Skip to main content

New Product Launch: ClimateLens Monitor Yield Outlook - see regional and location-specific yields on key commodity crops, updated weekly.Learn More

Renata Brillinger – Getting California Agriculture to Net-Negative Green House Gas Emissions

Jun 11, 2020

After interviewing many guests, I was still left with the following questions: what are we doing to systematically mitigate our agriculture emissions, is it actually working, and how far do we have left to go? In this episode we dive in with the group that has been tackling these questions for the past 10 years.

Renata Brillinger is the executive director at CalCAN, a California based nonprofit driving forward some of the most critical policies and programs at the intersection of climate change and sustainable agriculture. We discuss decarbonizing livestock, what regenerative agriculture looks like at industrial scale, and the financial breakdown of how we get to net negative emissions (I’ll give you a hint, its surprisingly low). 


Resources mentioned in the episode:

00:00 / 00:00

Borna (ClimateAi) 0:37
Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of agriculture adapts. On this podcast we have talked to individual growers, climate change leaders, academics and climate conscious ag executives. In this episode, we will be talking with the organization that drives much of this change policy perspective here in California and I am really excited to tap into With this sort of macro view with the people who have the experience and the data necessary to help us understand where we are at today on the Carbon Farming front, what’s holding us back and what tools we have in our tool belt to continue to drive towards a carbon neutral agricultural economy. So without further ado with us is Renata Bellinger founding executive director at California climate and agriculture network or cow cam. Renata, thank you for joining us.

Renata (CalCAN) 1:26
Hi, Borna. Thanks for having me.

Borna (ClimateAi) 1:28
So tell us a little bit about your background and your journey into the world of climate and agriculture.

Renata (CalCAN) 1:34
Well, I’ve been working in and around agriculture policy, sustainable agriculture, food systems policy for 25 years or so. And I keep coming back to being and stay interested in agriculture issues because it touches on so much of human life and environmental well being or impacts. I just find it to be both Sort of personally and professionally interesting area to work on. And I’ve been really lucky for almost 20 years now to be helping support organizations and Coalition’s that are really trying to advance environmental stewardship within agriculture where I get to work with a lot of great farmers and ranchers and a lot of other advocates who are trying to do right by human health, the environment and farmer well being.

Borna (ClimateAi) 2:24
Yeah, that totally resonates with me. So our listeners have heard this in the past, but I used to be in the clean energy industry and coming into this world, the world of agriculture has been extremely interesting because it just, it’s a win win win. And it touches on so many different topics from a climate change perspective, to a health perspective to a resilience perspective, to a biodiversity perspective, there’s just so much impact that you can make by getting things right and really excited to dive into this with you on this podcast and talk a little bit more about this. So I initially came across cow can from a previous guests, Craig McNamara, who recommend that we reach out to you because he said that some of the questions I was asking Have you like worn out? You’re better off just talking to Ken about tennis. And I looked up Kyle can. And I realized that you are the organization that’s doing what everyone from the climate conscious consumers to progressive companies talks about wanting to do. So when you go to conferences, your company’s talking about regenerative agriculture, about sustainability, about resilience, climate equity, all this cool stuff. And you are the ones who are on the frontlines turning pipe dreams into reality and getting all this stuff done here in California. So tell us a little bit about what cow calf is what you focus on what kinds of work you all do. You might be overstating our

Renata (CalCAN) 3:38
bit more humble, but we have been around a long time relative to the interests that we’ve seen recently in soil health and, you know, agricultural sustainability. We started 11 years ago. We’re a nonprofit, and we’re a coalition which is an unusual model. So we’re, our leadership on our strategy comes from Networking comes from a group of seven organizations who have been working in sustainable and organic agriculture for decades. Like a total I think I counted up once 140 years combined experience. So they’re a really smart group of folks really dedicated to a whole bunch of pieces of what what makes family farming work in a panic farming they’re very familiar with and their members are really familiar with how powerful the solutions in organic and sustainable agriculture can be. Sometimes people are now calling it regenerative agriculture, you know, for solving a lot of problems, like you said, really taking off a lot of the issues that face people. So we came together 11 years ago, and we’re California based and part of the reason we’ve been successful is because California has a political context, a policy context. That’s very unique. We have mandates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of states and countries don’t have that. You know, so there’s there’s laws saying that the state has to reduce It’s emissions by X amount. And here here in California, we’re trying to get to net carbon neutrality by the year 2045. So that drives a lot of policy and a lot of funding to get there. And in 2006, a law was passed that put in place a whole bunch of programs that would help get there. And those programs were phased in over time. And one of them was the cap and trade program, which is still running. And it essentially creates, I mean, there’s a lot of pieces to it, but one of the benefits to it is that it creates a source of income or revenue for the state government. that then gets invested in a whole bunch of climate solutions, including an agriculture. So it’s been a billion or $2 billion a year. For now. We’re into the fifth or sixth year I believe, and it’s funded a whole bunch of things like smart growth development in cities and transportation bike friendly, you know, passive transportation, solar electric vehicles. Then and forest protection and also agriculture. And so we knew that was going to be happening. And that’s really why we came together as we, we said, Look, there’s going to be some money here to incentivize farmers and ranchers to help them shift practices that that have a lot of environmental benefits. But first and foremost, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s what’s come to pass, in part because of our efforts with our partners to advocate for those programs and make sure that they are as effective as they can possibly be, and that they work on the ground, and that they, you know, really reduce emission. So we can talk more about some of those programs as we go on. But that was sort of the this impetus for us coming together is recognizing this opportunity and mandate and a lot of threats that agriculture is facing from climate impacts. And just saying we got to, we’ve got to be a constructive voice in this dialogue at the state policy level.

Borna (ClimateAi) 6:51
Yeah. And you mentioned California’s carbon neutrality goals. So, I mean, there’s a lot of sectors in the economy, they’re going to be very difficult to decarbonize and Right now agriculture, my understanding is that about 8% emissions of our total emissions in California and we have some pretty aggressive targets and seems to me that agriculture is going to drop down to zero. And then we’ll carry the weight of a lot of other sectors just because there’s so much potential. So I’m curious to get your view on where we are like, what got us to the position that we’re at today? How did we get our emissions to where we are today? Because California is sort of a front runner in a lot of this work. So how did we get to where we are today? And then what’s good, what’s going to get us to the next level and what’s going to get us beyond net zero emissions, the agriculture sector,

Renata (CalCAN) 7:33
it’s a really good point you make so transportation in California is our big problem. You know, about almost half of our emissions come from driving around.

Borna (ClimateAi) 7:40
Yeah, I’m from I’m from LA so I’m well aware.

Renata (CalCAN) 7:43
You know, you’re one of the culprits.

We don’t have a public, you know, transportation system that’s going to take decades, you know, to put that in place. Yeah. And it’s very expensive and, you know, puts a lot of carbon in the air while we do it. So, but we’ve got to make that change as as we do in our energy system. You know a lot about that. You’re right that agriculture very uniquely actually, it really just working lands what they call natural and working lands, you know, forests, open spaces and and then agricultural or working lands, those are the places where we actually want carbon, we want to put that pull that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into soil and into plants. That’s the building block of life. It’s the engine of, of plants, you know, plant growth and of microbial life in the soil, which is really the driver for everything much more than people understand on Earth, that that photosynthetic cycle and those microbes underneath the ground that are in those fungi and, you know, the incredible life underneath there when it’s healthy and thriving, is really what enables us to be on this planet. So we want that carbon out of the atmosphere and into soils and into woody plants and that’s going to buy us time. As you said, if we can sort of buffer you know, the the impacts of climate change buffer the co2 that we keep pumping out in order to make that very difficult transition in our energy and transportation sectors.

Borna (ClimateAi) 9:13
So when we say woody plants, I think a lot of people will think of like, we need to add more forests, but I’m interested to dig into the healthy soils program that you guys have. So can you give us a quick refresher on what that program is but also the importance of healthy soils for agronomic productivity for sustainability and for climate change, mitigation and research? What is the overall importance of healthy soils?

Renata (CalCAN) 9:38
It’s true, it’s easier to understand how carbon you know works in forests. It’s just sort of more intuitive, I guess, because carbon is in those trees. But there also is a lot of trees on on farmland as well. You know, you can have oak trees in grazing land, you can have hedge rows, which are basically, you know, perennial plants that aren’t crops that grow along borders and roads, and so on. You can have orchards and vineyards. So as those all store carbon, so to speak to the soil, the soil, it’s interesting we how little we still know about the soil. Some people say we know more about outer space than we do about the ground underneath our feet and in terms of what’s actually living there and how complex it is, and that’s starting to be better understood as more as more attention is paid to the power of for climate change of understanding that those cycles and those microorganisms that live there for farmers, you know, I think good farmers who have stayed in business a long time, they have to be paying close attention to soil health because that is really what underpins a truly sustainable viable farm over decades. We’ve made some mistakes in this country, you know, looking back most dramatically to the Dust Bowl and undervaluing the soil and treating it as a you know, a mining operation really so though We have yet to really fully learn the lesson of the Dust Bowl. We keep you know, doing a lot of tilling, we keep planting, applying a lot of chemicals to make up to compensate for the lack of soil health life, you know microbial life in the soil if we, if we were to reinvest in things like compost, reduced tillage mulching, there are things called cover crops that add fertility to the soil. You can graze animals in a way that builds soil health, investing in those kinds of practices. catalyzes a transition in the soil profile and the soil composition that will result in US needing to use less and less fossil fuel based inputs. And it sort of creates this virtuous cycle so you get better fertility, you get better soil structure. Water can penetrate and be held in the soil better. It turns from us sort of a hard pan to a sponge like really amazing organic soil is like chocolate cake. You know, you should be on your arm in it right up to your elbow, you know if it’s real, and, and so we understand how their water would then penetrate and be held in there, which helps us in California in our arid, you know, environment with our water scarcity issues. There’s typically less over time, you know, there’s less labor needed for farmers, there’s cost savings of energy and water, like there’s just a sort of a ripple effect of Yeah, of making this change, which isn’t an easy one to make, but does start to pay off over time. So So, you know, we’re essentially saying, if the state were to invest money in farmers to help them get over those hurdles, and those risks of making a shift away from a more conventional approach to farming, farmers and and society would see those investments pay off over time.

Borna (ClimateAi) 12:49
Yeah, and that resilience focus is one that really gauged or engaged our interest in regenerative agriculture to begin with was because if you want to be a climate resilient farmer, it’s what you know. So These practices are the best ways to make your grounds turn into a sponge as opposed to a brick and let it absorb and release water so that you’re more resilient in droughts and floods. And so you mentioned an interesting point, though, which is one of the major, I guess, counter arguments that people will bring up is they’ll say, like, I need to make money for next year. So I’m curious, either anecdotally, or, you know, from the data that you guys are seeing are the benefits and productivity that people are getting from doing these practices outweighing the costs? like are they are people getting to a point where they’re saying, even if I wasn’t getting subsidized through these grants, I would still have done this? Had I known the impact that would have had three years four years later.

Renata (CalCAN) 13:38
We only have anecdotal evidence of that right now, the program is still pretty new. It’s just ending. It’s the third first grant cycle of three years, the farmers get grants for three years so that that data isn’t even collected yet. We are interviewing farmers and talking with them. You know, we’re doing profiles and hearing about their experiences and then we’re going to do a more formal formal report. This spring summer to kind of look at the progress made by the program. But it’s pretty early days. What I can say is a few things. One is no farm. No two farms are alike. variances are really different on every farm. And that’s what part of what makes it challenging in agriculture to achieve this potential that we know is there. Part of the reason every farm is different is the conditions the weather conditions on every farm are so different. We just went from a mega, you know, an intense deep drought that lasted four or five years to the one of the wettest years in 100 years. And that has a real impact on the life on on a farm and in the soil. And so it’s hard to take a three year snapshot or you know, let alone a one year snapshot. And so you just start cover cropping and you’ll see the difference immediately. But farmers who stay with it for years and ride out those get more difficult years, they uniformly say it’s like they found a new religion like this is this solves all my problems once once I get over that learning curb and just and really commit to it. You hear this from farmers all across the country. And here in California there’s we were really lucky to be listening to and in partnership with a lot of farmers who have been doing this for decades as well as some new farmers who are just realizing for the first time the power of this shift. I’ll just tell a really brief story. There’s a farmer in the Merseyside areas. He’s very small farmer He does it because he loves it and he does it on the weekends and at night. 15 acre almond orchard and he has he got one of these healthy soils grants and he applied compost and cover crops to his orchard. And he had a conversion experience like almost overnight the first season he did it because what he saw was that those practices reduced his nematode pressure nematodes, a soil borne critter that is weakens the root systems. He found that that just adding that organic matter meant that he had to use far fewer No matter besides chemicals to kill the nematodes, and he just, there’s no looking back, you know, he’s just just really excited about what he’s seeing all these benefits, he lives, his family lives right on the orchard. So we want to be spraying these chemicals. And so he’s he’s,

Borna (ClimateAi) 16:15
yeah, that’s that’s a really interesting point. And I think that’s something that I would like to know more about is like when people talk about regenerative agriculture practices, and of course, they’re very, it’s a wide range of things. So maybe First, it would be helpful to kind of dig into that. But is it something that’s scalable? like we talked about 15 acres in rosette but if you’re looking at 5000 acres of potato farm in Idaho, is it equally as applicable? Like, can you? Is it just as easy to be doing compost at that point to be putting in cover crops? Or does it really turn into a whole different beast? Like, can we can we do it at scale required to feed our country and to sustain the amount of exports that we’re dishing out to the rest of the world right now?

Renata (CalCAN) 16:54
We absolutely can. There’s a UC Cooperative Extension staff person Who, who’s out of Davis, Jeff Mitchell. And he works in the five points area, which is right in the heart of the Central Valley. He’s got a group of dozens and dozens of farmers there. They’re all pretty much all conventional. They’re they’re fairly traditionally, you know, do one or two or three crops a year, vast acreage is. And he’s been working for over 10 years on what he calls conservation tillage practices, which not not just he calls them that but it’s a combination of cover cropping, and then finding ways to minimize tillage by no tilling every other row or tilling every other season or, you know, just different different things, different farms. What he has found is, it absolutely works on scale, and that the carbon sequestration values when you combine cover cropping and tillage are high like they’re, you know, there’s actually good solid evidence that you can maintain even in drought conditions that you can maintain and store carbon gradually over time. Working with a group of a small cohort of organic farmers as well. organic farmers are challenged to reduce tilling because they use tillage as a weed control mechanism instead of herbicides. So it’s hard to get away without tilling. But these folks are veteran organic farmers, and they’re really experimenting with different ways to even improve even their organic matter, which is typically much higher.

Borna (ClimateAi) 18:22
And there’s a cost associated with all this stuff like it costs money to put in cover crops and stuff. So are is is also equally as profitable for these large scale farms to be doing this, or are they doing out of the goodness of their hearts? Again,

Renata (CalCAN) 18:33
you know, the risk of generalizing I think most farmers, like most people are motivated first and foremost, by by personal interest, like they’re trying to stay in business trying to earn a living. And that’s a very hard thing to do in farming in any at the best of times. So that’s the theory behind the incentives is that you sort of sweeten the pot you know, help help support these transitions to different parts. services, because they benefit all of us. You know, using public dollars to invest in farmers to deliver public benefits is really the principle. And for folks who are interested, perhaps but have been a little bit leery of making a change that that money can help. It doesn’t necessarily cover all the costs of doing the new practice, but it can help with new equipment, it can help buffer the risk of maybe a yield hit as in the first year or two as you try to figure out your new system.

Borna (ClimateAi) 19:29
What does that look like? Like how much can you give people a sense of how much money they can expect to get for these different practices? The program is the healthy

Renata (CalCAN) 19:36
souls program is administered by the Department of Food and Agriculture cdfa and they have set the prices for what they’ll You know what, what each practice will pay per acre. And it ranges widely because the cost of doing these practices grant is widely so you know, it’s it’s all available on their website. There are more than 25 practices that they will cover. They will pay for Everything from you know, $50 a ton for compost to cover cropping at $89 an acre, you know, it ranges a lot, you know, putting trees in rain on range land $235 an acre, I’m just looking right now at their website. So it really the prices are set to I mean, price is very real farm farm or region to region. But it again, it’s, it’s an attempt to underwrite, you know, the cost of this of these new practices for farmers. And so I guess the last thing about it is that farmers who are only motivated by money are probably not going to be that attracted to this program. It’s not a moneymaker. designed to be a moneymaker, but it is intended to help somebody who’s curious or maybe has some other issues they’re trying to resolve that they think this might help with it. You know, in the whole package of human motivations. Money is one of the things but so is more efficient operations or increasing biodiversity. So you get pollinators, you know, on your farm with hedgerows, for example. Maybe you want windbreaks, you know, because you’re in a windy area on the coast or, you know, so that so so trees can help on the edge of field. So there’s I think there’s also a lot of business savvy that goes into making these commitments to make this change.

Borna (ClimateAi) 21:17
I want to now jump to livestock, because half of our agriculture emissions in California come from livestock or cows in the form of methane. And methane is a gas that’s 30 to 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and it’s 30 to 70. Because it’s like two different timeframes becomes a very sciency thing, and we won’t go into right now. But, you know, in the clean energy sector, a lot of people talk about digesters, a fair amount, but it’s my understanding that they’re not for everyone. And oftentimes, as an educated consumer, you have an idea of the different tools that people can use. And this goes back to the idea of these regenerative practices. Like when you go to some of these conferences, these sustainability conferences They talk about, oh, you know, we’re gonna we’re putting in cover crops, we’re going no till we’re like saying and it’s like, and we had cannon, Michael on the podcast A while back and he was saying, it’s not that easy. Like it’s different for every person. And it’s, it’s not like it’s a one size fits all solution like it’s a very hard thing to do. And I think a similar angle gets taken when people look at livestock, they’re like, Oh, we can just put digesters on all of them. But again, there’s a cost associated with all this stuff. So I’m curious to see what the pros and cons are associated with digesters and why they aren’t being as widely adopted, as your average conscious consumer may hope or think that they are being

Renata (CalCAN) 22:36
right. The state the cdfa, again, administers a program called the dairy methane reduction program, and it has two programs underneath it, and one funds digesters and the other funds alternative manure management practices. It’s the latter that we work on and advocate for, and we’re one of the lead champions to establish the difference between the two programs. Well, there’s a lot of differences, but one is just what’s incentivized and at what cost the digester program has the grants for that program are up to $2 million. digesters are typically up to three to $5 million per digester. They’re quite expensive. And they The principle is that the, you know, you most dairies in California have these lagoons where they flush their manure waste into out of the stalls. And they collected these big lagoons and they’re, they’re, you know, they’re pretty environmentally hazardous. They also have a lot of odor. They require a lot of water. And so the methane digesters cap and and they produce methane by because they’re anaerobic, there’s no oxygen you know, underneath in those cons and that’s where the, the methane is produced by the by bacteria that digest organic matter. And off gas methane. So digesters cap those lagoons capture that methane that’s coming off those ponds and then turn it into a bio fuel of some kind. There’s Different endpoints. But it’s really expensive to do all that. And it works best on the very largest dairies. Because because the technology is so expensive you really need in order to get any kind of payback over time. You really need to have a lot of manure. volumes. Yeah, yeah, you need the volume. And even so it’s going to it takes tremendous subsidies from federal and state government. And so with the alternative manure management program in contrast, it’s very low tech. But basically what people are doing is they’re converting from those flush systems to a scraping system often where they just scrape the manure into into compost when rose or they’ll sometimes do a solid separating system where they take the organic, they separate the organic matter the solids from the liquids, and then they recycle the liquids through their back through their irrigation or into their stalls again. So what they end up with at a very low cost, the grants go up to 750,000. Instead of 2 million. They end up with this fertility, you know the source of fertility, they end up with compost or aged manure that they can then use on their fields or sell if they have a lot of it and have a revenue source. So it’s a really different model. And the AMP program is short. It serves best any grower under about 2000 head, which is the majority of California’s dairies actually. So it’s helping keep these dairies which are struggling mightily to stay in business, it’s helping them stay in business. It’s modern modernizing their equipment. It’s producing a source of compost for their fields to displace fertilizers. Sometimes they can sell it, you know, it’s just got a lot of benefits. I’ve talked with some dairy producers who see who have talked with me, you know, in technical terms about their irrigation systems, and they’re just having a lot easier time moving that waste around in a, in an efficient way, doesn’t gum up their equipment, you know, their pipes and their irrigation, filters and so on. They’re seeing all kinds of benefits. It’s really helping Berry impacted sector of California agriculture.

Borna (ClimateAi) 26:03
Yeah, and just so we understand like, the framing of this problem So you mentioned that most dairies are under 2000 head, but are most cows, like where most of the cows like is it? Is it that there’s like a few of these larger organizations that have all the cows and then there’s more smaller dairies like where How did the numbers play out here?

Renata (CalCAN) 26:23
Yeah, I’d have to refresh my memory on the breakdown. But you’re right, that those mega dairies have a tremendous keep in mind. We don’t have a shortage of milk. Yeah. So you know, I think it’s a question of what model you know, we want to see in the state for, for dairy production. And what we want to see is dairies that are owned by families run by families, that that have a scale that’s manageable, that is, you know, sustainable, that has minimal environmental impacts, maybe even some benefits, you know, and produces this high quality product healthy energy intensive product. And that’s what the sort of organic grass fed, even, you know, the conventional folks that just keeping that economic engine in the valley, which is where a lot of this milk is produced is really important and that that’s driven by these these serve family scale dairies.

Borna (ClimateAi) 27:19
Do we have enough money to like in this program in these programs that you guys are helping facilitate both for the dairies, as well as for healthy soil, some of the other stuff that you guys are doing? Is there enough money in them to give to everyone who wants to participate? Or is there Do we need much, much more,

Renata (CalCAN) 27:36
there’s not enough money, especially for the the aunt program actually and the sweep program, which we haven’t talked about yet. It’s an on farm water conservation program. It gives grants for improving irrigation efficiency and converting to solar pumps so that you save energy as well as water. Those two programs especially are very oversubscribed. There’s in the case of the ant program, only half of the growers got funded. And in the case of the sweet program, only about a third got funded, they’re very, very popular. And I think that’s a testament to the fact that they do solve a lot of problems for farmers above and beyond climate change. So they’re just really practical, you know, they’re just, they’re just they make a lot of sense. And they help improve a lot of, of the operations of those of those farms. So we do need more money in the programs and unfortunately, all this money so most of it has come from the cap and trade program. Unfortunately, as of next budget year, the requirement that the cap and trade money be spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will no longer be law. So why is it? Well, it was a bill that was passed a few years ago to extend the program. The program was supposed to sunset cap and trade was supposed to sunset in 2020. And when that bill to extend it to the year 2030 was passed. One of the trade offs was that Starting in the year 2021, the cap and trade money could be used for anything whatsoever that the legislature decided to spend it on. Just because that law has changed doesn’t necessarily mean the legislature’s can’t still decide to spend it on climate aggro. But it makes it harder because there’s so many other competing priorities and especially now, well, yeah, interesting. And the implications of that is that companies would still be incentivized to lower carbon because they’re paying some sort of price. But now that money is not getting funneled back into research or work that’s going to be reducing emissions. As I might have said, I’d love to be clear farmers are not affected directly by the cap and trade program. They’re not regulated, they’re not capped. They’re not taxed, or in any way whatsoever. The companies that are affected at regulated are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. So you know, picture Chevron refinery in Richmond or some of the big food processing facilities that’s as close as it comes, you know, to farm.

Borna (ClimateAi) 29:59
Okay, so That’s interesting. So So farmers right now we’re not getting, we’re not getting taxed on, you know, whatever emissions they’re suspected to be releasing, it’s only the grant money that they may be getting through these programs which can help them. So it’s not a negative.

Renata (CalCAN) 30:13
It’s just a fear insensitive. Yeah, yeah.

Borna (ClimateAi) 30:16
If If we were to keep the same amount of money that we’re getting from cap and trade right now, which I think is like 28 million or near 30 million for healthy soils, and for dairies as well, I think if I’m not mistaken, if we were to keep that proportion, the same, what price on carbon? Would we need to get agriculture down to zero emissions?

Renata (CalCAN) 30:34
Well, it’s tricky math to do. But we, what we have calculated with with some partners of ours is that if we were to spend is going to get a little bit heavy on the numbers, but if we were to spend $50 million a year on healthy soils, $40 million a year on the sweet program, and $40 million a year on the app program. That’s 130 million dollars in those three programs. Plus we haven’t talked about yet another program which conserves farmland. If we kept spending what we’ve been on that program about 100 or so million a year, we would by the year 2030, we think we could get to net carbon neutrality in agriculture.

Borna (ClimateAi) 31:15
That’s not that much money.

Renata (CalCAN) 31:16
It’s not that much money. That’s crazy. And but what the programs are getting right now is less than half of that.

Borna (ClimateAi) 31:25
Yeah. What is the thinking of, of California as a government? Is it like they can just wait until the 11th hour and then do all this stuff? Because they’re going for net neutrality? They’re not going for, like integrated emissions over time. Like what is their thinking?

Renata (CalCAN) 31:40
I don’t know if I could say what their thinking is. I mean, we’re talking about 120. You know, elected officials plus the governor. Yeah. I guess some of the barriers we face are a lack of understanding about the potential here. Mm hmm. And some maybe some distrust because the numbers are wiggly. I’ll admit, we’ve just talked about how very It is farm to farm season to season. It’s not like I mean, we have a great deal of confidence in our ability to calculate emissions from tailpipes and smoke stacks, yeah, electrical, you know, engines and so on. We don’t have as much confidence in our biological systems, you know, and they are variable, they are subject to a lot of variation. And so and most legislators are urban, you know, most legislators come from LA and San Francisco and Fresno, Mel Fresno, they might have a better sense of agriculture, but, you know, not really connected to or literate about this subject, and it’s, it doesn’t lend itself easily to a soundbite, you know, it’s not as familiar. So, I think there’s a tendency to, to go to what you know, which is, oh, let’s put in we know we can if we electrify vehicles, we’ll get some emissions reductions. We know if we do infill development or bike trails and, you know, solar panels, like that’s just much more familiar to more people. So I think it’s, it’s partly a Storytelling Challenge. And it’s partly just also the I mean, there are a tremendous number of competing priorities for money, even in a wealthy state like California, the state government and never more so than now, you know, the states looking at going from having a very hefty rainy day fund to being in a recession or depression, seeing property taxes hit and sales taxes hit, there are case studies there. You know, there are there are some economic analyses that are happening. It’s it’s somewhat early days yet to be correlating these payment programs with with the economics because as I said, we haven’t even had the first round here in California, of, of grant recipients finished their three years. And there’s no other program like the one in California to turn to that I’m aware of. So although there are other states that are interested in, in going down that road, so it’s a it’s a new area of science, and I think that just as powerful as that sort of academic literature is going to be Farmer to Farmer conversations that can change his behavior the fastest. That’s pretty well documented that farmers trust and turn to other peers as their most valuable source of information. The healthy soils program and the AMP program both have a demonstration project component where the grantees are required to hold field days for other farmers and to share their experiences and those are really important piece of the puzzle.

Borna (ClimateAi) 34:27
Okay, so I want to talk a little bit about farmland conservation, which you guys do some work on, basically to protect farm and ranch land that might be at risk of development. Can you explain what’s going on here and why it’s so critical to protect farmland from encroachment from from cities from urban sprawl? Because I think that many would assume that, you know, cities will grow and then they’re largely not close to agricultural lands and if they grow too much, you know, a farmer might want to sell because they can get a good price for it and they’ll move somewhere else or something like they’ll they think that this stuff might just work out. So I want to get your perspective on more It’s a more nuanced issue than that

Renata (CalCAN) 35:02
many years ago. Now, I want to say in 2012, there was a there was a state funded research project, the California Energy Commission funded it under a program that no longer exists. It would did a case study in YOLO. County. And it basically demonstrated that every acre of urban land emits 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions than an acre of irrigated cropland, which is one of the more intensive forms of agriculture energy wise. So with range land, you have an even higher ratio like one to 100. So that study was really the impetus for launching a program funded by cap and trade money administered by something called the Strategic Growth Council, which is a interagency collection of cabinet secretaries. Really they have housing, transportation, labor, agriculture environment, like all of the main secretaries are involved in this council. And that program gets 20% of all of the cap and trade revenue every year, of which 10% goes to a program that funds farmland conservation. So the bulk of the money goes into cities for smart growth, infill development and public and transit oriented development. And then a fairly small amount 10% goes into farmland conservation. And the principle here is that by marrying these two approaches by encouraging and incentivizing projects that build housing and other forms of development, denser and protecting farmland on search on the air areas around cities and towns, that combination yields tremendous greenhouse gas benefits, it keeps us from going over the cliff, we’ve been going over with sprawl and driving in, you know, single passenger vehicles. So the theory here is that over time, this is one way to get our arms around that really gnarly transportation problem. So California has invested 180 $1 million in permanent easements to protect farmland that’s at risk of sprawl. That easement is when you when the land owner says I will attach to the deed, a promise that I will never the land will never be developed, it will always be in our culture. So when Glen gets sold, it’s going to be sold for less money because it’s not as valuable, you know, from a monetary point of view. And so the farmer gets the difference. Essentially, they’re sort of selling their right to develop that land or the future owner of the land, you know, so devalues their property. And then the grant is intended to make up for the difference between what they would have had had they sold it to a strip mall developer, or something like that. So it’s intended to keep the farmer whole while delivering these really important community benefits.

Borna (ClimateAi) 37:55
In fall of 2018. You guys spoke with 60 farmers and ranchers researchers. Agriculture professionals across the state ask basically what impacts of climate change they were seeing on their farms and on their agriculture, to see how they were coping with it and what resources they needed to to adapt them to stay viable in a changing world. So I’m curious to get your take on what the key stories were that stood out to you and and what the key learnings were from doing that?

Renata (CalCAN) 38:25
Yeah, it was a somewhat of a poignant experience. Some of the stories were very hard to hear like an avocado farmer who lost not only the crops that were on the tree that there was a big heatwave down down south in the I believe it was in the Santa Barbara Ventura area. The heat wave came through in the spring, and it killed all the avocados on on the tree and the avocados that were in storage. So he lost essentially all of production. There was another farmer These are small to medium sized growers, these two other farmer Raised chickens and told about losing 70% of her flock to the heat, that same heat wave. I’m up in Sonoma County, we’ve had two catastrophic fires in the last two years, two and a half years. And so a lot of the small farmers and vineyards in this area, not a lot, some were burned to the ground. Others buffered the fire from hitting the urban areas, which is a tremendously important co benefit of protecting ag land around urban areas to keep the fire from sweeping down into the dense

Borna (ClimateAi) 39:32
population zones. Basically, they took the hit,

Renata (CalCAN) 39:35
but Well, some of them did. And some of them didn’t. I mean, they’re irrigated, so the range lands burned as they’re supposed to actually that can be very helpful for range land. Some of them are irrigated so they they might have on the edges taken a hit but they they stopped the fire didn’t destroy the whole operation is very, very disparate. The stories were all over the map in terms of the effects of climate change. You know, some people talked about frost others about the drought We have just come out of some about new pest problems. chill hours is a thing in agriculture. If we don’t have cold enough, the fruit doesn’t set properly.

Borna (ClimateAi) 40:10
Their tree nuts as well.

Renata (CalCAN) 40:11
Yeah, nuts and some some varieties of nuts and fruits. So it was a real scatterplot of stories. The takeaway, the takeaway was, there’s no normal anymore. There’s no pattern anymore. And this is especially hard for small farmer sorry for beginning farmers who would typically turn to elders and say, what’s going on? You know, what do I do this is? This is hard. And but the elders are saying, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. So our takeaway was that farmers need more on farm tools and training to figure that out. I mean, because farmers are incredibly adaptable. They roll with the punches, like nobody I’ve ever seen. That’s the inspiring part like and I’m seeing that now with COVID. The stories that we’re hearing Cal have tremendous creativity and resilience and innovation and pivoting, you know on a dime, changing Markets overnight, a lot of incredible stories. I don’t know how people hold on through all of this variability. Because, you know, within months, we’re gonna be looking at wildfires, again, you know, drought this summer, because we’ve had low rainfall. So these folks are really, really well suited. And there’s a limit to what individuals can do. So we proceeded to introduce a bill that would set up a pilot program to provide tools and trainings for farmers in just a few select regions at first just to try out this strategy, exploring what do farmers need, given that high degree of variability? What do they need what’s going to be really practical and useful to them on the farm both in the near term like short term forecast and also so that they can make good business decisions about what to plant? You know whether to change out their varieties of tree crops which you don’t do lightly. Those things take three or four years to mature. So you don’t just take out a crop and put in a new one. There’s a there’s a lot of resources. We think the state needs to provide farmers so that we can all continue to eat. And so that we can have soil to sequester carbon on encouraging farmers to think about biodiversity about diversifying is a very sound strategy for adaptation. Because we aren’t going to know a lot about you know, so putting all your eggs as it were in one basket is probably not a good idea any longer. As some of the reason farmer organic raising grower in the in the valley near Fresno, he’s taking over the business from his dad. He’s only about three years into it. And he’s he’s interested in diversifying because he understands this, that you’re better not having just one type of crop. So he’s trying to evaluate well, should I put it into pistachios or should I go? That was his main one that he had landed on citrus? I don’t know, you know, and so I think having some sort of academic information to help him weigh the pros and cons would be very helpful. Being a young farmer.

Borna (ClimateAi) 42:51
This goes back to something that we discussed previously, but does that apply to farm have thousands of acres like can they what kind of biodiversity can They bring to their operations. I mean, if you’re sending a massive tractor through, sometimes you’ve harvest the last one month plus of sending the same thing through and everything has to be very uniform. And this is like, kind of one of the big advances in precision agriculture. Can you operate on that same scale? Or does this inherently imply that they would have to have smaller farms?

Renata (CalCAN) 43:19
I think agriculture professionals, whether they’re farmers or technical advisors, or scientists, they’re among the most creative and adaptable we’ve done an amazing transition in our agricultural system just in the last 50 years, we can make another transition. I don’t think there’s any limit here of creativity, your ingenuity, it’s really a question of will financing and, and necessity, I think necessity is a great necessity is another invention, right? I mean, there’s not this is not rocket science. You know, we can we can remake the tapestry of agriculture in California if, if there’s an imperative in the money to do so. You know, I think this is pandemic is showing us a lot about what’s possible that we maybe would have ruled out in the past. But when our lives are at stake, you know, food security in this case, this is one of the most productive agricultural regions on the planet. And we really can’t afford to pave it over or stay on a path that’s going to lead to peril. We really have to face this.

Borna (ClimateAi) 44:26
Totally. Yeah. I love the way that you answered that question. And I think this also goes back to the issue of like, how can we get more people coming to, you know, kind of tackle some of these, some of these issues like, you have people who are geniuses, they’re getting recruited by Facebook to go sell ads. And it’s like, bring your machine learning brain over here, and help us solve some problems as a matter of

Renata (CalCAN) 44:52
your experience of the last year as you’ve moved from where you were to where you are, now that that’s a story unto itself. You know, how did that light I’ll go on for you and how what can we use? about your experience, you know, to help that switch? In other brains? I think that that’d be worth the show. Maybe I’ll interview you next time. Yeah, let’s do

Borna (ClimateAi) 45:14
so so you guys are clearly doing really awesome work here in California highly valuable work. Is this type of work being replicated in other states or other agricultural communities? Who are the other foreigners in the US here? Or even abroad? If there’s another country that’s kind of leading the way with love of stuff? Who else is helping us lead the charge?

Renata (CalCAN) 45:30
Well just stick into the United States there is we, a couple to two years ago, we launched a network of state level organizations like ourselves who work with and on behalf of farmers. This network gets together a couple of months to share resources and strategies and Bill, you know, model bills that we’re working on. They look really different in every different state, but there are 20 states that are part of this network. Now across the country. There’s a good solid representation From the center and the east, and a few here on the west coast, and what we’re seeing is a lot of creative approaches. Now, you know, count, nobody has California situation. Nobody has a revenue source dedicated to reducing emissions of you know, New York has actually in the in the upper northeast does too, but it’s really all the money is going into their electricity sector. It’s not going into any other part of the economy, their energy sector rather. So New York has has a program it’s not as robustly funded. It’s not as comprehensive for agriculture as ours. Massachusetts is trying to pass a healthy soils program, but they don’t have any money dedicated to it. New Mexico has a healthy soils program. They just passed that bill last year, and they have $200,000 for a pilot project, which sounds small to us here in California, but they’re going to be able to do something there with that. There are a lot of places that are looking at ways to create incentives for farmers to help them explore some of these things. healthy soils practices. So it’s partly a question of the political context, what’s palatable, what’s feasible? I think what’s interesting about climate change is how fast the change is happening, but around people’s awareness, two years ago, you really couldn’t talk about climate change in Illinois or Iowa, for example, and then they had those big floods last summer that just wiped out their agriculture sector. And what I’m told by members of this network is that you can talk about it now that that is not off limits, and that, especially if you talk to farmers about healthy soils and help make the connections, the multiple benefits, including climate change there, they can see. I mean, they saw evidence right in front of them of farms where they had already been using healthy soils practices that didn’t weren’t as severely or impacted by the floods because the water was able to penetrate in right into the soil profile. So there’s a new oncoming, I think here,

Borna (ClimateAi) 48:01
hopefully Fingers crossed. Is there.

Is there anything happening on the federal level?

Renata (CalCAN) 48:06
Yeah, there’s a bill introduced actually and this is another I think testament of the changing conditions. There was a bill introduced just in February by Representative Pingree. It’s called the agriculture resilience act. And it’s really a an impressive, comprehensive collection of solutions for both resilience and climate mitigation. You know, it was introduced just before the pandemic really caught fire here. And so it’s, you know, it’s gonna be a while before it progresses anywhere, but it’s a very, very good piece of work to look at.

Borna (ClimateAi) 48:43
Because it seems like for them, it makes a ton of sense to be incentivizing this stuff because it’s cheaper than paying out crop insurance like payments. Like they would probably, I mean, I don’t I haven’t done the math on this, but they pay a ton of money for crop insurance. And again, this thing to see them go proactive approach. And I think it was a smart approach on their part to maybe leave the word climate out. It’s the ag resilience act. That’s right, which is probably smart to get buy in from right

Renata (CalCAN) 49:10
from their constituency. I think you’re right. In general, it’s less costly to do prevention than cleanup. And yet, we still keep making that mistake over and over again, we just wait for these crises to happen. Before we realize we’ve spent the money up front.

Borna (ClimateAi) 49:25
I’m curious to get your vision of what the perfect agricultural system would look like. But what is realistic and what is feasible? And what would it take to get there like it? Would it require a culture shift? Do we need to allocate money from certain places like have you thought about what the ideal form of this would look like?

Renata (CalCAN) 49:45
I’m picturing two farms that exist there to my favorite farms. They’re both medium scale like several hundred acres, you know, four to 800 acre farms, which for California’s is medium size, grow crops diversified, but not too row crops, trees, and in one case animals as well. One one’s much more diverse than the other. full belly farm is the one I’m thinking of. And then Pinnacle’s organics, they’re both organic. They both been organic for decades. They both grow, you know, 60 to 100 varieties of things year round. They have amazing labor practices. They have a year round workforce of people who have been with them for many years that they take really good care of, they pay well and they have good, you know, health benefits and so on. So there’s the Justice component of it. What integrated into all this, there’s never bare soil. And that’s one of the principles of healthy soils practices is never leave the soil bare. All year round, you should have some kind of cover on it. So they’re rotating crops, they’re using cover crops and when they’re not growing a commercial crop. They’ve got a lot of like flowering trees and shrubs throughout. They’re just beautiful to walk around in and The soil is just like I said earlier, like chocolate cake that’s possible everywhere. One of those farms is in Yolo County, which is the farm itself is north and west of Davis Sacramento, and the other ones down in the, in the Salinas Valley. So they’re prime agricultural areas. And I think what they show me is that they’re not anomalies. You know, I mean, in other words, they’re not outliers. They are but they don’t have to be there. They’re there in places where that could be replicated. All around them, especially the one in Salinas is somewhat of an island, you know, you drive down in there, and he’s one of the only places in the winter where there’s stuff growing. So that’s possible. That’s the vision. I think, now how we get there. I think it’s a combination of incentives. And I favor public incentives. I mean, private private money has a place for sure, in catalyzing innovation, but I think we we’ve we see that government needs to lead the way And then private investment can follow and help scale up. So a combination of public and private investments and a lot of good technical assistance, a lot of good education of other farmers to prove out the economic and agronomic values. I think a lot of good public education as well so that the markets reward that kind of a farm as well as the public investments so that consumers really understand what they’re paying for. And a lot of Farmer to Farmer dialogue. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but I think, I think that combination, and then some really good science, you know, validating what’s going on in those places. Those lighthouse farms are those hubs where there’s, I sort of picture these regional hubs that are coordinated by extension agents at the UC and resource conservation districts and nonprofits that all form this sort of mycelial network, you know, this like button You know, these, these hubs that then sort of cross communicate so that they can learn from each other. It’s not expensive, and it’s not mysterious. And in fact, we’ve had models of that kind of thing happening in the past, public, private, nonprofit, you know, networks like that. I think that can go a long, long way, you know, a decade of investment in that and we’d see it. I mean, you look at what happened after this, the dustbowl, the Soil Conservation Service started up that started funding farmers to conserve soil.

Borna (ClimateAi) 53:31
When universities for

Renata (CalCAN) 53:33
farmland, please, right? They had these Conservation Corps, you know, folks who go out and like, teach people how to do this stuff with all this government support. So we’ve got that we’ve got the bones of that already in place. It just, you know, we just need to double down on it. Yeah.

Borna (ClimateAi) 53:48
Yeah. And I think, you know, we hope that this podcast is, you know, serves as sort of like a springboard for people who want to maybe think about or tackle some of these issues, and I think that This episode in particular, laid out a ton of ways that people can start to engage or innovate or think about some of these problems. And I think that this has been an extremely insightful episode for me, and I think it will be for our listeners as well. And I want want to quickly ask how people can support your work and support you. Well,

Renata (CalCAN) 54:18
they can check out our website. Well, it’s pretty easy to find immunity, just Google, California climate agriculture, and you find us pretty much at the top of the list. So it’s Cal climate is the URL. A certainly, you know, people can email me if they especially if they have sort of interest in, in funding this work or in telling the story. You know, if people are in communications or media that’s really helpful. So I’m Renata at Cal clemen AG. org, in terms of supporting us that certainly financial is always helpful. we amplify our messages by working closely with farmers and ranchers and there are primary spokespeople there They’re the most authentic and credible influencers, we think, of the legislature. But we also, we just put together a letter actually calling for more investments from the cap and trade program for agriculture, signed by businesses in the state. So if someone’s owning a business that they would like to, you know, be called upon in the future for that kind of thing, that would be helpful to know, people should sign up for our newsletter. It’s a monthly summary of some of the most important developments science wise and policy wise, we feature farmer stories in there and, you know, events and jobs. So people want to get involved in this or learn get up to speed on it. That’s a good way to track what’s going on in California. And for folks who are out of state out of California, I’d be happy to, you know, share more about this national network. And there might be ways they could connect with some of those organizations in other regions.

Borna (ClimateAi) 55:53
And what was the name of the National Network again,

Renata (CalCAN) 55:55
it’s called the National healthy soils Policy Network. It’s not as Super, like public high visibility thing, we’re really sort of more of a support group to each other, but the members of it are leaders in their states in terms of ecological stewardship and agriculture. Awesome.

Borna (ClimateAi) 56:11
Well, Rob, this episode was extremely inspiring. And I learned a ton. Thank you for joining us on this podcast. So

Renata (CalCAN) 56:18
thanks for and I really appreciate your questions and your enthusiasm.

Borna (ClimateAi) 56:23
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.


Renata Brillinger

Executive Director at CalCAN



Jul 9, 2021
Pablo Barrera – One of the greatest humanitarian creations of all time is also one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters. Here’s how we fix that.
May 5, 2021
Stuart Woolf – 325 Million lbs of Tomato Paste in 4 Months: How this CEO’s Family Farming Operation Became One of the Top Tomato Processors in the World
Apr 21, 2021
Timothy Coates – Agriculture Banking is Broken. This Co-founder is Fixing it… and He’s Helping You Sequester Carbon While He’s at It