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What’s the Future of Agriculture?
UC Merced Smart Farm
The new UC-Merced experimental “smart farm,” featuring data-collection technologies, renewable energy micro-grids and sustainability options, was one topic discussed at the “What’s the Future of Agriculture?” symposium held Thursday at Fresno State (Photo courtesy of UC Merced).

California agriculture is the envy of the world and despite myriad challenges — drought and the pandemic being at the forefront — farmers and ranchers are innovators who can be part of the climate solution.

That was the theme of the keynote message from Karen Ross, California’s Secretary of Food and Agriculture at the “What’s the Future of Agriculture?” symposium held Thursday at Fresno State.

Just as important, especially to local producers, is the need for increased flexibility and adaptability on the part of the state. Ross praised California’s farmers for thriving during a time of great hardship.

“Our most recent numbers are for 2021, which was in the heart of the drought. And just like in 2014, when I had to explain to Gov. Brown how we broke our gross revenue picture, in the midst of the worst drought we broke a new record with $51.1 billion in revenues in 2021,” said Ross, who pointed out that 70 percent of all farms in California are less than 100 acres. “That seems remarkable because were (also) in the midst of a pandemic. We know how disrupted our markets were at that time, we know how disrupted getting exports out was at that time, we know all the additional things that we were doing. … It shows the power of what we do in California, which is increasingly more with less.

“The fact that we sit here in the Central Valley, where all eight counties (Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern) are in the Top 10 producing counties of the country. And almost all of them produce more than the ag revenues of many, many countries in the world. They do that because people don’t give up.”

More than 700 individuals registered to attend the free, one-day in person and virtual summit. Sponsored by The Maddy Institute, in partnership with the Livermore Lab Foundation, Stanislaus State, Fresno State, CSU Bakersfield, UC Merced and Climate Now, the summit offered an opportunity for key agricultural stakeholders to discuss not only California’s 2045 net-neutrality deadline, but specific challenges related to water, pricing, subsidies and legislation. University-led panels offered innovative ideas on economics, repurposing lands, enhancing, and preserving water as well as what an experimental ‘smart farm’ might look like in the future.

Ross highlighted state policies and grant opportunities available to the agriculture community, but she made it clear the state’s goal was a partnership to achieve results. “There are 69,000 farms in California, 70 percent of which are under 100 acres,” she noted. “We want to partner with our farmers and ranchers to achieve results and not just rely on the regulatory process.

There is a place for regulation, but when it comes to restoration, habitat, and biodiversity, working directly with farmers and ranchers, environmental conservation and restoration groups is where we want to be.”

In addition, farmer and producer panels throughout the date also addressed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed by California in 2014. “In the long-term, SGMA is the right thing to do, said Dennis Parnagian owner, Fowler Packing Company. “But it’s challenging to get there.”

In a panel on ag policy, Fresno State President Saul Jiménez-Sandoval called on the state to value agriculture as highly as the movie industry in LA and Silicon Valley tech. Bill Smittcamp, president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods, emphasized the need for flexibility and adaptability at the state level.

“In agriculture, we can plan, we can forecast, but it’s never the same year to year.” Said Smittcamp. “When things change, we have immediate needs, and we need to have to be able to change on a dime.”

Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms near Firebaugh, concurred.

“Government is failing to react nimbly,” said Del Bosque. “We need new measures and new protocols.”

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory senior staff scientist and soil expert Jennifer Pett-Ridge provided the overall technical context for the event by identifying local and national opportunities for sustainable and productive farming. As a Department of Energy national laboratory, LLNL has placed climate resiliency as a core science and research value. In 2020, LLNL issued the comprehensive report “Getting to Neutral,” which identified pathways for California to reach net neutrality by 2045 —including natural land, bio-mass, direct air capture and geological storage solutions.

“Soils are at the nexus of carbon and energy, water and food security,” said Pett-Ridge. “We’re focusing on sustainable production systems, incentives, just outcomes and the scientific rigor to ensure climate benefits are measurable. Lawrence Livermore National Lab wants to provide the tools and data to shape state and national climate action plans.”

Throughout the day, specific panel discussions were led by each of the four universities including:

* Revenue growth opportunities for landowners facing fallowing land, including what land repurposing looks like in the Central Valley and how it can be done equitably — sponsored by CSU Stanislaus and moderated by CSUS professor Chantelise Pells.

* The California Water Institute and a discussion of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and how a water trading market might be developed in California — sponsored by Fresno State.

* The new UC-Merced experimental “smart farm,” featuring data-collection technologies, renewable energy micro-grids and sustainability options.

* The business and economics of agriculture, and how climate is impacting agriculture supply chains and business strategies. Sponsored by CSU Bakersfield.

Steve Blumenshine, CSU’s interim executive director of Water Advocacy Toward Education and Research saw value in the event.

“There are so many water interests and stakeholders in California, there wouldn't be any point in convening just CSU, UC or within a specific government agency,” said Blumenshine. “Everyone brings a different set of perspectives, values and currencies and deserves to be heard and represented in these conversations.”