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Ag community welcomes more environmentally friendly farming but says it'll take money


California Bioenergy builds biogas digesters like this one in manure lagoons spreading over several acres in dairies outside Bakersfield. Digesters that capture methane wafting from Kern County dairies are at the heart of California's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California's agricultural community made clear in a series of public meetings last month that growers, dairies and ranchers stand ready to expand forward-thinking environmental practices — but that such activities don't necessarily make financial sense without some form of government support.

Their message of enthusiastic, if somewhat conditional, embrace of biodiversity and carbon sequestration efforts carried across a new, 39-page draft document that lists many ways ag producers say they can help California's fight against climate change.

Based on feedback gathered during six online sessions in February, the state's dairies look forward to putting certain waste to beneficial use, ranchers want to help protect against wildfires and growers are eager to bury carbon that might otherwise escape to the atmosphere.

But in case after case, the report suggests carrying out these strategies raises costs prohibitively, such that ag producers might not move forward without financial support of some kind. Often the suggestions offered were for the state to step in with taxpayer-funded incentives.

Participants in February's comment sessions also expressed concerns that farmers and ranchers already feel overburdened by regulations and paperwork requirements. They generally called for streamlining existing regulations and avoiding imposition of new ones.

The report came as a response to Gov. Gavin Newsom's October executive order calling for action to promote biodiversity, enhance resiliency and otherwise conserve California agricultural and other lands. The governor pushed for conserving 30 percent of the state's land and coastal waters by 2030 while supporting "economic sustainability" and food security through collaboration.

Environmentalists welcomed the directive even as farmers expressed caution it might lead to unfunded mandates or new operational restrictions.

The draft released March 30 spans a great number of proposals, some of them already being practiced in California in one form or another, sometimes on a demonstration basis paid for by state grants.

Public comments on the draft can be submitted to The deadline for submissions is 5 p.m. April 30, 2021.

California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said in a news release that input from the ag community was critical and so she was pleased the six sessions drew comments from a total of 322 participants.

"We look forward to building upon this report in collaboration with our sister agencies to identify recommendations and strategies to meet the state’s carbon neutrality goals," she stated.

In a section of the report dealing with dairy and livestock operations, a wide variety of anonymous suggestions included proposals for exporting surplus nutrients contained in cow manure. It said some should be spread onto cropland surrounding dairies that currently must import fertilizer. It called for "turning manure from a waste into an asset" with the help of incentive programs.

Another dairy-related idea that came up was to find ways to convert farm vehicles to run on "biomethane" produced by covering and fermenting waste in manure lagoons. Some local dairies do use the methane they generate but often it is refined and sold for use off site.

The report listed research topics that might be worthwhile for California ag, among them a study of how sheep and goat grazing can be used to lower wildfire risks, sequester carbon and improve soil quality.

There were also proposals for financial assistance to promote greater use of solar installations on farms and ranches. It called for spending as well on helping growers switch to farming methods that reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

Several suggestions were made with regard to what should be done with biomass, which is basically woody waste that in years past would be burnt openly or sent to an electrical generator running on trimmings.

One idea was to promote greater adoption of gasification technology, which turns biomass into liquid fuel plus biochar, or activated carbon. A gasification plant proposed in McFarland would be the first such facility in California.

Other recommendations ranged from making greater use of composting and mulching to funding farmers' three-year transition to organic farming to helping small farmers buy electric tractors.