Valley Voices

Farmers are living the facts of climate change. By focusing on soil, they can lead the way on climate adaptation

Firebaugh farmer Alan Sano.
Firebaugh farmer Alan Sano. Contributed

Most farmers haven’t heard about the recent report from the UN, even though it deals with climate change and land use and features agriculture prominently. But we don’t need to read the science — we are living it.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, there’s not much debate anymore about the fact that our climate is changing. The 2013-16 drought made it hard to ignore; we had no surface water for irrigation, and the groundwater was so depleted that land sank right under our feet.

There’s other evidence too. In Fresno in July 2018, all but three days had temperatures above 100 degrees. That summer, a national disaster was declared during the state’s worst wildfire year on record, and toxic smoke blanketed the Central Valley for weeks. The heat combined with the smoke was tough to work through at the height of tomato harvest. I don’t get sick much, but that summer I had a hard time breathing through the congestion in my lungs.

The Valley’s characteristic winter tule fog is disappearing, and winters are getting warmer. Yields of many stone fruits and nuts that feed the country are declining because the trees require cool winters to set fruit. Warm winters also threaten the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 30 percent of California’s water. We had a good wet winter this year, but a few years ago the snowpack was at its lowest level in 500 years.

Farmers are good at managing risk, but the risks are reaching a tipping point.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, either in the UN report or in California’s farmland, because farmers are good at adapting and problem-solving. We can adjust our farming practices to buffer against climate impacts like drought and flooding and reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions, while cutting costs and cleaning up our air and water.

At Sano Farms, we started planting winter crops that require less water, like garbanzo beans and garlic. When necessary, we leave some fields unplanted for part of the year to save water for our high-value almond and pistachio trees. We switched to drip irrigation long ago, which efficiently delivers water to crops at their roots under the soil, protected from the hot sun.

We take great care of our soil’s health and we keep learning how to do it better. A living soil with lots of organic matter absorbs and holds more water and nutrients, retains more topsoil, and grows healthier plants that survive increasing pressures from pests and diseases. After harvesting our fall crops, we now use cover crops that return carbon and nitrogen to the soil and nourish the microbes and fungi essential for a living soil ecology. The plants and soil organisms work together to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and draw it down into the root zone. We minimize disturbance of our land by decreasing tillage, which protects these microorganisms and keeps carbon in the soil where it belongs.

Scientists like those who produced the UN report are finding evidence that farms and ranches could be the key to avoiding climate catastrophe if they use farming practices like these that improve soil health and capture carbon. Rather than being a source of carbon emissions, farms could be a sink, storing carbon where it’s needed to grow food.

We are constantly experimenting with new soil health approaches. We are part of a conservation tillage workgroup at UC Davis Cooperative Extension where we learn about the science and share successes and failures with other farmers. Research and education like this are essential for farmers who are too busy planting to keep up with the latest science and technologies.

The science is clear that the challenges facing agriculture aren’t going away. And those of us who have been in agriculture for a few generations realize that things are changing in unpredictable, unprecedented ways. We are going to need new tools and training to keep up, and resources to support the climate solutions farms and ranches can offer. With innovative farmers, state-of-the-art science and sound public policy, we can make California agriculture a global leader in climate smart farming.

Alan Sano owns and operates Sano Farms in Firebaugh.