. Only then can we truly say we are adapting to climate change.
2. Resilient people create resilient landscapes
Resilient (adjective): capable of withstanding shock without permanent deformation or rupture; tending to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
In my role with Cooperative Extension’s Small Farms program, we predominately work with the Southeast Asian farming community, many of whom are Hmong. While I am surely not an expert on the history of Hmong agriculture in California, I am trying to learn the stories of these farmers who I have so much respect and appreciation for. Many Hmong came to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, fleeing political chaos and danger in their homelands. In response, Congress passed The Refugee Act of 1980 to create a more established system of immigration and resettlement. The Act provided provisions for cash assistance to refugees but outlined that refugees should be encouraged to gain economic self-sufficiency “as quickly as possible”. Many Hmong practiced subsistence agriculture for centuries in their homeland, and thus, California seemed like a good place to farm and gain economic self-sufficiency by similar means. Thus, practicing agriculture became necessary for survival.
In an effort to survive, Hmong farmers have had to adapt to new environments, new methods of farming, continue to experience difficulty in accessing land and water, and face challenges in navigating regulatory requirements – all within the context of a language and culture that is not their own. Despite these hardships, most Hmong farmers resist working for someone else, which is rooted in cultural ideas of independence. Outside of the vulnerabilities of the global supply chain, these small farmers are not as dependent on processors or transporters to get their food to market and, therefore more capable of adapting to crisis. Many of the practices that these farmers are currently implementing are regenerative in nature, even if carbon sequestration is not being quantified. Some of these farming practices happen out of necessity – small-scale farmers have less land and must think of creative ways to utilize as much of it as they can. This means intercropping, multistory cropping, crop rotation, and turning residues back into the soil to feed it. They do not qualify to get paid by CDFA or NRCS to implement these practices because they are already doing them.
When we talk about incentives for Healthy Soils practices, we must remember that larger farms have the opportunity to sequester more carbon than smaller ones – not because they are practicing soil regeneration any better, but simply because they own more land. Recent discussions around the use of carbon markets in agriculture have been criticized by those who understand that carbon markets will serve to benefit the largest landowners the most. Already, large landowners often get substantially more money from the CDFA’s Healthy Soils Program than farmers who truly could use financial support. While there has been much evidence that diversification of our agricultural systems would benefit the environment and humans, rather than making it easier for farmers to diversify, many of our current regulatory program requirements disproportionately burden diversified farms. For example, the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, which was created to reduce water contamination from large-scale agricultural production, asks farmers to fill out paperwork that lists fertilizer inputs and water use for the crops they grow annually. While this may not be too difficult for growers producing one crop, this paperwork can be a big challenge for farmers who grow many crops over multiple seasons per year.
Despite it all, Hmong farmers have managed to establish beautiful, diversified farms growing many different crops each year. If one crop fails, there are many more to fall back on. These crops are used to feed themselves and their communities. This is resilience. Additionally, they are not growing the top 10 commodity crops, which in many ways is its own beautiful form of resistance. Resilience is not only the ability of our land to bounce back from climate stress, but also the ability of those who work the land to recover and adapt to change. Hmong farmers have adapted, innovated, and become resilient because they had to. We can learn a lot from them as we reflect on the best ways forward.
3. We are creating refugees by failing to acknowledge the slow violence of our changing climate
Refugee (as defined in the Refugee Act of 1980): a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country and cannot obtain protection from that country due to past persecution or a “well-founded fear” of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”.
The more I looked into U.S. laws around resettling refugees, I was struck by the definition of “refugee” in The Refugee Act of 1980. Our country is legally obligated to take in those who fear being oppressed based on race or membership in a particular social group. Yet, this type of oppression plays out daily within our own country through structural racism. With impending climate change impacts such as rising sea level, more frequent drought, and increasing temperatures, as well as ongoing environmental pollution, more and more people in will be forced to leave their homes and unable to return. Those who are the vulnerable, which is often the result of lack of investment infrastructure to withstand climate shocks, are disproportionately BIPOC communities.
While some might argue that this is not an obvious form of oppression, this is an example of “slow violence” (Nixon 2013). Rob Nixon of Princeton University coined the term “slow violence”, which is a kind of violence that is structural and can be experienced over many years, possibly even generations. It is typically not viewed as violence because it occurs “gradually and out of sight” while the destruction is “dispersed across time and space”. According to Nixon, slow violence can be embedded into environmental catastrophes that unfold slowly over time, such as climate change. Often, the harm that affects communities happens too slowly to assign blame, yet people still suffer or even die, as a result.
The creeping impacts of climate change are getting closer each year and approaching more rapidly each day. It is most of our small-scale farmers, land stewards, and socially disadvantaged communities – those whose livelihoods and access to resources are dependent on the weather – that feel the effects most acutely. They cannot afford to engineer their way out of climate change. Alarm bells are already sounding in the San Joaquin Valley as drought conditions threaten water supply this summer. Homes, farms, and entire communities that depend on shallow wells as their only source of water are vulnerable to declining groundwater levels from increased agricultural pumping. The price of drilling deeper wells is out of reach for many rural families. Those who can afford to drill deeper will likely be okay this year. Once again, this crisis brings to light that having lots of money has and continues to be an acceptable form of adaptation to climate change in the United States. It is not until we change our view of adaptation and realize how necessary system-wide change is in addressing the climate crisis that we will make any sort of progress to becoming regenerative and resilient.
Kutz, J. (2019). Can small-scale farmers grow a healthier California? High Country News. https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.9/agriculture-can-small-scale-farmers-grow-a-healthier-california
National Archives Foundation (2021). Refugee Act of 1980. National Archives Foundation. https://www.archivesfoundation.org/documents/refugee-act-1980/
Nixon, R. (2013). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Vaughan, M. (2021). California wells will go dry this summer. ‘Alarm bells are sounding’ in the Valley. The Fresno Bee. https://www.fresnobee.com/fresnoland/article250842574.html