A UC Davis soil scientist says three themes should drive research and policy in sustaining California agriculture under climate change.

UC Davis Professor Emerita Louise Jackson saw hope in the fact that farmers and ranchers in the state have already adapted well to many dynamic changes in crop and livestock distribution over time. Jackson spoke at a recent CalEPA research conference.

“We're up against a dilemma that could really affect California agriculture in the long term,” she said.

Jackson explained the first theme was adapting crops to the new conditions.

“We need plant breeding for traits such as heat tolerance, for pollination, for fruit quality, so that crops can produce effectively in their environment,” she said. “This isn't just an issue of production, it's also an issue of efficient use of resources.”

Poorly adapted crops would not efficiently use water and nitrogen applications, which would lead to more emissions of the potent nitrous oxide gas. Deep-rooted plants, on the other hand, will have improved water and nitrogen uptake and be able to cool themselves better during heat waves. Composting and cover crops also play critical roles in healthy soils as well. And adding more diversity to fields, such as rotating crops and restoring native vegetation, improves resiliency as well.

The second theme was water resilience. The increasing scarcity under projected climate scenarios will require crops that are less water-intensive and for farmers to reduce the amount of irrigated acres and adopt innovative approaches to capturing runoff. Ranchers could incorporate forage crops with shorter growing seasons.

Jackson explained that some alfalfa is flood tolerant and can be grown in winter in combination with projects for on-farm groundwater recharge.

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“In the long term, the expectation would be that we have to overhaul our aging storage and flood controls,” she said.

Farmland conservation was the third component. An average of 50,000 acres each year of farming and grazing land is lost to development, with prime farmland decreasing the most. Jackson noted that converting these lands to urban environments can increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 70 times.

Jackson admitted that making these changes would be difficult. Engaging the agricultural community, which is often deeply conservative and already “strapped and stretched” will be a challenge, she said. Most growers have immediate production goals to focus on, rather than ecosystem functions.

Yet Jackson was optimistic, with California leading the way through a multitude of initiatives that range in scale and approach, from the administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio to CDFA’s suite of climate-smart programs and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to conserve 30% of the land and coastal waters by 2030.

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