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Northern California farmers turn to ‘regenerative agriculture’ for conserving water, growing healthy crops

Sonoma County organic farmer Bob Cannard  has the dirt on what’s killing the Earth and refuses to bury his head in the sand about it.

He’s part of a growing movement of farmers, vineyard tenders and conservationists who care for the soil as much as the crops.

The outspoken crop whisperer of sorts studies the leaves, sprouts and buds of his herbs, vegetables and fruits on his 40-acre Green String Farm in Petaluma like a microbiologist examines specimens.

“We, (as a society, wrongly) think we need pesticides on everything, perpetuating the concept that there are pests. It’s a genetic perversion,” he told the Business Journal  in early March.

The conventional agricultural system, as he describes it, rewards herbicide and pesticide use to the detriment of many living species like the monarch butterflies that used to blanket the meadows of milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants. Now they’re near extinction — at last count, down to under 2,000.

“I grew up in Kenwood. We used to see thousands of butterflies,” Cannard said.

An early adopter of organic farming in 1976, through the years, Cannard  has moved to non-traditional ways of cultivating the growth of his crops. He grows in diversity because “people eat diversity.”

Cannard describes keeping a steely eye on his plants and feeding them with raw volcanic rock — calling the growing practice “re-mineralization.” He also uses compost from a variety of substances to nurture their growth.

“I’m giving (the land) a smorgasbord. It knows what it wants,” he quipped.

Cannard has also tapped into using the little hooves of his livestock, moving them around in sections to fertilize and tenderize the soil.

“There’s no reason not to grow the soil, while growing crops,” he said.

To him and other environmental advocates endorsing sustainable, “regenerative” farming, these methods of operation work much better than tilling the topsoil entirely off the land, leaving any hopes of growing a bounty of crops in the dust, he lamented.

“If we don’t change our ways, we’ll go from the rainforest to a Dust Bowl,” he said, referring to the 1934 environmental disaster in the Midwest. “We’re well on our way to ruining the richness of our natural soils.”

Bay Area continues to chip in

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been considered ahead of its time in pursuing sustainable farming before its practices became fashionable.

The Recology recycling center based in San Francisco, with North Bay satellite locations in Santa Rosa, Novato and Petaluma, celebrates a quarter century this year in turning the mass curbside collection of food scraps into programs supporting healthy soils.

Over the life of the program, the employee-owned organization has diverted 2.5 million tons of compostable material from disposal and transforming the scraps into nutrients local farmers may use on their properties.

“Compost switches on the ‘life web’ in the topsoil, which helps grow more food,” Recology spokesman Robert Reed said.

How does it work?

“Good quality compost is a natural sponge that attracts and retains water,” said Reed, who made these vital points in a new Netflix documentary titled “Kiss the Ground.”

Reed explained composting can pull carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform the damaging compounds into nutrients for the soil and consequently the plants. Some of the benefits show substantial benefits above ground.

Recology supplies about 4,200 tons of compost annually to Michael David Winery, where Vineyard Manager Tony Rose has 200 truckloads applied to the grounds of the vineyards producing a dozen varietals. At the Lodi winery where Zinfandel rules, the soil has become so rich with biodiversity that the mustard weed growing in the 8-foot wide rows has shot up more than 7 feet high between the vines.

“It’s the tallest mustard I’ve ever seen,” Reed said.

Also, rich blankets of crimson clover and snow pea plants have attracted many butterflies and bees pollinating in the vineyards.

“It helps with organic matter and fertilizer and makes the soil happy,” said Rose, who refrains from using any synthetic fertilizer. Rose pays $450 a truckload and $5 per ton to Recology and insists the expense is well worth it.

“Some (farmers) have bought into it. I just know you have to spend money to make money,” he said.

Our climate’s quest for water, fueled by drought

Another advantage to “feeding” the soil in a region plagued with persistent drought involves the tremendous water savings.

On March 18, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted this summer’s drought conditions will probably inundate the U.S. West and High Plains. NOAA described the weather event as “the most significant U.S. spring drought since 2013, impacting approximately 74 million people,” according to spokeswoman Jasmine Blackwell.

California’s Department of Water Resources recorded the winter’s third manual snow survey early this month and found a reduced spigot of storms descended on the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range this winter, diminishing the snowpack.

DWR uses the snow survey calculations to determine water allocations for consumers to drink and farmers to hydrate their land. More than 750,000 acres  cover the state.

With below-average precipitation in California, its reservoirs are showing the impacts of a second dry year. Lake Oroville stands at 55% of average and Lake Shasta, California’s largest, now stands at 68%.

Most eco-conscious activists agree that, with the climate’s changing patterns that lead to decreasing water supplies and die-offs of pollinators, a lot more needs to be done to help keep our water and food supplies plentiful.

A teaching moment, healthy recipe for our planet

One such effort to help the process includes demonstrations and instructional webinars from conservation districts in which farmers learn climate-smart agricultural methods designed to save water and grow flourishing crops.

Rath recommends farmers seek new ways to compost their soils and use cover crops intended to woo and feed pollinators. In turn, they can feed us as a society, he said during the “Building Healthy Soils and Creating Wildlife” webinar put on by the Solano County Resource Conservation District.

A sampling of recommended pollinator plants

Nettleleaf giant hyssop

Yarrow

Coastal sand verbena

Gumplant

Milkweed

Western vervain

Coyote mint

Indian hemp

Mountain monardella

Pacific aster

Goldenrod

Sunflowers

Black and desert sage

Rabbitbrush

Willow

There’s evidence of shocking signs of near extinction events of these pollinators, as summarized in scientist Jessa Kay Cruz’s presentation on “Creating On-Farm Habitat for Pollinators.”

“We’ve lost 50% of our monarch butterfly population over the last 30 years,” she said during the webinar, attributing their demise to habitat loss, pesticides and climate change conditions. With summer imposing higher temperatures into the fall, the butterflies are essentially fooled by what season they’re in and don’t follow normal migratory habits.

“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” she later told the Business Journal.

Bumblebee and North American butterfly populations are also on the ropes.

“Pollinators are declining at an alarming rate. It’s a really dire story,” she said during the webinar, while referring to the Xereces Society’s annual count along the California shores through northern Baja.

To get a clear picture of why it matters to the agricultural industry and appreciators of nature, consider this: 85% of flowering plants require an animal to move the pollen. The process enables 35% of crop production in the United States worth at least $18 billion, according to the Xereces Society.

“That’s one in three food bites,” she said.

Are farmers on board with new methods of growing crops through “regenerative” agriculture that supports caring for the soil and using cover crops?

It’s an industry that’s operated a certain way for generations and one that looks for things to “pencil out” economically.

Still, Cruz is optimistic that most growers have turned the tide to a way of thinking that has proven unsustainable for the industry.

“I really do see farmers reading the writing on the wall,” she said.

Recology Account Manager Erin Levine pitches the program to many of the more than 300 farms the organization serves. Not all farmers buy into the climate-changing science, but the work in progress is gaining ground when it becomes an economic issue to these salt-of-the-earth types, she noted.

The motivator for green initiatives is the greenbacks they deliver, Levine explained.

“They’re finding the financial incentives. (The practices) increase their yield and they get more, healthier crops,” she said.“ Biodiversity is the name of the game.”

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