Farmers and Wildlife
Balancing between food and nature.
Food labels like “bird-friendly” enable us to help protect wildlife with our buying choices. But it’s not always that simple. No label can convey all the ways that farming and ranching affect nature. That’s why The Nature Conservancy is partnering with food producers around the world to find ways to have both the food we need and nature we love.
In late afternoon the Santa Clara River valley looks like a movie backdrop from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Braids of water unfurl between low mountains washed in soft blues and pinks. This is the Santa Clara River. It’s the last large free-flowing river in southern California and it harbors more threatened species than is found in all of Yosemite.
It feels a million miles away from Los Angeles but peek over the mountains and it’s there. Most Angelinos have no idea that this holdout of Old California is in their backyard.
It also happens to be the heart of the nation’s ninth most valuable county in terms of agricultural production – avocadoes, lemons and more – and half the water used to grow the food comes from the Santa Clara.
You are likely connected to this river and simple everyday choices you make can contribute to its fate.
EJ Remson, Conservancy senior program director, has spent 10 years here buying acres and land preservation agreements from willing landowners. He’s stitched together a remarkable 13.4 miles of protected habitat in one of the fastest developing parts of the country, providing shelter, forage and safe passage for wildlife like mountain lions, songbirds and steelhead trout.
“I love this river. It’s the last best hope for so many species,” explains EJ. “I love the puzzle of it. For so many years farming depended on the Santa Clara, and now the river depends on them.”
Rivers in arid places are unruly. They sprawl wide when snowmelt rushes down the mountains and then shrink in the long summers. Many stretches of river in Southern California have been confined with levees or turned into concrete channels to keep water out of homes and businesses. But orchards don’t mind getting their feet wet.
“If farms leave the valley they’ll be replaced with suburban sprawl,” explains EJ. Yet farmers her face constant challenges, including well-meaning land use regulations that could backfire for nature if farming families give up. That’s why EJ spends a lot more time with farmers than frogs. Farmers like Chris Sayer.
Chris’s family farms than a hundred acres here, much of which is right at the river and floods. That’s not a problem for his lemon and avocado trees. Yet like other farmers in the valley he’s facing a different kind of flood: cheap – and often unregulated – produce from outside the U.S.
“We think we may be able to do a bit better economically if we go towards boutique crops and take advantage of interest in local food,” explains Chris.
He switched some of his land to Meyer lemons, which can fetch a higher price, and is testing out 15 different other varieties of fruit, including figs, which have the added bonus of being more resilient to changing weather patterns.
“We’ve been having higher highs and lower lows and less consistent rainfall. I’ll let politicians and scientists argue about why that is, but the fact is it’s happening. What I’m doing is experimenting with other crops so we have more flexibility and can adapt.”
When the Conservancy buys ecologically critical acres from valley farmers, that infusion of funds can help make diversification steps like this possible.
And now Chris is playing a leadership role in helping connect fellow valley farmers to the local, high-end buyers he’s building relationships with – often by showing up armed with a box of avocadoes and the persuasive power of total conviction that Ventura Country produce is the best in the world.
This tenaciousness is good news for nature.
“We have habitat that runs through the farm. Coyotes move through it. We hear owls every night. I haven’t personally seen mountain lions. I’ve seen their tracks. Someone spotted one on my property. People in the valley know that they’re out there and generally there’s no concern with it.”
EJ is partnering with Chris and other farmers through the Farm Bureau to secure policies that benefit both nature and farms. A major goal was recently achieved: a floodplain protection program will now enable farmers to be compensated for letting their lands take in floodwater, keeping it out of communities.
Produce from Ventura County is available in markets throughout the U.S., so take note of tiny stickers and signs by bins when picking up ingredients for guacamole, lemonade and fruity desserts. It could be an opportunity to support southern California's last wild river and the species that depend on it.
Ultimately, though, the nexus between food, water and nature is incredibly complex and there are few easy answers. Thanks to our supporters, experts like EJ are working around the world to find new ways to strike a healthy balance between our plates, our water and our own backyards.September 21, 2011