Climate, Land Protection

Can California’s protected farmland fight climate change?

November 30, 2020

Heat waves, an increasingly long and dangerous fire season, severe flooding in the winter and drastically shifting weather patterns.

The threat of climate change has risen to the forefront of public consciousness in recent years. No one is immune to its impacts, and farmers and ranchers are especially vulnerable.

As challenges intensify, many solutions are being offered to combat this crisis — from planting millions of trees to innovating electric car technology to passing state legislation to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

One powerful tool to address climate change is putting in action land use planning policies that preserve working farms and ranches.

The impacts of the loss of farmland in California

Farmland is disappearing across America. We are losing family farms and ranches at a rate of 175 acres every hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. That’s three acres every minutes. California, despite its progressive politics, is not immune to this threat to farmland, especially as the affordable housing crisis increases pressure for residential development.

California is the nation’s most productive agricultural state, growing one-half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. However, according to the California Department of Conservation, California loses an astonishing average of just under 50,000 acres per year due to development.

When examining the loss of farmland, most MALT supporters have a strong understanding of how it impacts wildlife habitat, food security, the rural economy and communities.

What many people do not realize is that certain types of land uses increase greenhouse gas emissions while others can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, importantly, policies that protect farmland can reduce future GHG emissions.

The link between climate change and land use

In 2012, UC Davis researchers released a study examining GHG emissions for different types of land use. The study found that GHG emissions for urban lands in Yolo County were 70 times greater than for irrigated cropland. This study showed that protecting working agricultural lands — rather than converting them to urban use — can reduce potential climate change emissions. This reduction is largely a result of eliminating future increased emissions from decentralized urban development including transportation associated with it.

Agricultural land at the edge of urban areas is at the greatest risk of conversion to urban development, and it is at this urban edge where the greatest climate gains can be made.

“The decisions we make today will determine if our wetlands, rangelands, farms, forests and urban green spaces become an asset or a liability in the fight against climate change.”

– Robert Rivas, Assemblymember, 30th California Assembly District

Not only is protecting farmland important to fighting climate change, but supporting and emphasizing certain practices can also have major impacts. Sustainable, regenerative farming practices have the potential to sequester huge amounts of carbon in our grasslands, farms and soils.

Policies and programs that protect farmland and promote sustainable agriculture, such as strong urban growth boundaries and funding for agricultural conservation easements, can play a key role in state efforts to reduce climate change emissions.

California invests in farmland conservation as strategy to combat climate change

Prior to 2015, California funded agricultural land conservation through a variety of federal, state and local funding mechanisms. In all, between 1994 and 2014, California spent approximately $85 million (about $4 million per year) towards purchasing conservation easements to protect working agricultural lands from development.

In 2015, everything changed.

That year California launched the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation (SALC) Program, which is a competitive grants program that primarily funds agricultural conservation easements. This is the first program in the country to invest in farmland conservation as a strategy to avoid future GHG emissions associated with transportation and urban development. Money for this program comes from California’s Cap-and-Trade Program which sets a limit on most emissions and creates a market for companies to buy and sell emission allowances.

Here at MALT, we know that SALC is a game changer. Since its inception in 2015, SALC has provided approximately $40 million per year to fund farmland protection — 10 times the amount the state previously invested per year.                        

For each of the projects SALC has funded, nine factors were used to determine the risk of converting the land to urban use. For every agricultural conservation easement funded through SALC, the emissions that were being avoided by keeping the property in agricultural use were carefully calculated and quantified.      

As of January 2019, 60 easements had been funded, 90,000 acres protected and 47 million metric tons of CO2 over thirty years were avoided — equivalent to removing almost 10 million cars from the road for one year.       

So how is MALT mitigating the impacts of climate change in Marin?

Protecting farmland as a strategy to combat climate change is not limited to state action.

MALT has been successfully leveraging private donations and public funding to protect 86 family farms and more than 54,000 acres over the past four decades. In addition to the SALC program, funds from the California Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board and Marin County’s Measure A have been instrumental in recent years in increasing MALT’s pace of agricultural land protection.

Our successful strategy is three-fold:

  1. We are protecting farmland through our tried-and-true conservation easement program. More than 54,000 acres to date. When we keep land in agriculture forever, we avoid future development-related emissions. Fewer car trips, no new construction-related emissions, no paving over of carbon-storing soil.
  2. We are partnering with farmers and ranchers to plan and implement carbon farming practices to promote sustainable, regenerative farming practices. For example, this past summer we worked with a MALT-protected ranch and other allies to plant 90 willows and 30 buckeye trees to restore a sensitive riparian corridor. This streambank restoration project will help reduce erosion, increase soil water retention in adjacent pastures, provide nesting habitat for native birds and shade for livestock and wildlife, enhance water quality in the Petaluma River watershed and increase carbon capture.
  3. We are actively involved in advocating for improved policy at the county and state level. We are providing the on-the-ground expertise and knowledge to ensure that carbon farming and agricultural practices are part of the bigger suite of solutions to address climate change.

We are proud of our ongoing work to protect agricultural land for farming, for food, for wildlife and for community. We are also proud to be a part of the movement to implement long-term climate change solutions.

Please join us today and help in the fight against climate change.

Learn more!