Farmers are waiting to see which environmental programs the Biden administration will support in 2021, and industry leaders say the best way to gauge what will help producers is to look to California, where farmers have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of conservation programs.
If done right, farmers say, programs such as grants that incentivize farmers to sequester carbon can boost productivity and the bottom line.
Alexandre Family Farm in Crescent City, Calif., has participated in the healthy soils and alternative manure management programs through the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA.
"We've done both programs multiple years," said Blake Alexandre, 58, who runs an organic dairy with his wife, Stephanie, and five kids.
The Alexandres used grants to build a barn, improve composting methods and plant pastures with rye grass, clovers, brassicas, chicory and plantain. Alexandre said his animals and soil are healthier and he's seen a "huge productivity increase."
The healthy soils program, CDFA's most popular grant, has funded 653 projects with $42.87 million since 2017 and saved 39,673 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
Seventy-five percent of awardees run conventional farms. Many applied for economic reasons.
"Farmers are pragmatic people. If they see a benefit to their business, they jump on it regardless of the state's motives," said Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN. "The state's primary motive is to reduce greenhouse gases, but farmers may be motivated by agronomics."
For example, Gideon Burdick, co-owner of Boonville Barn Collective, growing chile peppers, strawberries and other crops in Mendocino County, started with a pragmatic goal — protect plants from dust drift — and ended up getting a 2020 grant to plant a hedgerow that simultaneously sequesters carbon and creates pollinator habitat.
Burdick said the healthy soils application was "straightforward."
Shannon Douglass, first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation and co-owner of Douglass Ranch in Orland, said when the healthy soils program was founded, applying was "very cumbersome."
The Farm Bureau pressed CDFA to streamline its process. This year, it did.
The agency simplified its application and stationed specialists in extension offices to advise growers. In response, CDFA received a record number of applications.
"Paperwork can be an absolute barrier. This year, it was much more grower-friendly," said Douglass, herself a 2020 grant recipient.
But farmers aren't always happy about how CDFA's conservation programs are funded.
Most of the money comes from $4 billion in general obligation bonds sold under Proposition 68 — which supports parks and environmental, water and flood protection projects — along with cap-and-trade dollars.
With "cap and trade," the state sets a "cap," or limit, on carbon dioxide emissions and sells permits to pollute at auction. The auction money funds conservation programs.
"We're never real happy about cap and trade. It isn't something we want and we know a lot of that is coming from our ag economy. But we have it, so if we can make sure some of the funds go back to farmers, that's a good thing," said Douglass.
But funding is evaporating. Brillinger of CalCAN said cap-and-trade auctions are becoming "increasingly volatile."
In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on cap-and-trade revenue. 2020's auction produced just $25 million, compared to $600 million to $850 million in previous years.
Finally, earlier this year, the California Legislature erased the requirement that cap-and-trade dollars must fund climate or conservation activities.
"It was a political bargain," said Brillinger. There's no longer any guarantee cap-and-trade dollars will support farmers.
"I'm disappointed the healthy soils program is not likely to get funded again going forward," said Burdick, the chile pepper grower.
Farmers say they hope the upcoming Biden administration will look to California to see which programs do and don’t work.