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Conservation goals leave many farmlands out

Issue Date: June 1, 2022
By Kevin Hecteman
Charlotte Mitchell, executive director at California Farmland Trust, said the state is missing an opportunity omitting many working lands from its “30x30” conservation goals.
Photo/Steve German

Michael Machado's farmland is in no danger of sprouting houses or strip malls anytime soon.

The third-generation farmer and former legislator has easements on his property meant to ensure the century-old family farm in Linden remains as such in perpetuity. In addition to the estate-planning benefits, there's a natural component.

"If you maintain the land in agriculture, there's going to be natural habitat that comes about just because of it, whether it be orchard or row crop or pasture," Machado said. "If you're dealing with pastures that may have farm ponds on them, farm ponds can become a focal point for certain species."

The problem, according to farmland-conservation advocates, is that the state's ambitious conservation-based climate plan, "Pathways to 30x30," largely excludes farmers and ranchers—and the lands they steward—from being counted.

The report stems from an executive order Gov. Gavin Newsom signed in October 2020 in which he set a goal of conserving 30% of the state's land and coastal waters by 2030—a goal called 30x30 for short. The order directed the California Natural Resources Agency to lead the effort.

The plan lists "working landscapes under conservation easements" as part of the 30x30 goal, giving as examples "sustainably managed private grazing lands, ranches, and working forests with formal durable protections for biodiversity such as conservation or mitigation easements."

Agricultural easements and Williamson Act contracts are only considered "complementary conservation measures" because, the report states, "protection is temporary, management does not protect natural conditions as a primary goal, or they are too small to be mapped." Despite calling for avoiding pesticide use on lands under conservation easements, the report names "organic farms" alongside Williamson Act lands and community gardens among spaces ineligible for 30x30 consideration.

Machado said he is puzzled why the state wouldn't include the farmland in the plan "but at the same time they're providing funding to purchase easements, which basically keeps the land in a permanent use, which you would think would meet the definition of the type of conservation they're trying to do." He added, "That raises a lot of questions."

Charlotte Mitchell, executive director of the California Farmland Trust, said it was obvious early on that most working lands would be excluded. "In speaking with some of the agency folks," Mitchell said, "it's really about the durably managed lands," which are lands are defined by the state as lands owned by the state or under easements for the purpose of protecting species and habitat.

Mitchell added, "We can't be durably managed to meet objectives that are not going to be good for the operation. They're not going to be good for the land, the crop, etc. There's too many variables."

The extent to which working lands can help might be based on the farmer's practices, said Taylor Roschen, a California Farm Bureau policy advocate.

"You might be able to say that prescribed grazing practices on rangeland are going to help boost native plant species or forage for pollinator species," she said. "You could talk about some of the healthy soil management practices that are taking place on real crop operations, and how that is providing better species biodiversity, species richness and soil health."

Many of these practices are not based on long-range timelines, she added. "That's the challenge that we have to articulate, is there's immediate biodiversity benefits that can be offered on working lands by making these investments while we also make long-term investments through conservation easements," Roschen said.

Mitchell said the farm's very existence is a boon to the environment.

"Just with the planting of the trees and vines that help with carbon sequestration, I think it's a major component," Mitchell said. "The habitat that we provide in these working landscapes is paramount. You can go to any orchard, row crop (farm), vineyard, and you're going to see a very lively, integrated biodiversity on those lands with different wildlife that is utilizing the crops for food, for cover."

Machado, who grows almonds, walnuts, cherries and olives, said, "We use cover crops on just about everything." These serve two purposes, he noted: to attract pollinators, and to "increase the tilth and hopefully developing enough biomass to help improve the soil."

Machado has participated in the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Healthy Soils program. "We saw benefits from water use, water savings, and then just building up the mass," he said, adding he wants to keep doing this.

Mitchell pointed to the success of CDFA programs such as Healthy Soils and the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program.

"I just think it's a really shameful miss on the agency's part to not recognize the working landscapes, and really the advancements we have made over the last decade," Mitchell said. "We're right in the midst of seeing a lot of change happening in farmland and understanding the science and understanding our climate changes, and how we can best suit solutions for that."

Roschen said there may be budgetary support. The governor's May revision to his budget proposal allocates $768 million over two years for "nature-based solutions" and the 30x30 plan, while a proposal from Democratic state senators suggests $500 million for 30x30.

The Machado farming family put property into an easement to continue a legacy.

"The family's been here since 1906, and it's been in farmland," said Machado, whose grandparents immigrated from the Azores and ultimately put down roots in Linden. "Upon the transitioning from one generation to another, the farmland usually ends up being sold or developed. Our interest was to try to maintain the legacy of the family and to keep it in farmland."

An easement also serves as "a barrier to urban growth," Machado said, noting that development in rural areas can suddenly limit how and when a farmer can carry out regular activities. "Urban growth, or pockets of urban growth in rural areas, can be very detrimental to the practice of agriculture," Machado said.

Mitchell said the 30x30 exclusion will not slow her down. "We have a long list of landowners who wish to take the voluntary step to see their farms protected for the next generation of farmers," she said.

Mitchell said more needs to be considered beyond climate resilience.

"To be able to protect this most valuable land in California should be everybody's priority, just from a food-production, food-security standpoint to climate resiliency and those climate benefits that these lands are also providing," she said.

Machado put it bluntly: "Without food, you can't eat. Without agriculture, you don't have food."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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