Growing Returns

California’s new nitrogen assessment highlights promising solutions for reducing fertilizer losses

Sara KroopfA team of researchers spent seven years dissecting, analyzing and reporting on California’s nitrogen cycle, and the results are eye-opening.

Nearly 2 million tons of nitrogen are imported into the state each year. Almost a quarter of it is lost through leaching into groundwater – with runoff from cropland accounting for nearly 90 percent of this leaching. Excess nitrates in drinking water can cause health problems when consumed by at risk populations. Four percent of the state’s nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But the California Nitrogen Assessment (CNA), released by UC Davis’ Agriculture Sustainability Institute, also provides a never before seen level of detail on nitrogen movement in the state. There’s no silver bullet for reducing environmental impacts while keeping growers profitable. Yet information is power and the more we know, the more we can tailor and prioritize solutions.

The UC Davis team investigated various political, social and economic ideas for reestablishing our state’s nitrogen balance. Two of the most promising solutions for California agriculture to address what the CNA calls “critical control points” include enhancing fertilizer efficiency and expanding carbon markets for agriculture. Read More »

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Why I promote the value of America’s farms and ranches

Woman in garden

My home garden, near San Francisco.

When I tend my garden at home near San Francisco, the words of writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry echo in my head: “We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?”

I do everything I can to conserve. I grow food that has a minimal impact on the environment, I use a drip irrigation system, I compost to minimize waste and collect shower water to reuse on my plants.

In my professional life, I work with large-scale farmers to reduce their environmental footprint while protecting their livelihoods. My job sheds light on the importance of ensuring food security by looking closely at how and where we grow food.

I’m driven by what I learned growing up in a rural farming town, and from my years in the Peace Corps in Mali. These experiences are the reason I work to preserve the complexity of the agro-ecosystems around me.

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Why investments in agricultural carbon markets make good business sense

Farmers shaking handsOver the past decade, private investment in conservation has more than doubled, with sustainable forestry and agriculture investments as the main drivers of growth. This unprecedented expansion in “impact investing” or “conservation finance” has occurred as investors seek good returns that can also benefit the environment.  According to Credit Suisse, sustainable agriculture is particularly appealing to investors as it offers a wider array of risk mitigation approaches than sectors such as energy and transportation.

Yet despite this boom, there has been very little investment from private capital in emerging ecosystems markets, especially in the agricultural sector.

We’ve blogged before about the benefits growers – and the environment – realize from participating in agricultural carbon markets or habitat exchanges. But here’s why the private sector, food companies and retailers should invest in agricultural carbon markets. Read More »

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How “fertigation” is helping this citrus grower beat the drought

WP_20150922_010A common misperception is that citrus season is in the summer, but peak citrus season is actually happening right now.

California grew over 90 percent of U.S. lemons last season, but the severe drought in 2015 caused a 9 percent dip in domestic lemon production compared to the previous growing season. This meant higher costs for farmers, consumers – and the planet.

In honor of peak citrus season, I asked Bakersfield citrus grower John S. Gless how he’s getting more crop per drop of fertilizer and water through “fertigation,” why efficiency and sustainability practices are good investments, and why land stewardship is a core part of farming. Read More »

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Why almond lovers can breathe easy again

It’s been a tough year for the almond. Vilified and beaten down, the nut has come to symbolize the California drought. While the reasons for and solutions to the drought are complicated and nuanced, the almond’s reputation has nonetheless suffered.

Meanwhile, farmers across the board are under increasing pressure – from regulatory requirements and increasing consumer demand for transparency – to modify their fertilizer application practices and thereby reduce nitrogen losses to the air and water.

Fortunately, there’s good reason for the almond to cheer up – a new Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) from the California Department of Food & Agriculture will support the state’s almond growers in their ongoing efforts to make nut production more sustainable, without sacrificing yields. Read More »

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Why one Kansas farmer is leading a soil health revolution

Grower Gail Fuller

Kansas farmer Gail Fuller

Soil health wasn’t always this sexy. The United Nations has named 2015 the International Year of the Soils, the National Corn Growers Association created the Soil Health Partnership, and the Telegraph newspaper is claiming that we can only ignore the soil crisis for so long, and that “just a handspan of topsoil lies between us and oblivion.”

But Kansas farmer Gail Fuller has been at the forefront of soil health measures since the early 1980s. Just last month, he hosted the fourth annual “Fuller Field School,” a soil health workshop that was attended by growers from across the globe.

I asked Gail, who operates a diversified 1,000 acre farm in Emporia, Kansas, to tell me why soil health is so important for our food system, and why other growers should get on board. Read More »

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Agricultural carbon markets get yet another boost

farmIn the past three months, three new revenue opportunities have emerged for growers. In June, the first ever carbon offset protocol for crop-base agriculture in a cap-and-trade market was approved for U.S. rice growers by the California Air Resources Board (ARB). The “rice protocol” announcement was followed shortly after by approval of a voluntary grasslands protocol, which rewards farmers for avoiding the conversion of grasslands to cropland.

And now, USDA has demonstrated its interest in and support of another market-based approach for growers: increasing fertilizer use efficiency. Thanks to a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), EDF and partners will be helping almond and corn farmers reduce fertilizer runoff and nitrous oxide emissions, and earn greenhouse gas credits that can generate revenue.

Here’s what this project will entail: Read More »

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What a visit with a California citrus grower taught me about agricultural sustainability

EDF’s Sara Kroopf smells the soil at a citrus nursery in Arvin, California.

Putting yourself in the boots of a California farmer will give you a whole new perspective.

That’s why I recently spent a few days alongside Matt Fisher, a citrus grower in Kern County, California – to better understand growers’ challenges and concerns, and to rethink how environmental groups and farmers can achieve shared goals.

The experience was part of a farm exchange program offered through the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which facilitates learning opportunities on California farms.

With a record-breaking drought in California, tensions between environmentalists and farmers run high, and finger pointing is everywhere. But that isn’t getting us anywhere. The time I spent on Matt’s farm gave me new inspiration to break down barriers, put aside stereotypes, and work together. Read More »

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How agriculture’s resilience to climate change benefits us all

NYCity_shutterstock_12345841_RF (1)

81 percent of Americans live in cities, but rely on rural areas for everyday needs.

Traditionally, governments haven’t factored farms and ranches into their climate mitigation and adaptation planning. Instead, the focus has mostly been on protecting urban communities. But that is all changing. At the National Adaptation Forum earlier this month in St. Louis, agriculture was top-of-mind in discussions about reducing emissions and building resilience to climate change.

That’s because in order to protect people, 81 percent of whom live in urban areas, we’ll need to protect what’s around where they live, too. It’s largely rural areas, like the farming town of 1,100 people where I grew up, whose working lands and farms provide valuable services to urban areas. These services include food security, flood and drought protection, recreation and water storage. Agriculture can also play (and is already playing) a big role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The more resilient we can make agriculture, the better off we’ll all be. Read More »

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Are we giving farmers enough credit for stewardship?

Photo credit: EDF/Mathew Grimm

Photo credit: EDF/Mathew Grimm

At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe in the power of incentives to drive agricultural sustainability. That’s why we support emerging markets like California’s Central Valley Habitat Exchange and the state’s fledgling cap and trade market, which will soon allow rice growers to earn extra revenue.

Both markets reward farmers for improving the environment in specific ways.

The Central Valley Habitat Exchange, when it becomes operational, will allow farmers who create enhanced habitat for at-risk species to sell credits to businesses and agencies that need to meet conservation goals.

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