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Craig McNamara – “Food Apartheid” in the U.S., Dealing with California’s Top Climate Concerns, and Using Sheep as Lawn Mowers

Apr 16, 2020

Craig is the owner/president of Sierra Orchards and the former president of California State Board of Food and Agriculture, advising multiple generations of state governors on farm related policies for the state that holds the title for 5th largest agriculture producer in the world. Craig is also the founder of the Center for Land Based Learning.

This week on Agriculture Adapts:

– Getting food to the people who need it: food waste, food scarcity, and “food apartheid” in the U.S.

– A creative approach to pest/weed management for organic hazelnuts

– Over-pumping groundwater has lead to irreversible subsidence in California

– Ways to deal with extremely difficult water access issues in California

– Taking steps to avoid a loss of multi-generational farming knowledge


Resources mentioned in the episode:

 Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in CA

 California’s Healthy Soils Initiative

 CalCAN: California Climate and Agriculture Network

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:00
Just a quick heads up before we jump in here, we did have a little bit of sound quality issues on my end during this episode, but everything is still fully intelligible. And the real juice here is in Craig’s answers anyway, so bear with my voice for the sake of listening to Craig because he truly is a wealth of knowledge. This episode taught me a ton and I hope it does the same for you. Please enjoy.

This is Agriculture Adapts by ClimateAi. Every week we speak with industry leading executives and farmers nog endemics to get a 360 view on 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 beat the world.

Hey everybody, welcome to a very exciting Episode of Ag adapts. Joining us today is Craig McNamara, owner and president of Sierra orchards and the founder for the center of land based learning. Craig also served on the California State Board of six, which was as president of the board. Thanks for joining us.

Craig McNamara 1:16
It’s really fun to be here with you today. Thanks for giving me a call.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:19
So we have tons to talk about here. But I want to start by kind of giving your backstory and you’re joining into the world of Ag.

Craig McNamara 1:27
Oh my goodness, I’m sitting here looking out at our orchards, organic walnut orchards. Right now we have dorp or sheep grazing the cover crops that my son and I planted right after harvest. So that’s, that’s where we are the here and now, but it started 45 years ago, or actually longer than that, you know, I was born in 1950. So I’m almost 70 years old and April I’ll be 70 nice and I was thinking about my journey into the sun. mazing a world of agriculture. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan for my first 10 years. And my mom and dad had an amazing garden with artichokes and asparagus. I remember my dad, you know, picking up big ripe tomato and just chomping on it and the juice coming down his skin and the seeds. And so I think that experience, my mom grew peonies, and just the love of nature. And then growing up in the 1960s, you know, we really had a back to the land movement, from which my generation had a has a real connection to the land, not many of us actually went to the land. And the reason I went to the land, literally and figuratively is because of Vietnam in the 60s, the tumultuous ness, the division in our country over this war, eventually forced me or I made the decision to leave the country. And so I dropped out of college in 1971 and together with two very close friends, travelled by land across Central America across Mexico, Central America arriving into Columbia. And we did this on motorcycles. That was my good friend wills idea. And when we got to Colombia said, we’ll, I don’t want to do the motorcycle anymore. And I want to go to Chile. So I set off alone, and hitchhiked the final 2000 or 3000 miles through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and eventually to my destination, which was Chile. And along the way, had this remarkable journey, an introduction to subsistence farming to peasants who were growing beans and corn and subsisting from what they grew. And it was that immersion that deep dive and seeing how intrinsically untied food is to politics and to famine. That I made the decision I wanted to become a farmer. And I realized after my two and a half years traveling I, I had a little introduction to agriculture, but I needed to get an education. And that brought me to UC Davis. You know, that brings up one thought on my mind, the difference between when I was your age, and just getting going as a beginning farmer, and where we are today because the difference is significant. So my early years were the late 70s. Just let’s pause a second and think what was happening what wasn’t happening as consumers. The word organic really had not come into fashion yet. We certainly didn’t have many farmers markets. We didn’t have CSA. As a beginning farmer growing as a truck farmer, which just means growing a variety of vegetables for the fresh market. I really had no access. I had no outlet. I tried to grow crunch on melons and ship them from California to New York City. Time after time, I lost I lost money. And I eventually lost that part of my farming operation. Because the consumer was not aware of the importance of food and where the food came from. Chefs weren’t rockstars then. So things have changed. And so right now, I think there’s tremendous opportunities for beginning farmers like I was,

Borna (ClimateAi) 5:23
yeah. So So tell us about what you farm and tell us about how things have changed. I think you’ve you’ve had Sierra orchards there for about 40 years. I’m not mistaken. So what do you guys have in exchange? I mean, you touched on this a little bit with the watermelon, but how have things changed from the beginning to now?

Craig McNamara 5:40
Oh, my goodness, in in leaps and bounds, I mean, the technologies, the awareness, some of the issues are still very much the same. We are operating with a broken immigration system and you and I can discuss that later on. But that is coming back to haunt us because Because now we don’t have the ability to hire as many men and women who are willing to do the heavy lifting in the, in this biological industry that we have. And the reason I use the term by biology is agriculture is biology. And so our timing is different than, let’s say, a factory job of of automobile construction or technology, we operate on a different time zone. That changes. You know, I, as I mentioned, I started out as a vegetable crop farmer, and my goal was to get the highest quality, most nutritious vegetables to the people who needed the most. We’ve typically use the word food deserts. And you know that that word I’ve heard, it doesn’t really touch. The issue of access. Really, what we’re talking about is food apartheid, because areas that we say our food deserts, it really across our nation. Those are the areas that are most similar to apartheid, they’re completely set off. It’s a community of color that is disenfranchised and disconnected and doesn’t have the food access. So one of the things that I hope we can change, and that we’re on the track to changing is getting better foods to people who need it the most. And I think right now we’re seeing a whole new innovation of urban agriculture. One of the things that we’ve done here on the farm is create a nonprofit called the Center for land based learning. And under that umbrella, we have something called the California Farm Academy, which is our effort to train beginning farmers. And those farmers look like you and they look like me every age from post college to to retirement, because we need people to farm. Just think of my I’m almost 70 years old. Most of my fellow farmers will be retiring and the tremendous transition of water wealth and land across this nation. We’ve never seen something like that before. So that’s a huge issue that we need to be adapting to and willing to find solutions for.

Borna (ClimateAi) 8:12
So is the goal there that we want to avoid losing the knowledge that’s being passed down from generation to generation? Or is it an actual fear that we won’t have enough people farming?

Craig McNamara 8:23
Well, let me begin to answer that. And then you can drill down on me on this one. But you know, California is the fourth largest agricultural economy in the world. So if you look at the United States is number one, maybe Europe’s number two, maybe China or Brazil, you’re number three, we’re the fourth largest agricultural economy in the world. California produces over 50% of the fresh fruits and vegetables for our nation and a very sizable amount of the export that we export to the world. Having said that, there are less than 75,000 farmers in the state of California. Worst state of 40 million people 75,000 farmers and a farmer, by the USDA definition, I believe is a farm entity classified as a farm is something that generates over, say $10,000. So if you really look at the number of 75,000 farms and farmers in California, there’s probably only 25,000 that are on a scale that are really producing a significant amount of the income and food. You’re we’re talking about an extremely small percentage fraction of our population and that I think is fair to say across the United States. So these men and women are managing the future of our food system. And it takes incredible skill, incredible knowledge on the part of the landowner and the farm or and the farm worker. This does not just transition quickly, I remember back in the 70s when corporations in the United States were beginning they saw agriculture as a very viable, lucrative investment. And so corporations started to take over land, and they realized they couldn’t farm it. They did not. They didn’t have the skill set to do it. So I’m not sure I’ve answered

Borna (ClimateAi) 10:18
your question. No, I think I think we did. And I’ll summarize and let me know if I understood it properly. But basically, it’s the idea that it’s not just like a mundane task. Farming is a very difficult thing to do. And it requires a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. And to have a gap where like, we don’t have enough farmers for one or two years, and then we go back to being kind of instead of equilibrium, the new people that come in won’t have those skills. You’ll be starting from scratch, and it’ll be a very difficult uphill battle.

Craig McNamara 10:47
Yes, and you remind me of something that I’ve coined a term recently, after 45 years of being in this industry. I’ve coined the term Agra chaos because aggregates Agriculture. There is a certain underlying Mother Nature force of chaos and everything that I do every day. There were there’s a, there’s a constant push and pull. There’s this this continuum of timeliness of things that need to be done out in the orchard. But then there’s this kind of pushback against that. And therefore, I say it in a rather loving way. But every day I deal with Agra chaos, and sometimes that the chaotic part of it is out of my control, look at the tariff and trade issues that across the nation, farmers have dealt with in the last year and a half. Look at our trading partners, our wonderful partners of Mexico and Canada, so important to our livelihoods to every US citizen, our neighbors to the north and the south. Those are our greatest trading partners, and as a farmer, I need to respect them and keep them in my fold. Same goes with Europe and with China. So when we disrupt our trading partnerships, it affects me personally, day to day, my income is impacted right here on the phone. For example, India is a country that uses a lot of nuts. They understand the importance, the nutrition of walnuts and almonds. And if the United States puts tariffs on India on incoming produce and industrial goods from India, of course, they’re going to slap a tariff on walnuts coming in India. I believe, just recently, the tariff that India set on our incoming walnuts is above 100%. Oh, wow. Well, what does that mean to me as a woman, that means sales at walnuts are going to decline? My income has been going to decline. It’s there’s a direct effect on me.

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:51
Yeah, that makes sense. And that’s that’s the perfect segue because you guys grew up. I’m barely walnuts and olives, correct? That is correct.

Craig McNamara 12:58
And we are we’re entirely organic.

Borna (ClimateAi) 13:00
Tally organic let’s let’s dive into more about your farm and your operation. today. You had cover crops and rotating. Can you give us a sense of what you’re growing and how you guys are doing it?

Craig McNamara 13:12
Absolutely. And let me pause and just say, it does give me tremendous pride to grow what we grow because the walnut is such a healthy product. I mean, the Chinese have known this for millions of years they call the walnut brain food obviously, because the ones that my mom

Borna (ClimateAi) 13:30
used to say to you, it’s the same thing in Iranian culture.

Craig McNamara 13:32
Exactly. And so you knew intrinsically how beneficial it is, you know, three ounces a day reduces blood cholesterol by by 12%. It’s believed now in recent research that the walnut is slowing down early onset and dementia. There’s just so many wonderful attributes to grow in a wallet and then growing it organically. I feel like we’re doing the right thing. Basically. For Mother Nature for the earth for our planet, but don’t forget, we’re also doing it for the men and women who work with us. So the tools that we use are healthy, for example, right? Our orchards have the same pests, populations that our conventional neighbors have. We have the same nutritional needs, we have the same water needs. We have the same weeds, you know, we have everything the same, we just manage all of that differently. And one thing that I want to stress here is we use high tech, for example, the coddling moth. Scientists have shown us the kotlin month as a simple little moth who flies from May through late August, and the female will lay an egg on the outside of the wallet. The egg turns into a little worm a larva and that larva, there’s only one way it can get into the meat of the wallet. And the worm will eat the meat and leave poop which we call France. Well when you go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to get your organic wallets. You don’t want poop on your wallet, nor do I want you to have it. So it’s got to be controlled convincingly, you know, we use strong pesticides, organically we use pheromones. So pheromones are naturally occurring sex attractions. So the female Caitlyn moth has a pheromone and the male smells that pheromone and follows that sent to her so that he can meet with her. Well, technologically, we now put up in the walnut orchard, these little canisters just like when you go into a public restroom for deodorizer they emit the pheromone specifically at the time when we know that the male mas are flying and what it does, it saturates the air above the orchard with the pheromone and it confuses the male everywhere the male is smelling the female and what it does so therefore he it’s it’s we call it maybe disruption or confusion and it reduces the The mating which reduces the population which reduces the problem being No, it’s the best thing you can possibly do.

Borna (ClimateAi) 16:08
And tell us why this as you said, this is beneficial for consumers as well as for us as workers. Why is that?

Craig McNamara 16:14
Whatever we do on the farm is going to impact what you enjoy in your home. So if I’m just taking this example of the coddling Ma, so I’m managing the coddling moth in a very eco friendly way, no pesticide Well, let’s, let’s not forget, we all use pesticides because we have pest populations that we want to control organically, I manage those controls differently. So if I were to spray a relatively toxic material to kill the coddling mod, not only is it on the tree on the leaves on the outside of the wallet, but it’s in our air, it’s in everything that we’re breathing the same, same thing in terms of herbicides and commercial fertilizers, every thing is absorbed into this into the

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:02
soil. And so your workers are also inhaling that. So you’re saying exactly so

Craig McNamara 17:05
they’re applying it they’re they’re touching it, you know and let’s let’s make sure in our conversation we do touch on soil health here at some point.

Borna (ClimateAi) 17:13
Yeah, definitely. I mean, we can do that now. But before we go in what what Have you always been organic? Or did you switch later on and you guys that

Craig McNamara 17:20
cycle, coming back from Latin America and, and having work, shoulder to shoulder and side by side hoeing sugarcane and metricon, Mexico, starting a dairy cooperatives on Easter Island in Chile. I think the tools that I had learned were probably sustainable ones. And the education that I gleaned was more conventional. So when I came out of my education and started working with Tom lung, I embraced a more conventional toolset. And then when we bought our farm in 1980, I pretty much relied on myself. Conventional tools for about 10 years until the day my wife returned, we live right here on the orchard. And she came home. And she said, Craig, we’re raising our three children right here. We’re, we’re drinking the water from the well, where you mix your chemicals. We’re breathing this air. Why are we doing this? And just at that same time, part of our orchards were becoming quite old and they’re in the crop was going down, the size of the woman was going down, and the conventional market paid more money for a larger size wallet. So when I thought of transitioning, I didn’t just think of the planet that was my first goal. But profit I have if I am here talking with you today. I have to be profitable. organics also gave me the P of profitability. gave me the P of doing things right for the planet. gave me the P of Doing the right thing for the people who find on our land, and it gave me the P of profit,

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:05
and how did they impact your profits? Are you? Are you making more money now? Are you making how’s it affecting us? You know, I

Craig McNamara 19:11
used when I used to run the numbers, I thought that the cost to grow organically was probably at least 10 to 15% more than conventional. And my profit was probably almost double again. So the organic market has been a very lucrative one. There’s a conventional wisdom out there that Oh, you’re an organic grower, well, your production is probably less and your quality is less I say, No, no, no, I am a business person. And I am going to use the highest and best practices to grow the freshest, most prolific crop and so those are my goals.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:51
Yeah, that makes sense. And then going back to so you want to talk about soil health, and this ties perfectly into the concept of cover crops as well as your rotating of sheet field as well. I think you guys are zero till arm. Is that still true?

Craig McNamara 20:03
Yeah, actually Sean, one of our children farms with us. He he calls a tillage. tiller aside, I think that’s a little radical. But what he means is, you know, no till once you incorporate no till just like all of our practices into our regime, the health and benefits, they just build on one another. So, farmers across the world have understood the importance of soil health. We moved away from it. We’ve been the US farmers over the last hundred years. And now every ag rag that I read, well, you know, all the magazines that farmers get the lead stories or the benefits of growing cover crops, and remember, cover crops are a mix of leguminous plants and so lagoons have this amazing ability of incorporating the 74% of of what we breathe every breath, that air that we breathe 74% is nitrogen lagoons have this wonderful ability to translocate that into their root system, creating these little pink nodules. And when the microbes feed on the nodules and die, they release nitrogen, slowly slow release into the soil. It is mother nature’s greatest gift to agriculture, but you have to do it. And you mentioned sheep. One of the introductions that that Shawn has brought into the family farming is we hire the use of 3000 sheep a year. So let’s just say we have 100 acre portrait of what months and we’ve planted the cover crop after harvest in November. A winter rains bring the cover crop up. I’m looking at it right now. It’s clovers and vetches Magnus p Bell beans, mustard, and then we introduce the sheep. There’s a shepherd who comes from North Eastern California, and he’ll bring in truckloads of sheep. And it’s mob grazing. So he puts up these portable electric fences so the coyotes and foxes don’t get in. And every two or three days moves the sheep from one paddock let’s say maybe a five acre paddock in a day or two with the mob grazing the sheep eat it down and then just moves it to the next paddock and we just rotate through the orchard that way Initially, I was pretty concerned that we might get some compaction from the you know, the sheep feet, the feet, but the manure urine and benefit of eating down the cover crop is so significant, so beneficial.

Borna (ClimateAi) 22:39
How does that compare on a constant basis or I guess on a cost benefit analysis with just like mowing the cover crops is is it just extremely valuable to kind of get that the manure in the urine in the fields there and the and the compaction as well I think we’ll have some some positive benefits when you add the manure in the urine there but how does it compare and is that is something that everyone can do. Is that something that you guys are doing because you’re particularly inclined to be stewards of the land? What, what’s what’s your guys’s logic for doing that?

Craig McNamara 23:09
Okay, well back to the compaction issue. So, you know, the the lambs roof is just you know, like a silver dollar size or less. So yes, I think there’s some compaction in the top three or four inches. However, they are also in essence compacting and mixing in their urine and feces, so that’s really beneficial. They are also nibbling around the base of the tree. So let’s get back to herbicides, man, oh man would I like an organic herbicide because managing weeds is a significant part of our costs. We can either flame them with a propane flammer we can weed eat them with a manual weed eater. We can mow them or we can you could diss them till them but we don’t do that. The point is without an herbicide, it’s very expensive. Bingo come the sheep. The sheep eat completely around the base of the tree, they in between the trees. So that issue is is a real benefit. If we didn’t have the sheep, we would probably start modeling almost today. And we would know for the next four months, you know it’s energy. It’s a tractor that runs on diesel, it’s running over the field many times with a with a, you know, multi ton piece of equipment. It’s just a win win. It now costs us money with the sheep aren’t free, you know, we do in essence rent them. Yeah. And that makes me think of another piece of our puzzle and that’s compost. So we started making our own compost on the farm about five years ago. And what we do is when when trees die, we have not we have them mechanically shredded into little bits. And at harvest time, the walnut has the meat, the shell and then this organic haul, and that that haul has to be removed and when we do Do it. It’s there’s mountains of it. I mean, there’s turns. And so what we’ve been doing is combining the whole the sloppy, gooey haul with the shredded trees, adding to it the wastewater and creating this awesome compost. So between cover crops and their nutrition, manure from the sheep, and compost, that’s where we how we derive our nutritional program for the orchard.

Borna (ClimateAi) 25:27
Why sheep, why not go or some other animal?

Craig McNamara 25:31
Oh, that’s a good question. We did experiment with goats because I do love goats. They’re so curious. kicking them crazy, but they are crazy. First of all, they’ll get up on their hind legs with their front legs on the tree. And so they can reach up seven feet to nibble on the leaves in the wallet or they’ll stand on top of each other and do the same thing. So we immediately eliminated goats. Then you move in to larger animals, and you really are talking compaction, you know, a dairy cow or something like that, if you go into your smaller animals, your chickens, you could do that, although the chicken is not going to munch down a three foot tall plant. So the sheep are are just the ticket. Now one thing you want to be very, very strict about is your food safety issues. So removing the herds from the orchards, 90 day, at least 90 days before harvest is really important. And then we do mow all of the manure. It’s completely dried out and incorporated into the soil by that time by harvest.

Borna (ClimateAi) 26:45
Got it? And the other thing I wanted to touch on was the idea of tillage. Is that easier for you guys to do because you guys are dealing with all of them walnuts, which are kind of I mean, they’re perennials are going to be there for a while. Does that make it easier for you guys? Or is that our walnuts? olives, doing tillage conventionally, like what what are most people doing with pots and walnuts?

Craig McNamara 27:05
Well, you’re absolutely right. The two crops completely lend themselves to the type of field management. And this is a good time for me to say how much I support my fellow farmers across the state of California, whether whether I’m organic and they’re conventional or transitioning into sustainable. I truly believe we all have the same hope and vision and that is to produce a healthy, nutritious food for citizens across the state and the nation. So I embrace all of our culture, and remind me exactly what the question was.

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:42
The benefit of healing for all of us are walnuts, because you don’t need to like re replant seeds or anything really, right.

Craig McNamara 27:48
Okay, so you what you really let’s talk let’s talk nuts, almonds and walnuts. Both of those commodities are at harvest time, we shake the trees with mechanical shakers, and the crop All in you know two seconds per tree comes down onto the ground. So in the case of a mature walnut tree, you’ve got about almost 1800 wallets falling onto the ground, we then sweep the orchard floor with a sweeper to put those wallets into a windrow. And then a third machine mechanically picks everything up. So really compacting the soil. Well in that scenario, what I want you to understand is your soil, your orchard floor that you’re putting all the nuts on has to be very level has to be new, rather weed free. So the easiest thing, the easiest mechanism to get a weed free orchard floor is to spray it with an herbicide so that you have no weeds or to mow it very closely. So you have no you know canopy for the nuts to get caught. And so we all and that’s the same for us. I need a I need a relatively clear orchard floor to Pick up the walnuts, we just do it differently. A conventional grower might disc during the summer to get rid of weeds, and then land plain which is a smoothing device to smooth it over. Gotcha. And the other reason that we don’t do that is because your soil structure is really important. The pathways when you grow a cover crop, part of the benefit of it is when the when the crop dies, the little where the where the root hairs are, they leave spaces, so now under your soil surface, and that space is really important for water, infiltration, air and nutrient.

Borna (ClimateAi) 29:38
Did you notice a difference in your guys’s response to the drought as a result of your, our crops and your practices?

Craig McNamara 29:46
Absolutely. Because our water holding capacity in our soils, we have a significant increase in organic matter Yeah, created by the rotation that we have of sheep cover crops and the things that we do to regenerate our soils, so those soils hold more water. Every drop of rain water is held in the soil, every drop of irrigation water that we apply is more fully held in the soil. Amazing. That’s awesome.

Borna (ClimateAi) 30:15
Okay, let’s get into it. So your California State Board of food and ag number for 18 years and for six of those you were the president, can you give people an overview of what the goal of that body is, how it’s set up? what they do and what powers to have?

Craig McNamara 30:30
Absolutely. The board is a remarkable board. Its history and origin dates back actually, before the founding of the Department of Food and Agriculture in California. So I’m thinking, I don’t know the exact date, but I’m going to say 1880s. And it was always designed to be a group representing California agriculture, to advise the governor and to advise the Secretary of Agriculture in California, on all issues that pertain to this You know, amazing industry that feeds so many people around the world. The board is made up by nature of agriculturalists of farmers. And it’s designated that those farmers come from different districts so you don’t get any one. So, for example, the Central Valley that some important, it’s not just dominated by Central Valley. The other unique aspect of the board is there are positions always held for the UC system and a position always held for the CSU system. And then there are positions that are always held for the I will call the environmental representation and for the consumer representation, the rest of the seats are all farmer hell. The current governor is the person who selects board members and those board terms are I believe, for four years. My tenure there was one of the most I’ve got to say enjoyable and Educational of my career, working with the men and women who are dedicated to serving this great state of ours was so rewarding the relationship with our absolutely amazing secretaries of agriculture. Karen Ross, as she’s now serving in her third term to terms with Governor Brown. And now with our current governor, has been just one of the most professional, thoughtful, visionary people we have across the United States serving as their Secretary of Agriculture here. I love it. We, you know, we dealt with everything from water to immigration, food security, but you know, at the end of the day, the heartbeat of California’s water, so the board always is dealing with that.

Borna (ClimateAi) 32:46
Yeah. And you were you were president during the drought track.

Craig McNamara 32:49
It was very arduous. Yes, yes, we were. What was that like? Well, it was I was also president in 2014 when we had the sustainable groundwater management Act. And you know, that’s very important to to the past and future of California. Up until that point, California was the only Western State that did not have in an ordinance to manage and to somewhat control how we exploit our water in the state of California,

Borna (ClimateAi) 33:21
which is crazy. We were seeing like years of items in some places, right?

Craig McNamara 33:24
We have been seen beyond meters of subsidence, and subsidence. Let’s remember what subsidence is when we pump water from Apple furs. So let’s just say we have wells that go down 400 feet and we’re pumping from from about 100 feet down. If we are not replenishing our aquifer, we are unsustainably pumping from it and eventually you can get collapse down in the aquifers and that is subsidence and when you have subsidence you never recover. From subsidence you you can still be Pump, and you may have availability of water, but you will never regain that elevation that subsidence. And we have been overly tapping our California aquifers for the past 70 years. And now we recognize that we need to do everything in our ability to replenish and prevent that from happening. So water banking, for example, last year at this time, we had a lot of atmospheric rivers, you know, big storms, and much of that water hits our watersheds and tributaries, and flows down the Sacramento River, up the San Joaquin and out through the Delta. If we can capture those waters during the storms on our lands, we’re benefiting you know, it’s a win win all the way across the table. So I’m a big believer in that, that approach

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:54
and what and can you talk about what water banking is?

Craig McNamara 34:56
So water banking takes many different forms. We have a wonderful watershed here on our farm called puter Creek po th Creek from the potahto Native Americans. And we have pre 1914 water rights, which are the most senior water rights. So it gives us the ability during times of high water in the creek to actually pump that water out of the creek. And should we want flood the orchards so when I’m talking about flooding, you’re bringing water directly out of the creek through a pipe, and that pipe has gates on it. And the water just flows from those gates and wets the orchard floor. We’re not talking about a foot deep necessarily, but we’re talking inches deep. And the water then naturally feeds back into the root system and aquifer and so it so it replenish, it’s it stays there. It doesn’t. The opposite would be Oh, atmospheric river comes puter Creek rises all that water travels. out to the delta and eventually under the Golden Gate Bridge. That is a simple demonstration. A more complex demonstration would be, I have friends who in times past have bought old sugar refineries that had ponds where they used to process of the sugar. And those are now use in times of peak water. They flood those ponds with with several feet of water that forces water down into the aquifer where it can remain and you have pumps in those aquifers to take the water back out in times of need,

Borna (ClimateAi) 36:39
doesn’t the water, atmospheric rivers, you know, move overland. Groundwater also flow underground. So if you flood the fields, won’t that water migrate? Absolutely.

Craig McNamara 36:51
So you’ve hit upon something on our farm. We have what we call a tail water pond, which is just a nice basin where we collect water So we during times of, of excess water, we can fill that up, that pond will Leach down into the aquifer. And that aquifer that water will definitely travel to another farm. Because the aquifer is a moving underground water source, and we don’t have pumps to recharge that. So do I benefit from it? Not so much. Does somebody benefit from it? Yes. Yes. California agriculture benefit. Yes. And that gets back to really important vision and concept. We are one. We were 40 million people. 20 million of us live across the hill to hatch hippies in the LA basin. But we’re not two states. We’re not a coastal state and a a valley state, not a northern state, not the southern state. We’re one and we need to think of the fact that we’re one and our water issues are incredibly complex, and there is no good answer, but we have to use the best science We have to move forward. And that’s maybe the most important part of our conversation today. Let’s be thoughtful. And let’s be citizen scientists. And let’s move forward together. So we have a governor now who is very thoughtful. With the past governor, I thought, What did an amazing job and planning our water future, let’s use the best and the brightest, and agree on how we’re going to move forward to protect our endangered species to protect our Chinook and our delta smelt. And our farmers and our eaters? We can do it. Yeah. But we have to do it now.

Borna (ClimateAi) 38:40
Yeah, I totally agree. The one thing I would want to get your opinion on, though, is if someone is in a position where they need to make ends meet in a given year, it can be difficult to think about these issues given that you got to put food on the table. So is is California as a state doing something to incentivize this type of Help your neighbor behavior when it comes to water rights?

Craig McNamara 39:02
I believe it is. And going back to Karen Ross, Secretary of Agriculture, the department food nag. If you look at the healthy soils initiative, if you look at the grants if you if we look at the governor’s recent budget, and his focus on ensuring that everyone in the state of California has healthy water to drink and food to have, yes, I think we can do this the incentives, are there matching grants or they’re coming through the USDA? Is this an easy time? No, it’s the most challenge time we have ever faced. Climate change has changed literally changed the landscape of our lives. So here I am a 70 year old farmer of an a father of three, all of whom I hope have a an amazing agricultural future ahead of them, but the decisions that that we need to be making now about what we will be growing and how we’re going to grow it. are huge. So as we take out old orchards, what do I do? Do I make a decision to come back with walnuts that you know, I’m making a 50 year decision. I’m planting something tomorrow that will last for 50 years. What will this land in this environment look like in 50 years?

Borna (ClimateAi) 40:18
I don’t know. What are some other other ways that you guys are saying climate change in California your culture, given that you have kind of a personal perspective from your own farm as well as the macro view being on the board in California for almost 20 years

Craig McNamara 40:33
on the farm here, if we experience more hot weather, you know, we can manage 105 108 degrees but not day on in and week on out. The walnut in its peak, growing time in July, is a very dark green globe. Well, it’s it’s up there. 30 feet in the air on 110 degree day, that dark green globe, that sphere will become My hemisphere will just become burned. I mean, completely burned. Oh, wow. And so on an average year, we’re probably losing maybe two to 3% of our crop due to sunburn and climate change occurs and sunburn occurs, we might lose 10 to 15 to 20%. And how much how much exposure to those need to in order for that to happen? Like, does it have to be over 100 degrees for like, six hours in a row for two days or something? Is there a threshold? The truth of the matter is my anecdotal judgment on that would be, you know, 108, you know, so we might reach 108 or 110, at two o’clock in the afternoon, and that might subside by six o’clock in a day or two, that is enough to begin the burning process. And then if you have successive days, it becomes intense.

Borna (ClimateAi) 41:54
Yeah, just from the climate perspective. That’s one of the things that we see when we do a lot of these forecasts for folks is when you’re looking If you kind of look at probabilities, and one of the ones that people are most interested in is, is how will extremely an extremely cold probabilities change this season as well as in the next 10 2030 years. And a lot of places, we’re seeing like a five next change in the probability of extreme events which, which in your case you’re sending, like one day can start the process. And just before I let you go here, I want, I would be remiss to not touch on the subject of food security, because you’ve talked about this a fair amount. And most people don’t realize that the US and California had a fair amount of food insecurity issue. And this kind of goes back to the issue of food waste as well. I think the values that I found like 40% of our food is lost from farm to table. Meanwhile, we have like, at least in California that are insecure opposite of our population. is food insecure. How do we bridge this gap and what is the problem that currently exists there today?

Craig McNamara 42:54
Well, you know, you’ve touched upon, I think, the most, one of the most important issues and everything that we’re doing dressing and I look at food insecurity and food waste as bookends of the same topic. So you mentioned that we are wasting 40% of our food from from production to to our homes, and let me just emphasize much of that food is lost in our homes. And that is something that we can all do to change of the issues. Everything that we face back to my issue of Agra chaos, of climate change and immigration and water conservation, the two issues of food waste and food insecurity. In my lifetime, we can solve these and we should it’s just a complete, it’s criminal criminal behavior, to live in a world where so many of our neighbors are food insecure and food insecure means you just you do not know where your next meal is coming from. So that means that people were riding the subway with people in our workspaces. People who or children who are in our children’s classrooms. These are not distant people. These are our neighbors who are food insecure, it’s criminal and unjust, that our society has people who do not know where their next meal is coming from. That’s the downside. The good side is we can change that. And food. solving the problem of food waste is a great way to do it. Renew which is a nonprofit that was started by Jesse and Betsy thing is one of the leading national organizations and I guarantee in the next decade, we can resolve solve, hopefully eliminate a lot of this and we should it’s incumbent upon all of us it’s something we should think about every day. You know, I I look at my own refrigerator, things that go bad and the refrigerator I take out to the chickens or compost that is squashes my guilt a little bit. But I need to control food waste right here in my own home

Borna (ClimateAi) 44:57
and the component of like food being wasted in the home. Yeah, you can do compost. That’s a tougher problem to solve. But what blows my mind and this also connects back to the issue of labor is like, if it’s too expensive to send people out to harvest crops, crops gets vines. Yeah, and that’s a huge opportunity. Like it’s crazy to me that there’s not systems in place and maybe there are that I’m unaware of, they can get that to the people who need it. Like what are the things that currently exists for that and what why does that gap even still exist?

Craig McNamara 45:25
There are small and large ways of dealing with it. A friend of mine years ago started crop monster, which is a way of if you’ve got a waste that’s going on on your farm or in your backyard, you put it online and you get a group of people that are coming to glean the food etc. You know, that’s neighborhood that’s small food banks have have changed significantly in the last 15 to 20 years across the state where we’ve connected them up directly because you know, a farmer in the Salinas Valley that’s got a feel of of lettuce or cauliflower, broccoli, the legal lift Tejas issues that he or she faces in terms of, of trying to manage a field that is going to waste are huge. But now we’ve been able to electronically solve that we’ve been able, you know, you got to get refrigerated trucks and you got to get labor, we can do that. We were so technologically advanced, we can do all of this and we are doing it. And I, I have tremendous not just not just hope, because I often think about the word hope. Yeah, there are a lot of things that I hope for, if I don’t make hope, an action pronoun, if I’ve got to make hope, action oriented, and then I can get things done. But if I just hope for something, it won’t get done. Yeah, I know we can do this.

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:42
Yeah, also for there to be helping needs to be despair. So the word hope is for people who don’t see the opportunity in my opinion.

Craig McNamara 46:51
That’s a good one. You’ve led me on a tremendous journey in our conversation, I think much has really been quite wonderful.

Borna (ClimateAi) 46:57
Yeah, you’ve been extremely generous with your time and learned a ton. Greg, thanks so much for joining. I really appreciate it.

Craig McNamara 47:03
You’re very welcome. It was really, I learned a lot.

Borna (ClimateAi) 47:07
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 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.


Craig McNamara

President owner of Sierra Orchards and former president of California State Board of Food and Agriculture



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