Close to Home: Farming on the front lines of climate protection
U.S. agriculture has been struggling for years. And then along came 2020. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasingly unpredictable impacts of the climate crisis — record-setting floods, devastating heat waves, droughts, unprecedented wildfires — last year was especially challenging.
For Fetzer Vineyards, witnessing the effects of these crises on our business and our planet has underscored the importance of building climate resilience into our economy. As California lawmakers consider new policies to stimulate economic activity, they can help the state’s agriculture industry become more resilient and competitive by prioritizing climate-smart agricultural programs.
Agricultural businesses are on the front lines of climate change, and the actions lawmakers take now will influence the economic longevity of the industry. Food and agriculture provide more than 5.8 million jobs and contribute to nearly $1 trillion in economic output in California alone. With the right policies in place, lawmakers have an opportunity to capture the benefits of climate-smart agriculture while protecting the industry from an increasingly dire climate crisis.
California already has a great record of climate leadership, and the state’s experience is proof that adopting policies that reduce emissions support a robust and resilient economy. In 2017, California achieved its 2020 emissions reduction goal ahead of schedule while the state’s economy outpaced national growth by more than 35%.
Now, it is critical that California continue its climate leadership and ensure agriculture is part of the solution.
One initiative that needs to remain at the top of the agenda is the Healthy Soils Program. By supporting farmers who take steps to build soil health through regenerative agriculture practices, the program helps improve yields and lower costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering carbon and saving water. Healthy soils draw down carbon from the air to bring it deep in the ground, where it nourishes roots and new plant growth. And healthy soil retains water, reducing farmer’s dependence on irrigation.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal allocates $30 million to the Healthy Soils Program from revenue collected from California’s cap-and-trade auctions, including $15 million for an early action relief package. As budget negotiations proceed in the coming weeks, we hope the Legislature and the governor maintain this proposed funding and prioritize ongoing investment in the Healthy Soils Program and similar initiatives.
Fetzer Vineyards is one of many California companies firmly in favor of climate-smart recovery plans. Last August, more than 30 companies met with state legislators to share our support for economic recovery policies that incorporate regenerative agriculture, renewable energy and clean transportation.
We support these policies because we have seen firsthand the benefits of clean energy technology and climate-smart practices.
We have practiced sustainable regenerative farming since our founding 52 years ago. Independently verified scientific studies have found that, rather than emitting carbon, the soil in our vineyards increases organic matter in the soil, which stores carbon. Practices of minimal tilling, no use of chemical fertilizers, planting cover crops in the offseason and allowing sheep to graze on those cover-cropped fields help build our soil health, its carbon content and crop yields. Compost from our own operations is the only fertilizer we use, reducing our input costs. All this helps us produce very fine grapes at minimal harm to the planet.
Reduced water risk is another important climate and cost-saving benefit of regenerative agriculture. Our vineyards don’t need as much irrigation as conventional vineyards because our soils retain more water. And when we irrigate, we use recycled water in a system powered by 100% renewable energy. With the severity of droughts across the West only projected to worsen, expanding access to programs that promote these practices for growers and other agricultural businesses is critical.
Fetzer Vineyards is not slowing down on our efforts to tackle the climate crisis. In October, we pledged to go climate positive by 2030, meaning we’ll take steps to reduce more carbon from the atmosphere than we emit.
California, too, should accelerate efforts to transition to a net-zero emissions economy by prioritizing and scaling up climate-smart agriculture programs like the Healthy Soils Program. Doing so will support the long-term health of the state’s economy, citizens and ecosystems.
Jessica Baum is director of regenerative development and sustainability at Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland.
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