Farming for a Hot Planet

December 8, 2015

By now, the California drought is no longer news to anyone in the country. Most Americans realize that the state’s farmers, who produce about half of all the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed nationwide, are hurting for water. So it may come as a surprise to learn that a farmer from one of California’s driest areas is planning to sell his surplus water to local governments.

John Diener farms 5,000 acres on the dry west side of the state’s San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural area known as the breadbasket of the world. His “Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management” (IFDM) system uses a clever series of underground tiles to desalinate subsurface waters that would otherwise be too salty for crops. Combined with a state-of-the-art irrigation system, Diener has cut his use of irrigation water by 20 percent, recycles 99 percent of his water, grows salt-tolerant crops and is even adding cactus to his crop mix. In addition, Diener can sell minerals and other byproducts recovered from the system to industry: for example, soda ash residues can be sold for glass making. Diener expects that sales like this, coupled with selling recovered water to other farmers or state agencies will offset the cost of installing the IFDM system.

green plants

John Diener’s farm is just one example of how climate change is changing farming. With the recently concluded Paris climate talks, we might expect that agricultural innovations would have been at the center of the discussions. After all, experts say that the agriculture industry contributes anywhere from a third to more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions.

But the week-long COP21 talks included just a day spent on agriculture — the first time in the history of the climate talks that farming had been officially on the agenda at all. Even more disappointing was the corporate-driven agribusiness agenda that dominated the climate summit’s farming discussions. Led by the U.S. government and corporate food interests, calls for “Climate Smart Agriculture” were rejected by hundreds of leading farming, food justice, development, and environmental groups as mere greenwashing that allows factory farming to continue while adopting little more than the language of climate concern.

If more of the same corporate food is not the answer to farming’s climate woes, what is? A 2013 report from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development offers some vital insights. Titled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late,” the report calls for sustainable farming based on agroecological innovations that promote global food security, not line the pockets of corporations. The report notes that we need to move from the “green revolution” paradigm that promotes the use of pesticides and GMO crops in a never-ending quest for higher yields, to an “ecological intensification” approach that puts rural people and local, sustainable food production first.

Indeed, a report from the organic farming research nonprofit the Rodale Institute demonstrates how such an approach, if widely adopted on farms globally, could transition agriculture from a global warming villain to a carbon-sequestering superhero. Their review of recent science around agroecology and the soil’s influence as a carbon sink shows that we could sequester 100% of current annual CO2 emissions and ultimately reverse the greenhouse effect with the widespread adoption of simple and currently available “regenerative” techniques from organic farming,

With the ongoing drought crisis, many California farmers are not waiting for a global paradigm shift towards ecological farming. The California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) brings a sustainable agricultural perspective to the state’s climate change and agriculture policy debates. Profiles of some of their farmer partners reveal the extent to which some farmers are already adopting innovative solutions that manage and anticipate climate concerns.

Phil Foster is one of CalCAN’s Farmer Climate Leaders. Phil and his wife Katherine run Pinnacle Organic Farms, where they grow a wide variety of about 60 crops on two farm sites. Using cover crops and on-farm composting, the Fosters have doubled the soil organic matter on one site and tripled it on the other. This has resulted in better water retention in the soil and reduced the need for nitrogen inputs, lowering the fossil fuel use associated with irrigation systems and synthetic fertilizers. The Fosters have also installed solar panels that produce 150 kilowatts of electricity, and they run most of their farm vehicles on biodiesel fuel.

Livestock farming is often cited as a key culprit in climate change, with one report suggesting that livestock alone contributes more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So Mel and Mary Thompson’s ranch operation, Sierra Farms Lamb, is especially impressive for its climate-friendly practices. The Thompson’s graze 650 ewes and lambs on 700 acres that they have divided into 35 pastures, creating a rotational grazing system that keeps the animals fed year-round on non-irrigated native grasslands. Their ecological soil-building practices have resulted not only in well-fed animals but have also reaped climate benefits including better water infiltration, less erosion, cleaner water and extended grass growing seasons through deep-rooted grasses that can capture moisture from deep in the soil.

In these days of factory livestock farming, we may not often think about the links between sustainable meat production and soil quality, but for Mel Thompson the connections are central. Building soil builds abundance, he says, and abundance “increases your options. It strengthens ranching and rural communities. It catalyzes cooperative activities and improves stewardship, and this protects your basket of eggs.”

The abundance of healthy soils is something that farming can no longer take for granted. We must move away from corporate-driven platitudes about “climate smart” agribusiness and focus on the real innovations coming from ecological farmers who are leading the way to regenerative agriculture.


Charles Margulis is a long time health and environmental activist based in Oakland, California. For five years he was the lead campaigner for the Greenpeace USA genetic engineering campaign. Previously, he worked as a professional chef and baker, including several years as a worker/owner of an organic, whole-grain collective bakery in Madison, Wisconsin.

Article Type: Farms