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Jan 23, 2020
Cannon Michael is a 6th Generation farmer, touting a farming lineage of over 160 years in California. He is the current president of Bowles Farming Company and has become something of a voice for farmers in our consumer driven world, explaining to end-customers what their preferences truly mean at the farm level: sustainability, regenerative agriculture, and organic.
“Sustainability is ingrained in the DNA of every successful farmer. If it wasn’t, they’d go out of business”
In this episode of Agriculture Adapts:
– Regenerative and organic agriculture: realities, myths, challenges, and opportunities
– What a 160 year legacy has to say about climate change’s impact on agriculture
– Regenerative agriculture is not one size fits all
– Health impacts of organic vs conventional agriculture from the perspective of someone who grows your food
Borna (ClimateAi) 0:04
This is agriculture adapts by climate AI. Every week we speak with industry leading executives, farmers and academics to get a 360 view of how the agriculture sector is innovating to stay ahead of a changing climate. I’m your host Borna Poursheikhani. And I am your co host Himanshu Gupta. We’re a team of climate scientists and agriculture entrepreneurs trying to make farming more resilient, profitable and equitable as we transition to a new age of agriculture. This podcast is our journey as we explore the hurdles and opportunities that lie ahead for the industry that feeds the world. Hello, hello. Hello, we have another exciting episode of agriculture adapts here for you today. Very excited about this episode is we have with us the president of bowls farming company cannon, Michael, sixth generation farmer based out of Los Banos, California. You’ve been there for around or the family’s been there for around 160 years that correct?
Cannon Michael 0:55
It is correct long time.
Borna (ClimateAi) 0:56
Yes. So So canon when I first met textile sustainability conference in Vancouver a few weeks back. I mean, we didn’t we didn’t actually meet but I was at a panel that canon was on, where he was sort of providing the growers perspective on a regenerative agriculture conversation that was being had. And I thought the points that were coming up were very interesting, because we were kind of talking about the implications and realities of the trends that are coming from these urban consumers, including things like regenerative and organic and I wanted to learn more about what that means on the ground because oftentimes, we as the consumers are pretty disconnected from what’s happening at the farm level. So I think this is a super important conversation to be had. And you know, a lot of the stuff that you know, I read and I hear in the media is, you know, regenerative ag is a solution, that agenda, but I’m saying okay, there must be something holding the industry back or there must be something’s preventing this widespread adoption of the system. So really curious to dig into the nuances of all this on this episode, but just to sort of start off and get some background would love to hear about yours. story and about your family’s story because 160 you were just telling before we went on this podcast 160 years is, is older than the state. So, so what is the what is the history there?
Cannon Michael 2:09
Yeah, so it’s really an interesting sort of an immigrant story. My third great grandfather came over from Germany in the 1850s very little education and no real money to his name, but he didn’t know the butcher trade. And he ended up in California again in the 1850s. And he ended up first competing against another young German immigrant, but eventually he partnered with them, and the two of them sort of really right place, right time, but you know, pretty strategic thinkers and, you know, for, for where they started, and where they ended up, it was pretty impressive, but they ended up supplying quite a bit of meat too. You know, it was pre California being the state but the state of California that area was was booming with the gold rush and a lot of other things happening. And so they had early success and really sort of in some ways had like a climate inspired strategy in terms of their work. A lot of interesting California even though we’re going through climatic changes, there were still periods of big drought and and then followed by very wet years. And so they saw early on that they sort of needed land as a strategy to sort of mitigate drought impacts. And then also flooding impacts. And so they bought some fairly large tracts of land and again, had success early on, improved the genetics of the beef that were in the state, brought in new crops, like alfalfa is forage for the cattle and anyway, just ended up being very, very successful at at one point, the company was actually over a million acres of land. Oh, wow. It changed quite a bit after Henry Miller died. So as visionary as he was, he actually wasn’t great at something that farms need to think about, which is succession planning. So he he likes to sort of micro manage and manage his things without people really getting in his business and his partner died a little bit early in their relationship, but he continued on and had a lot of success. But ultimately, when he passed away, that company sort of wasn’t in a strategic position with The additional family members to kind of help out and so interesting history. There’s a couple of books written about him too. So people are interested in Miller and Lux was the company. And so there’s a couple of resources on Amazon, you could find industrial cowboys is the title of one of them. It’s pretty cool.
Borna (ClimateAi) 4:15
I’ll give it a look. And then what about your store like we you? You were telling me last time we talked you sort of went away and didn’t think you’re gonna, you know, come back to the farm with a you ended up coming back?
Cannon Michael 4:24
Yeah, it’s interesting because the the farm, it’s not as traditional, I guess, as some where everybody’s born and raised on the farm. And it’s kind of employment for everybody since it was part of a much larger enterprise that sort of the big divisions happened in the 60s for the company that we always had management of the farm was kind of handled on the local level. And then a lot of my family was in the Bay Area, providing kind of the oversight and coming down to the farm. So when I was like born and raised, I was living in San Francisco, not on not on the farm. And so I came down often with my grandfather, obviously, being raised in an urban environment and getting to a farm, you know, it was great to get there and run around. than not have the constraints that you have. So I had a really close connection with it. I worked high school years in agriculture. But when I was going through college, it wasn’t like it was a career path for me, at least in the immediate sense, because my uncle and my great uncle were working there. And so I, I actually got into commercial real estate, after graduating from Berkeley, went to Atlanta and was living there, doing a bunch of different industrial brokerage and working for some big builders back there. So anyway, then there was a change with my great uncle got a terminal illness, and I came back to help the family so kind of a long, long way around to being involved, but I’ve been there now about 20 years. So I’ve had a long experience and at this point, when what kind of crops Do
Borna (ClimateAi) 5:41
you guys focus on now?
Cannon Michael 5:42
Yeah, when I got there, we were doing just barley, cotton and alfalfa, which were three pretty kind of simple, basic crops. The family was sort of low risk tolerance, and so didn’t want to kind of do the vegetables and other things. But some of those crops that we were growing really had very little economic return, but Like barley, so I started transitioning us into crops like tomatoes, which had higher higher value. And then we were installing drip irrigation, which was a, you know, obviously different technique of watering the plants and improving quality and yield, especially in tomatoes. So that was one step. And then we kept, you know, just farmers react to economic changes. And so the dairy industry in California had a lot of issues. So alfalfa became less of a economic generator for us. So we’ve been transitioning away from that and then adding in kind of a host of other crops and then other production techniques like organic but we’re doing a whole host of vegetable crops now like tomatoes are a big one for us. And then also watermelons cantaloupes. We do carrots, garlic, onions, we do a variety of herbs from oregano, parsley, cilantro, basil, we’re doing got some almonds and pistachios. That’s a very small amount of what we do. And again, the extra long staple cost That’s been a big one, which is a high value cotton. And what else we do corn?
number of other anyway, a lot of different things we don’t get into
Borna (ClimateAi) 7:10
how many how many crops that in total?
Cannon Michael 7:12
Well, I think he had the organic corn and conventional side of it if you didn’t know it’s over, it’s probably 15 different crops or more, depending on the year. And because we can get into smaller things like our bonds or beans, yeah, we do just depends what’s happening. But yeah, we can grow up to like 20 different crops probably.
Borna (ClimateAi) 7:29
That’s crazy. And that’s, that’s not typical of your area at all. Is it or is that? Because,
Cannon Michael 7:34
yeah, we’ve been kind of charting a different path and a lot of our folks in the area, but again, we’re really responding First of all, to economics. And then second of all, our cost of production is going up quite a bit in California based on really regulatory pressures that we face. Minimum wage is escalating and overtime requirements, things that our competitors don’t have as much to deal with. And so, again, it’s like we have to figure out how to kind of add more value wherever we can, but it’s not easy either. Because then you’re asking your folks to adopt from a very kind of static, really easy set of a few crops to kind of a more dynamic suite of crops that are a little bit more challenging from a timing perspective. And just, you know, learning to do new things on a farm is not easy either. So we always tend try to partner with really strong groups, when we do a new crop, we will some agronomic assistance, usually just to get off the ground. And then you know, after a year or two, we pretty much have it, have it wired, but it’s always good to have a partner off the bat who has some experience that wants to kind of see you be successful. So we focus on that.
Borna (ClimateAi) 8:34
Nice, nice. And just to tee up this conversation of of organic before we dive in what portion of your guys’s crop is organic versus conventional?
Cannon Michael 8:43
We are we’re sort of trying to match it right now to the market. Our current is like 5%, we’re going to get closer to 10% because we’re transitioning some fields but you know, we don’t want to be too out of sync with what the market segment is. And so we’re kind of being mindful of, you know, there’s I think there’s a perception out there. In the world of like, if you just grow an organic crop it’s going to sell and it’s gonna be high value. And it’s, you know, really easy. And, you know, because I, I’ll sometimes be in the Bay Area have a cocktail party and you say you’re a farmer, and they’re like, Oh, of course, you’re organic. And you do all this. And it’s like, well, it’s not as easy as that sounds. There’s there’s, there’s smaller acres of organic crops that you can grow sometimes, but we’re kind of set up to be a larger scale. I didn’t mention, you know, we’re farming a little over 1000 11,000 acres. So you know, if somebody comes to us and says they want like five acres of, you know, organic Bazell, or five acres of organic melons, I mean, that’s really kind of a micro management thing for us where we have to get really granular, you know, to cut up fields to that small because we’re dealing you know, with a field size of like 70 to 100 acres. So, it was really a thing for us of getting a couple of crops we could rotate because you can’t just have one crop that’s organic, you have to have several that you can rotate through. So finding crops at scale has been a challenge. But anyway, it’s a it’s an interesting part of our business.
Borna (ClimateAi) 9:57
Can you explain why you have to rotate through the different organic crops
Cannon Michael 10:00
Soil Health just for any crop in in the conventional system, it’s really the same. So if you sort of have that like a monoculture, you end up seeing build up a lot of times of either insect pressure or in the soils you’ll see, you know, bacteria, fungus, other things that can be detrimental. So really, you just soil health in general, like the soil tilth and structure a lot of time is improved by by kind of that rotation. And you know, crop like cotton specifically has kind of a more it’s more like a minor of nutrients. So it takes it takes more out of the soil every year. And so it’s nice to then put in something like a legume or you know, tomatoes, something, something other that has little more organic matter that it puts back in maybe a little nitrogen that’s fixed back into the soil. So it’s sort of this balancing act. And sometimes we can’t, you know, we don’t plant maybe a crop that’s going to bring us the highest economic return that year. We plant a crop that’s going to set up our next year’s crop, you know, so farmers are always looking towards or at least our farm is always looking towards, you know, what the future couple of years look like versus You know, just saying we’re going to make every single decision about profit this year. I mean, you have to be mindful of that. But you can’t just, you know, sometimes you take that long view to say, like, I need to make this rotation this year, just so I can ensure that following year, I’ll get a better production. So
Borna (ClimateAi) 11:13
yeah, no, that makes sense. And then also curious to get your view on organic from a health perspective, because a lot of the times, you know, I grew up in Southern California, and there’s this perception that organic is always better. And I have not done sufficient research to have a strong stance on this or not, but I do hear from growers that, you know, we’re applying, you know, just different chemicals, sometimes, like they might be bio based, but they’re just different and they could potentially be equally as dangerous or also this, like the GMO component growers tend to think, Okay, well, we’ve been modifying plants for thousands of years. It’s not necessarily that different. So what’s what’s your view on that health component?
Cannon Michael 11:53
Yeah, as far as the organic health component, I you know, there’s, to my knowledge, there’s no peer reviewed science that that has any any indication that it is more beneficial to eat organic versus conventional, you know, especially the if the conventional is produced with, you know, high level of standards and controls. I mean, it’s really, you know, very safe. And I think, you know, there’s so there’s a couple of things, I think you really have to back up and understand that like, the reason we can even have the discussion about, you know, transitioning to organic or regenerative or whatever it is, I mean, the fact that we can even have that conversation is based on the fact that we have a very stable food supply that is conventional. So again, I mean, not that, that means it’s the perfect system, but it is giving us the ability to say like, Oh, we want to maybe try something different. But if you’re, if you’re hungry, and you don’t have food, and you know, there’s no stability, you wouldn’t even think that you would like contemplate moving to organic because it is, it is riskier, in a lot of ways you have a lot less, you have a lot less options in terms of, you know, what you can apply and how you can protect your crops and things like that. And so, again, I just think that it’s important to just have those larger conversations about you know, understanding that the system now is really conventional based conventional system for most parts is very safe. But again, I don’t begrudge the consumer for wanting something different. But if you look at the facts, and that’s what we try to do, whenever we, you know, decided to plant a crop decided to go to a different production method like organic, we look at the facts, which are peer reviewed science, you know, that is out there. And so there’s, again, not the health implications. And you know, there’s things that are I think he alluded to it, there’s some very dangerous things we can apply in the organic system to. So it’s not just it’s not that you don’t do any kind of spraying or that you don’t do it. So there’s some misperception You know, there’s misperceptions out there, I think,
Borna (ClimateAi) 13:33
what is the difference when you’re raising organic crops, as opposed to raising conventional, like for organic typically have to maybe spray more often because what you’re using might not be as effective. What what are the main differences there? Does it have to be bio based for the most part,
Cannon Michael 13:48
there’s a few like, you know, there’s no synthetic nitrogen that you can use. You can’t use GMO seeds. I mean, there’s some of the prohibitions that are that are like that. And then there’s sort of there’s a variety varying level of what you Can’t or can’t apply. But again, there’s some, you know, fungicides that are copper base that are really really, you know, hazardous to humans into the environment. So, I mean, it’s not like you’re just using only like really light, you know, chemistry that’s not dangerous. I mean, there are dangerous things in the organic system. But it’s a lot more paths, a lot more passes, you’re trying to do a lot more mechanically, where you can, you know, you’re driving the tractor and try to cultivate, you know, weeds are a huge issue because you have a very difficult issues with weed control, and then getting enough nitrogen for the crops is very difficult because, again, synthetic nitrogen is, you know, obviously, you know, you’re feeding it right to the plant, and it’s and it’s growing. So we’re trying to use, you know, you’re using fish emotions, you’re using, you know, chicken litter or manures. So, it’s just a different, it’s, you know, it presents its own set of challenges. But, yeah, in a lot of ways, it’s you’re sometimes not as productive and then it’s higher cost, just because you’re, you know, you have to do a lot more to kind of keep control of some of the issues that are out there.
Borna (ClimateAi) 15:00
Yeah, you kind of touched on this when you’re when you’re responding there. But I’ve now talked to a few different growers who are talking about the conflicting desires of the end consumers like on one one site. And it’s usually the same consumer, at least it was for me, you know, I try to eat organic for the most part, that’s just how I was raised. I’m just used to it. I eat organic for the most part, but I’m also a pretty environmentally conscious person. And I was talking to a bunch of people like, yeah, we have to send the same truck through like, like five times more often to spray chemicals. And maybe it’s not as good in terms of like, the emissions that we’re having. And you know, when you’re applying that much more, and you’re sending the truck through that much more times, maybe you know, it’s better for you, but it’s worse for the environment and for the world. So it’s a really interesting dynamic there that I wasn’t aware of until we got into the agriculture space here climate AI. But yeah, I would love to sort of dive into the regenerative ag component because this was kind of what got me interested in the very beginning. So I’m just gonna, I found an online definition of regenerative Ag and I’ve been to a few conferences now and I know this is like Under flux, and this is always changing, but I’m gonna read it out for, for the listeners. So regenerative ag is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity enriches soils, captures carbon improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services. So this just sounds like it’s like the best thing in the world. And we should be doing this for our entire food system. But of course, there’s always nuances with everything. So what are the difficulties and the drawbacks, in your opinion at a high level for Regenerative agriculture?
Cannon Michael 16:28
Yeah, I think, you know, again, it’s important to kind of think about where some of these discussions are taking place, and who’s kind of fostering these ideas. And so I think there’s needs to be respect for farmers as individuals at some level and an understanding that they know for our company, that just as one example, I mean, we’ve been here for six generations, we obviously sort of know something about sustainability and what are what are, you know, it’s like this, you get this feeling this foreigner, yeah, well, you get this feeling like we’re sort of being patted on the head and, you know, told like, you know, do the cover crops and do this and do that and you’re going to be a much better A farmer put in drip irrigation, whatever it is, I mean, there is some of that, you know, kind of feeling like there’s like really this wanting to like generalize and kind of just kind of compartmentalize and do these things that are not kind of what we do with other segments of the of the population. But with farmers, we tend to kind of do that. But, you know, our system, it’s very complicated in terms of like, first of all, just farming in general, it’s not, I guess it’s not as easy as people maybe think it is. So I think again, that’s like the idea of just like, let’s just take cover crops for example. You know, we do cover crops where appropriate, but in our area and with our soil types, and kind of also the fact that we have this really robust rotation that I was telling you about earlier, so many crops to kind of cycle through and, you know, use our soil, maximize our soil health that way. So, you know, cover crops to us are an extra expense, you know, we have to buy additional seed, we have to do another application of the seed. It doesn’t always help us I mean, because sometimes if, like right now we’ve harvested a lot of crops in the soil. It’s opening So a lot of our soil doesn’t have cover crops right now. But that’s because then we know we can be ready to plant the following year, we’re not really that worried about our soil health, right at this exact moment, we’re not in an area where we would get a lot of soil runoff or erosion because we’re in California where we don’t get that much rain. So we kind of have this system in place, you know, for us to do a cover crop, we’d have to put out the cover crop, you know, obviously planted grow it, it would grow with this rain, moisture over the winter, but then you have to kind of terminate the cover crop, you have to, you know, it can sometimes actually cause you more problems where it pulls moisture out of the ground before you’re ready to plant. So it’s another whole level of management and then, you know, again, it’s one of those things that so it’s not necessarily helping us but everybody’s really on this cover crop bandwagon right now, but again, it’s it just presents more risks. If there was a group that was saying, like look, we’ll pay you $5 a ton more for your tomatoes. If you do this system, you know, like then we would say okay, we can we can economically analyze does that make sense for us or not? Now like organic Exactly. Now, you’re just saying like, you guys should do this and be regenerative, but nobody’s wanting to pay us anything for it, which, you know, economic incentives, you know, whether you like that or not, I mean, economics drive performance and drive change. And so, not that I, you know, we don’t want handouts or subsidies or anything like that. But you know, if the consumer really does want this, or if it really is a segment that a brand feels is important, you know, we just need to see that there’s a linkage, like a real linkage to us taking the risk putting in these changes, you know, any of that disruption to our system, he knows it. Anyway, it’s just that the bigger conversation is that it’s more complicated than just saying like, be regenerative. And, you know, if if we were like 100 acre farm, like a lot of the lot of the data that I hear is stuff that’s coming off, like really small farms. And so it’s like, you know, you’re saying like, you got 100 acres and you’ve got some cattle and you’ve got some sheep and you’re rotating and like you have a grazing like we don’t have that we’re just like an annual crop vegetable crop farm. So again, you see Some of these ideas are coming on small scale. And so, you know, trying to explode that to, you know, thousands of acres just doesn’t necessarily work. So anyway, again, it’s just having the respectful conversation and realizing that, you know, no two farms are the same. No two farm leadership’s are the same, you know, it’s just like everybody has their own philosophies. And, you know, we can do better and we can make changes. But again, it’s like, somehow linking to some incentives, I think is going to be the real if people do want to see these kinds of changes. That’s how it has to go really,
Borna (ClimateAi) 20:30
right. But you guys do like to a certain extent, you guys do some regenerative practices, you guys do a fair amount of crop rotation. And you use cover crops like sometimes occasionally, I would love to learn what sort of dictates those conditions under which you do do cover crops. But so in your view, like what is the positive that you can take away from the regenerative ag system? Because it sounds to me like you’re saying, there’s a lot of these tools that farmers should be allowed to choose from this like regenerative landscape, but they shouldn’t have to buy into every single one of them because you know, something Within my work in some of them might not.
Cannon Michael 21:02
Yeah, absolutely. So I mean, I think there’s, there’s opportunity for us, it’s about learning, you know, we’re constantly, you know, we work with our UC University of California, we work with their departments all the time to try to either do actual test plots on the farm. I mean, we want to base our decisions on, you know, not just what we are hearing in the news is best for us, but actual science and actual work on the ground. And so, you know, those types of partnerships to me are the most valuable. I mean, we can change and adapt. But again, it’s, it’s everything, every farm, again, has different challenges and different soils and different you know, so one thing works in one region doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to translate to another. So I don’t think we can just box things like you’re saying, like, I think we need to have like that suite of options that we can do, because, you know, we are learning but again, like we’ve gotten some grant money through, like the California Department of Food and Agriculture, working in concert with the University of California system where we actually have some test plots on the farm. You know, there’s several hundred thousand dollars in grant money that we’re not in making money off of it, but really no, we’re not going to lose. And so and we’re also going to get actual data that’s, that’s reliable and that we can share with other farmers too. So, you know, those are the things that we’re looking to do to actually like, have that discussion be really concrete and kind of, you know, make sure we frame the issue in a way that is, is fair and make sense for everybody. Yeah.
Borna (ClimateAi) 22:22
And I’d like to just go back to this component of like, what are the environmental conditions for your guys’s farmer specifically, then, allow it to make sense for you guys to have cover crops in like, what do you guys do and when do you not or is it? Have you just made the decision to go one way or the other at this point?
Cannon Michael 22:36
No, no, we do we have. We actually sometimes California’s very complicated, but we actually can’t cannot farm some ground some years where we can let it actually rest for an entire year. And by doing that, we actually can transfer the water that we would have used on that field, we can actually move it to some of our neighbors because California is very water stressed so we can actually help our neighbors buy they’ll buy it The water from us, but we’re able to move it to them. It’s a small, it’s a fairly small amount. But on those fields that we don’t farm that year, we’ll definitely plant some kind of a cover crop because it helps with weed control helps, you know, it does help with soil health. In that instance, where you’re not going to farm anything, we wouldn’t want the soil to go an entire year. So the most I can, I guess the other part of the understanding is like the most that our soil like would ever not have some kind of crop on it is really only a couple of like a few months through the winter. Like would that would be really the only time so it’s not like we ever have like just massive areas that aren’t you know, because again, we have a pretty aggressive rotation. So, you know, we do have cover crops and then we’re trying now, again, with the help of some of these grant programs, we’re working in concert with academics, we’re trying to do it where we actually can quantify all these inputs into we’re putting cover crops in where we’re going to do some minimum tillage or no till. So we’re getting we’re working on it, but again, it’s working on it with some protections to just not be taking all the risk. And just because some farmer in the Midwest had success doing a system back there, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for California because they’re just wildly different. So again, you know, you might have a California regenerative component that was totally different than what the folks in the Midwest, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean either one’s right or wrong, it just means that it’s the reality agriculture is just, you know, has is very location based. And you can’t just say, like, one group of people asked to do all the same thing, it just doesn’t make, we wouldn’t say that to any other, you know, group of people. So it’s, it’s one of those, how do you have that better discussion and understand that, like, each farm is different, and each set of crops is different? And it all you know, we have to kind of figure out what works best in each each region.
Borna (ClimateAi) 24:35
So one of the the positives of regenerative agriculture, at least in the literature is that, you know, if you’re putting in these cover crops, and if you’re following through with all these methods that your soil is healthy, and it can act more like a sponge as opposed to a brick with water so it can be able to withstand droughts and floods much better than ground that has been, you know, you’ve been growing crops on it through more conventional methods. Have you experienced that in any way? Like, do you have any plots land that have been, like, quote unquote regenerative for a long enough period of time where you can notice a difference or is it? Is it has it been moving around throughout the time in which you’ve been trying it out? So you can’t really tell? Like there’s there’s been no control in the study? Really?
Cannon Michael 25:13
Yeah, no, I mean, I think for us, we, you know, when we even when we had three crops only on the farm, I mean, we still, we still we’re doing so much with our soil health. I mean, I think just if you think about from a farmer standpoint, you’ve got just a few things that are like the most mission critical to your success. Soil is, is one of those. So like any, in my mind, at least any farm that would do something to degrade or hurt their soil, it just makes no sense because that’s the building block of everything else you do. And it’s like the same thing with, you know, our people, you know, you hear like, oh, farmers are mistreating the workers or, and I know that mistreatment happens in certain systems, but, you know, like us, our workers are like, I can’t we can’t do anything without without, you know, our workforce that we have. And, you know, then the idea that we would ever do something to harm our consumers, you know, they’re just, there’s some kind of narratives out there that just don’t make any sense. But soil in particular is just one of those building blocks that we’ve always looked at, as, you know, what do we do to add more organic matter, we usually do it through compost or through chicken litter, which there’s a plentiful supply in our area of. So it’s like we we’ve been doing techniques to improve the soil, you know, the soil material and carbon and health for a long time. So it’s one of those things, it’s just kind of us it’s just been business as usual. And, you know, to hear that there’s a lot of interest in soil health is great. And the idea that there could be other ways to improve it, I think are things we want to look at. But again, it’s we’re looking at them in a very balanced and measured way, not just rushing in to say like, we’re going to plant, you know, 10,000 acres of cover crops because, like I said, it’s super expensive to do it. I mean, that’s the thing. It’s not it’s not just it doesn’t come without repercussions to make some of those but, I mean, I think there’s regenerative ideas and you know, it’s always exciting to have people working. It’s just like an ag tech. It’s exciting to have people working for solutions for agriculture, but there’s a lot of noise out there and it’s then the farmers You know, our responsibility to kind of kind of go through and figure out what are the things that might make sense because, you know, there’s a lot of examples in the ag tech space where guys have tried to, you know, adopt a new system or buy a new technology, and then ultimately, it fails or, you know, some other technology takes its place. And so the farmers then kind of stuck. And so it’s like the same thing with some of these ideas, like you have to be having Be careful of the investments you make and the changes that you make, because they can disrupt your entire system if you do it wrong.
Borna (ClimateAi) 27:26
Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of snake oil out there. Absolutely. So have you guys tried, like you mentioned, if you got compensated for some of these things, it would make more sense, which is I mean, yeah, it sounds pretty intuitive to me. Have you tried to get compensated for carbon sequestration in your, in your soils, like what exists today on that front for growers, at least to your knowledge?
Cannon Michael 27:46
The one example obviously, I think a lot of people have heard about is the Indigo ag folks in the mid Midwest are doing some of that and I’m not exactly familiar with how they’re making all that work, but we’re definitely interested in we’ve been working with our local NRCS offices here. And then we’re also working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture with their healthy soils initiative. We are one of just a few healthy soils demonstration sites where we’re actually applying excess or heavy amounts of carbon to the soil in terms of compost and then seeing what those results are. So we’re exploring it, what the exact full potential is there, I’m not entirely sure, but I know we can be a part of, I think, the sequestration solution. But again, there’s there’s the there’s the positive impacts that I can have. And then, of course, there’s, you know, when you’re doing operations and tilling and some of that stuff, there’s some negative possible so you think you’re gonna have to look at that whole balance and see where it’s at. But again, like that Indigo example, if they’re actually going to be able to get growers, you know, 10 or 15, or whatever it is dollars an acre back for, you know, using a set of practices, and brands and retailers want to pay, you know, to for that kind of stuff to happen. I think that’s a great example of how It can get started. So I see potential there. I just you know, at this point, we’re trying to really flesh it out in the end kind of document it in a, in an analytical way that we can make sure that that it’s something that isn’t just a lot of feel good stuff but actually has some some real benefits.
Borna (ClimateAi) 29:14
Yeah, just to go back to the cover crop question before we move on here. What cover crops do you guys use? And do you guys try to monetize them? Like you try to sell them or is it mostly just chopping down let them soak into the soil?
Cannon Michael 29:25
Yeah, so if we have like a whole year we would grow some type of a grain usually probably a wheat. We’ve tried a ton of different ones. We’ve tried radishes. We’ve tried you know different clovers and benches and things. So we’ve we’ve experimented and continue to experiment with ones that might make the make the most sense. You know, it’s been interesting because this is not gonna sound but this is like one of the examples like planting radishes we actually probably made our situation with gophers worth worse with sounds just lazy, but we have we have a lot of gophers in California, and they actually do a lot of damage to our drip irrigation. And so we planted these radishes and in that area, like we have this like explosion of gophers that were, you know, I think they were feeding off that, you know, so again, it was like, we were trying to do something that was maybe sounded good. Sounded good, but there was like a negative tendency. Yeah. So I think again, it goes back to that idea of, kind of have to, you have to be careful about but what we what we do but so again, we are learning and we do experimenting with different cover crops it’s doing primarily grains have been the ones we’ve used.
Borna (ClimateAi) 30:28
And what about what about like that the concept of notes like part of regenerative is there’s a lot of hype around note teller low tell, what’s your view on that.
Cannon Michael 30:35
We’ve been doing a reduced tillage system for quite a while. Our soil has a lot of clay in it. And so a lot of times guys have tried no till in our area, and it’s something they’ve been able to do for a couple of years. And then they’ve always had to go back You see, maybe a couple of years benefit and then you see you saw slow reduction in yield is sort of been what’s happened in our area. So I think we’re looking this next year again, and partnership with some of the academic folks were working on some projects where we would do some no till but I think it would probably just be for like, a few years at a time and then we probably would do some type of like low tillage. So I think we do a mix of the two, I don’t think we would ever I don’t see us getting to an absolutely no till ever situation. So it makes every bit of sense if we if we could do it, because then you’re saving on it, you know, machinery cost and labor and all the things of running, you know, all the tillage that we have to do. I mean, if you can eliminate something like that, it would be it would be a big deal for us. But, you know, again, we’re working on it, but I don’t think we have it fully locked in that it makes 100% sense for us yet.
Borna (ClimateAi) 31:40
Yeah. And why do you think we see those yield declines after a few years ago, no till and your opinion,
Cannon Michael 31:44
even if you’re not running tractors over our soil, the soil with irrigation and then also just even rain does sort of compact that clay just kind of gets tighter and tighter as what we’ve what we’ve seen and then you just don’t get that opportunity. This we’ve got some fields with lighter soils. We’re We might try and be able to get away with it. But I think the vast majority of what we have as too much clay, so it just it just tightens up kind of naturally over time. But, you know, maybe maybe you could make it work. We’re trying to see if we can.
Borna (ClimateAi) 32:13
And and this is like a climate resilience podcast. So wanted to sort of dig in a little bit further and switch gears a little bit and talk about sort of like what the climatic shifts are that you guys have noticed, like, everything’s been fairly similar since 160 years ago for you guys specifically, or had there been significant changes. It sounds like you guys are recording stuff pretty well. And you have a pretty good connection to what was going on in your farm to uh, you know, going back pretty far. So what have you guys noticed has been the major changes in your guys’s area specifically?
Cannon Michael 32:43
Yeah, so I mean, I think I mentioned when we talked, you know, that part of the even the founding of our company was based on some, you know, climatic considerations, which were the fact that, you know, California has had this history of really prolonged periods of drought, you know, four or five years in a row of drought and then, you know, it’ll flip suddenly to this really well. So even you know, my third great grandfather experienced some pretty strange, you know, climate stuff when he got here. So we’re definitely seeing, you know, the trends right now of a warming phase. And, you know, for California where we rely on snowpack to get us water for the summer months, you know, it’s a big concern because we’re not getting as much snow we’re seeing much more rain, which means kind of much more uncontrolled water kind of going out into the, to the system and so that for sure, from a water standpoint, because obviously without water you can’t farm in California relies on the movement of water and the storage of water. So we kind of have a very, we’re different than the rain fed agriculture and other places, you know, ours, ours has to come through infrastructure. So that’s, that’s a huge kind of threat. And then from a crop standpoint, some of the opportunities we’re getting right now, for some different crops are coming because some of the southern part we’re kind of in the middle of the state. And further south of us, they’re actually some they’re seeing because of temperature increases. Or perceive, you know, changes in temperature. And some of these partners like Christopher ranch and some other folks are wanting to move up in our area to try their crops in our area, because they’re feeling like there’s, you know, they’ve seen some yield declines and other shifts that they’re feeling have some relation to climate warming. So, you know, again, I think we’re seeing the trends, I think the the data is out there showing that, you know, things are changing and warming. And so, you know, again, like we’re having we’re in the middle of a really, really dry fall season where we should have already seen some rain by now. And so, you know, again, the weather is something that a farmer, you know, obviously, is, is pretty reliant on to be successful. And so, you know, those those shifts and changes are things that are scary, but I don’t know that there’s, at this point, there’s not any specific strategy that we’ve tried to kind of mitigate climate other than, you know, just keep the soil healthy, keep options for new new crops that might might do well and just, you know, kind of, kind of hope for the best in a lot of ways I mean there’s there’s only some of it that you can really make a tangible decision on what to do about it but we’re definitely you know, concerned and worried about obviously what the impact is on our on our crop health and what the impact is on our water supplier are two major issues for us.
Borna (ClimateAi) 35:16
And are you guys seeing any impact on the crop health itself like are you are you guys getting more growing degree days? And is that offset by some sort of increased you know, risk of drought or you know, disease or pest pressure or something? What does that look like for you guys?
Cannon Michael 35:30
Yeah, it still just seems to be the cyclical nature of what we’ve always seen you know, like we came off last year we had just an amazing like result in on like our cotton crop, you know, it was a record yield and you know, then you flip to this year and we had a really cold and wet may period and you know, that ultimately led to more weeds and it led to poor cotton health and then it also led to more pest pressure from when the when the hills up near our farm dried down the certain pests move out of the hills. And so it gave them more, the wetness gave them more kind of habitat for longer. And then they drove down into the fields, and we had to kind of have a lot of issues with trying to control them. So, I mean, it’s just, it doesn’t I can’t put my finger on, like, every year being the same, just because there’s been a lot of changes, you know, like, California just came through a drought period, then we’ve had a couple of years of back and forth a little bit of wet now this year is looking like there isn’t just one specific thing. I think I could just say like this is absolutely like, exactly like climate related to climate change. So it’s a little harder because we do see quite still quite a bit of back and forth variability.
Borna (ClimateAi) 36:35
Yeah, and that’s one of the thing that makes climate change is very difficult to understand as a whole is like sometimes just the variability that increases in a lot of places, which makes it hard to quantify because if you look at the averages, maybe they don’t change that much. But what’s happening is like, the highs and the lows are starting to spread out even further, but when you average them it’s not that far of a difference. Yeah, exactly. Before we end here we’re nearing the end of this episode, but want to To see how people can support your guyses farm or support your work or support your work in particular because I I feel like you’re kind of becoming like a the the people’s representative of farmers and lives conferences so how can people support your guys’s operation your farm or your work specifically?
Cannon Michael 37:16
Yeah, I think the only direct I mean we do sell watermelons directly so you can look for our boxes at the stores that have our logo and you can find us online pretty easily. bowls farming company. We are active on some social media channels too but the one particular program that is kind of larger Bo w le s correct POW le s and it’s www.hp Farm calm is our website and then there’s a host of other links but this program we have with was started by Costco and now carried by Bed Bath and Beyond. So both Bed Bath and Beyond and Costco have sheets for your bed and Bed Bath and Beyond actually has towels and a bunch of other things that are under this name called Pema cod which is P I am a co teacher And so if you go in the wam set a collection at Bed Bath and Beyond, and then also in the warehouses at Costco and those are actually proven through the supply chain. The cotton is 100% from a few California cotton growers in in our state and we have three gyms and they’re all family, family owned and operated farms that are contributing. So again, it’s a way to really link back to to the farms and reward, reward them and get a product that’s really high quality because it’s there’s a lot of blending that happens in cotton. And so what we found was some of our very high quality cotton was being blended with lower quality and being sold as 100% Pima which is a unique California cotton. And so anyway, this has been an encouraging way to kind of link back through the supply chain and it’s a way to, you know, again, feel confident that what you’re buying is actually what’s being sold because, again, there’s been in olive oil from you know, there’s a lot of different things that are not you know, it’s harder to prove origin and authenticity and so in textiles, it’s super Hard. So this has been actually a way of tracing the cotton through the entire supply chain has been pretty encouraging.
Borna (ClimateAi) 39:06
Awesome. And yeah, and well, we’ll link those in the in the show notes. And then last thing, if you can give our listeners one key takeaway, what would it be?
Cannon Michael 39:16
I would just say just make sure you just take the time to actually fully understand the concepts and and, you know, reach out to some farmers to make sure like when you’re talking about farms and farm systems that, you know, you’re actually coming from a place of real understanding and, you know, again, like to be in Vancouver and talking about, like, how farmers should be more regenerative. And being the only farmer really in the room. You know, it’s kind of like, Where, where should we be having, you know, some of these discussions, you know, that we might be, you know, we might want to involve the farm community. But, you know, again, it doesn’t mean that like people from different angles, I mean, I think that’s the best way to solve problems is to get like a lot of different people looking from different angles and trying to solve it, but I think you have to be respectful of, you know, farmers have been around for a long time and most of them are pretty responsive. Folks and then want to, you know, most of us don’t take a short term view because, you know, again, it’s a, we’ve been in the business or you know, even if you’re a first generation farmer, it’s like you have to, you have to protect your soil, you have to protect your workers. I mean, you’re going to fail immediately, if you’re doing kind of there’s like some just very inherent, it’s not not even, like regular business practices, in my mind. But anyway, just just being responsible and not generalizing, and not trying to oversimplify. I mean, I know it feels good to say, like, oh, we’re all going to be regenerative, and the world’s going to be happier. But it’s like, I think I put that graphic up in the talk that I gave where it was, like, showed this big dark cloud over conventional agriculture. And then, like all this happy butterflies and stuff on the regenerative and organic and, and that’s, you know, it’s fine to feel that way. But I think we just have to kind of think about, if we do want to get to the those end goals, and if they really are meaningful, how, you know, how do we have the good conversations and how do we, you know, if it’s going to take a big shift for farmers, how do we incentivize, you know, how do we incentivize the behavior that we want and how do we reward the farmers that are doing the right thing, I think the things we want to Think about.
Borna (ClimateAi) 41:01
Yeah. And I think it’s easy to make demands and to demonize something when you have, like so disconnected from it because like, especially me, but at least before starting this role, climate, I was pretty disconnected from agriculture as well. And a lot of people are and they just they don’t understand the realities of what’s going into their food. Absolutely. All right, Kevin, thank you so much for joining us. I learned a ton. That was an extremely useful conversation. No, it was great. Great to be here. Appreciate your time. All right. Yep. Talk to you soon. Thank you. All right, ticker. Hey, everybody, thanks for listening. If you have any feedback, or you’d like to add your own two cents on the topic discussed today, or if you’ve just got your own ideas about someone that we should discuss in the future, please feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. At its core, this podcast is just a way for us to learn and we want to share our learnings as we go. So we’re always open to building on these conversations and hearing new perspectives. Thanks for your support and see you next time.