Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future

Published 7/22/09

Craig McNamara sitting in his farm Sierra OrchardsThe report Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future shows that California agriculture can flourish despite diminishing water supply and future uncertainty from climate change, but it will require great strides in increasing the water efficiency of the agricultural sector.

Many farmers and irrigation districts have already been making water-use efficiency improvements. Yet the analysis estimates that potential water savings of 4.5 – 6 million acre-feet each year can be achieved by expanding the use of efficient irrigation technologies and management practices.

Interview with Craig McNamara

Extended Interview

During a June 2009 visit, Craig McNamara discussed irrigation and conservation programs on his farm with Pacific Institute researchers:

What was the main difference after the transition to drip?

When we made that change to drip it really made significant water savings.

How about cost savings vs furrow irrigation?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s a cost savings at all. I couldn’t make that comparison because furrow is very, very cheap in terms of tractor pulling a blade that makes the furrow. If you’re pumping from a shallow area, the cost in electricity is a factor, but not so significant.

What kind of cost's do you expect for drip irrigation... up-front costs?

Your drip, of course, your up-front cost is about $1000 per acre. You’ve got an up-front cost there, and hopefully, over time rapidly you’ll recoup that in electrical savings, water savings, and productivity. And we’re very fortunate to partner with NRCS in EQIP Funding, and that provided approximately 50% of our overall cost to install our irrigation system. And I just want to say that the EQIP process, of registering and working with NRCS, is quite a remarkable one because I find that our local team here from NRCS is so proactive in assisting the farmer, encouraging the farmer to look at his or her operation and find out what project might work best for them and customize it. They as a team come out and assist me, in giving me information, providing background, as well as assisting in forming the application. Sometimes the application process can be initially daunting; it doesn’t need to be because of the teamwork and assistance.

But for me personally, and I think each farmer will be different, as I mentioned, I didn’t come from a farm background. I needed help. I needed all the help that I could possibly get when I finished up my mentoring project, and so I relied on Cooperative Extension; I relied on farm advisors, I talked to my local farmer friends. This was a natural for me – and that was 30 years ago. So we’ve done it ever since, and I think that many of my friends locally and in this region have found the experience to be very rewarding. Natural Resource Conservation Services are part of the USDA, United States Department of Food and Agriculture; it’s our tax payer money and it’s the best use that we can possibly expect. As a tax-payer, it’s the best thing I think my taxes can go towards: it’s the long-term conservation of our food supply.

What about fertilizer application? What's your thoughts on alternative fertilizer applications?

There’s a very specific program. As a matter of fact, I just heard last week that one of our grants was approved by NRCS through the EQIP program to grow the cover crops I mentioned that help us fertilize our food. What a great way to go. Let me backtrack a second. Synthetic fertilizers give us a tremendous boost in production, whether it’s corn, soybeans, walnuts, tomatoes, whatever it is. They are an important global tool for high yields in production. We need to use them carefully. Anything we put on this great soil of ours, as I showed from the sediment trap, that wonderful, yellow, fine sandy loam, can eventually go through it and down into our aquifers.

Unfortunately, in California over the last 50 years we’ve had quite a bit of contamination due to nitrogen application. So why not reduce them, those of us, those of the farmers who use ammonium sulfate, and other synthetics, be mindful of that. Test your soil. Test your water. Those of us who are growing organically can use the leguminous plants. That’s what this recent EQIP loan did with us, was to offer us a break or incentive to grow more cover crops.

What was the main reason for implementing sustainable practices?

Conservation Security Program, CSP, has been perhaps one of the most rewarding programs in my three decades of farming. The reason is, we went out and did what we felt was right for the land, for the environment, for our neighbors, for our downstream users in California, by putting in sediment traps, tailwater ponds, removing invasive species, planting the hedgerows that we see here to create habitat for beneficial insects. We did that because we felt it was the right thing to do. And it cost; it cost us money. Over the 30-year period I bet it has probably cost $80-100,000 to do that appropriately. A few years back the CSP program came along and, through a very stringent application and recording process, prioritized farms and farmers in certain watersheds that were doing these beneficial stewardship projects on our land and in essence rewarded us with payments over a three-year period.

And so, number one, it was an acknowledgement that the practices that we’ve been implementing are appreciated by the citizens of the United States, and hopefully beneficial to one and all, and secondly, actually providing us with a financial incentive to do what we have been doing. It was remarkable. It’s like an award, a recognition for something that we truly believe in. I don’t think that we as a society of farmers who are frequently so strapped when it comes to the bottom line, can do it on our own. Yet the citizens of this great country need us, not just to produce food, but to insure, in the 2000 years that agriculture has been with us, or 8000 years, that we can continue to farm into the future. And this is the only way. If we are not mindful and good stewards of our water, our air, and our land, quite frankly, we just won’t have it. And we will be, I guarantee you, we will be dependent on food coming from foreign countries. I am not an isolationist, I am a global partner, but I think we should be self-sufficient in our food production.

Are there any issues in funding?

For the CSP there are only certain watersheds across the country that were able to be funded. So that’s the key here. Funding is lacking. We need to increase funding across the United States for farmers to enter these programs. I would say it’s because we are facing such critical competing demands in California. I mentioned the water system. We’re facing the worst drought in California history, at a time when our population over the last 40 years has grown by 15 million people and it’s predicted in the next 15 years that we’ll reach 50 million people. And at a time when we are basically disconnected from nature, from our food systems. So it’s an extremely important time that we as Californians support one another in food production, in conservation, and in working with our government officials, both statewide and federal, to ensure that conservation programs like EQIP, like Conservation Security Program, continue funding during this extremely dire time.

I mean, California, as we know, is facing a $24 billion shortfall, right now. That’s not looking at the next fiscal year. So it might seem odd that I’m out really staunchly advocating more conservation programs, but I think it is critical to the well-being of this industry that we used to say was the most important industry in California. And let me remind us that California is such as the fourth or fifth largest agricultural economy in the world. So it’s extremely important that we maintain this vital resource not just for us as Californians but for the rest of the United States. We do provide over 50% of the produce and fresh vegetables that the rest of our citizens enjoy, and that in itself is very important.

Profile of Craig McNamara and Sierra Orchards

Craig McNamara sitting in his farm Sierra Orchards An organic walnut farmer, Craig McNamara has owned and operated Sierra Orchards in Winters, California for 28 years. In 1993, he began working with local schools, creating the Center for Land-Based Learning on his property. The Center engages youth in learning experiences on the land that foster respect for the critical interplay of agriculture, nature, and society.

“As a farmer I think of myself first and foremost as a conservationist and environmentalist. Protecting our nation’s land, water and air resources are my most important goals. As a farmer, it is incumbent upon me to be an example for the rest of society. Therefore, it is natural that I would want to create educational and demonstration projects on our land.”

Sierra Orchards

Sierra Orchards employs a number of innovative water management practices including buried drip irrigation on all new plantings, tailwater recovery ponds, and sediment trapping ponds. Cover crops both fertilize the fields as well as retain winter moisture and runoff. They have also created over two miles of hedgerows and riparian habitat on their farm. In order to stabilize the creek banks and eliminate soil erosion, they have planted over ten acres of native upland oak forest. Efforts to restore the watershed have been greatly enhanced by partnerships with willing organizations – Audubon California, local Resource Conservation Districts, the Xerces Society, and the local Stream Keeper.

“Conservation has to be a critical part of what we’re doing on the farm and as citizens of California.”

While the cost for these improvements exceeds tens of thousands of dollars, Sierra Orchards was able to receive matching funds through federal Farm Bill conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Security Program. These programs defray the costs of implementing critical on- farm water conservation practices. McNamara argues that these funding programs are essential, “As a taxpayer, I think it’s the best thing my taxes can go to; it’s the long term conservation of our food supply.”

In addition, today McNamara’s Center for Land-Based Learning reaches thousands of students, teaching them about on-farm conservation practices through hands-on activities.

“One of the greatest acknowledgements that we have received...came in the form of Conservation Security Program funding. This funding partially compensated us for the voluntary conservation efforts that we had undertaken on our farm over the past 20 years.”

Share this article

Read the full executive Summary  |  Visit the Pacific Institute Website

< Read the previous article