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California’s sustainable farms offer lessons in climate resilience

"Farming without a net"

The bustle of birds and insect pollinators is the first thing you notice at Full Belly Farm in Guinda, about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco in the Capay Valley, where Judith Redmond and her partners started farming four decades ago.

On this early morning in August, a hot, dry wind is blowing through the valley, fanning the flames that are devouring the parched lands on either side of Redmond’s 400-acre organic farm, where chickens, pigs and sheep forage alongside vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and flowers.  

The day before, that wind fueled a fast-moving fire about 25 miles northwest of the farm that incinerated dozens of mobile homes. The massive Caldor and Dixie fires were continuing to spread to the east and north, and a gray smoky haze hung in the air.

But fire is just one of the farm’s climate-related challenges, Redmond said. “At the moment, all of us are very, very concerned about the water situation and the drought.”

“For a long time we were seeing an increase in both large and small farms, but in the last ag census we saw a decline in small farms,” said Jeanne Merrill, policy director at California Climate and Agriculture Network, or CalCAN, a coalition of sustainable and organic farming organizations. 

Diversified small and midsize farmers, who tend to 500 acres or less, can’t rely on the stable of consultants and university extension advisers that help larger operations get through extreme weather events, said Merrill. “It is getting much harder with water constraints, with heat events, with catastrophic wildfire to survive.”

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