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Local Farmers Share Thoughts on Climate Change, Sustainability

Rising temperatures, more frequent heat waves and wildfires are growing concerns for farmers

Farmworkers load up boxes of freshly harvested organic lettuce for the Lakeside Organic Gardens label. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Pajaro Valley’s agriculture businesses and the employees that keep them running are starting to feel the heat, literally.

Rising temperatures and more frequent heat waves and wildfires are growing concerns for farmers in the typically cool, coastal stretch of land that overlaps Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

That’s according to a recent survey conducted by Regeneración-Pajaro Valley Climate Action, a nonprofit that seeks to make agriculture both more sustainable for farmers and safer for the workers toiling in the fields.

Earlier this month at its second Climate of Hope forum, conducted virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Regeneración released the results of its 2019 survey that asked local farmers about their experiences with changing weather patterns and how that might be affecting their crops and employees.

The majority of respondents said they are experiencing more heat waves and higher day-to-day temperatures. Those warmer days have elongated California’s fire season, according to Cal Fire, producing more instances in which wildfire smoke has filled the air. That, in turn, is leading to damaged crops and more frequent work stoppages, both of which have hurt farmers’ profits.

“Those temperatures are not only bad for humans, but they’re bad for the crops that grow in the area,” said JSM Organics owner Javier Zamora, who joined the virtual conference from his Royal Oaks farm where he grows strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, peppers and cut flowers.

The survey, conducted in unison with Cal State Monterey Bay’s graduate environmental studies program, also gauged farmers’ interest in initiatives that could improve their farms’ sustainability. Most said increasing innovation in rainwater capture and adding protections and financial support for farmworkers during work stoppages would make the largest impacts. Receiving funding to make the switch from traditional sprinkler irrigation to a drip irrigation was also a top priority.

Zamora also championed organic farming and said that many people have become more conscious of their food and how it is grown, which he said is a critical step to making agriculture more sustainable.

“What we do now will make our future generations more successful or will make them fail faster—it could ruin what we have here,” he said.

Zamora was one of three panelists who spoke during the conference. Dr. Flavio Cornejo of Salud Para la Gente and Claudia Tibbs, a sustainability professional and conservation communicator for La Eco Latina, joined Zamora on the panel.

Watsonville Mayor Rebecca Garcia gave the introduction. Yana Garcia, the deputy secretary for environmental justice, tribal affairs and border relations at the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), and State Assemblyman Robert Rivas were the keynote speakers.

Five farmers participated in the survey, which was available in English and Spanish. It was part of the Regeneración’s Heat Stress Prevention Campaign, which was partially funded through the CalEPA’s Small Environmental Justice Grants program. Regeneración also developed a brochure of how people can protect themselves from heat exhaustion during brutal manual labor—commonplace for farmworkers during the peak of the summer season.

Regeneración Executive Director Nancy Faulstich said the 2019 survey was the natural progression of the organization’s previous survey that shone a light on how climate change—especially warmer summer and fall weather—is disproportionately affecting the poorest of the poor in the Pajaro Valley.

That survey polled dozens of area residents, many of whom identified as farmworkers. Faulstich said she hopes the two surveys will start a conversation about climate change that will produce innovative solutions that can help farmers and their employees.

“We hope the forum connected the dots about thinking holistically in making agriculture more sustainable,” she said.

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