Sustainability on a dairy farm means responsible water use, too

By John Talbot, California Milk Advisory Board

June is National Dairy Month, and as you’d expect we are in full swing at the California Milk Advisory Board promoting the great health benefits of dairy, the industry’s contributions to our state’s economy and our commitment to sustainable practices that preserve and enhance our environment.

We’re quite proud of that last point. Dairy farmers have made considerable investments to be as sustainable and environmentally responsible as possible. In fact, since the end of World War II, dairy farmers in California and the rest of the nation have reduced the overall carbon footprint of a glass of milk by 63 percent.

And they’ve employed some high-tech measures to make that happen. For example, many dairies now use anaerobic digesters to capture methane and turn it into energy or clean transportation fuel that could partially replace diesel and reduce pollution from heavy-duty trucks traveling our busy California highways.

But being sustainable is more than reducing greenhouse gas emissions to lessen the impacts of a changing climate. How we use water is just as important. In the last 70 years, dairy farmers have continually improved their water use efficiency, so much so that today it takes about two-thirds less water to produce each glass of California milk than it did in the 1940s. That’s an incredible stat, and speaks volumes to dairy farmers’ lasting commitment to sustainability in providing such a nutrient-dense product.

Water recycling is standard practice on today’s dairy farms, where farmers use every drop to its maximum benefit. Water can be used four, sometimes five, different times within a single dairy. Clean water is used to cool large metal milk vats. That water is then used to wash the cows. That water is sent to lagoons for storage and used multiple times to flush manure out of the barns. Water from lagoons is turned into nutrient water that is used to water field crops that feed the cows. And excess water from the fields is collected in a drain pump and then used to re-irrigate fields. If that isn’t the epitome of reusing water, I don’t know what is.

In the fields, farmers are experimenting with sub-surface drip irrigation to grow feed crops, such us corn and alfalfa. Some farmers have even seen a 25 percent reduction in water use with 20-25 percent increase in average pound of feed produced. 

While farmers think about water use all of the time, the drought has made all of us aware that water should not be treated as an infinite resource. Along with many other farming and ranching organizations, at the height of the drought last year the dairy industry recognized the need to bridge a knowledge gap between urban consumers and farmers when it comes to water use. The result is the Cultivate California program, which informs Californians about the pivotal role not just dairy farmers but all farmers and ranchers play in growing the delicious, healthy, safe and affordable foods that feed California families, and our continuing commitment to using water efficiently, responsibly and sustainably.

Farmers and ranchers care deeply about being stewards of the land – and our water. Our livelihoods depend on it. Because we know without water, we won’t be able to keep the state on our plate.

Complementary California Efforts Focused on Innovation in Farming and Ranching

By Cory Lunde, Western Growers

It’s been a tough several years for California farmers and ranchers. Four, and now perhaps five, years of drought have made it increasingly challenging, and more expensive, for the farming community to maintain business as usual. On top of decreased water deliveries that led to hundreds of thousands of acres of fallowed farmland and direct economic impacts estimated at $1.8 billion, California farmers were also repeatedly criticized in 2015 for the amount of water needed to grow the food and farm products that Californians – and the world – rely on every day.

Yet, despite the historically dry conditions and the increased scrutiny about the natural resources necessary to grow and raise our food supply, I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of farming and ranching in the Golden State. Condemnation of California agriculture has quieted – perhaps because we are finally experiencing some much needed precipitation in some portions of the state, but also because Californians are experiencing an increased level of awareness and appreciation about the realities of water use on the farm.

Cultivate California, a public outreach program that launched in December 2015, is focused on highlighting how farmers and ranchers use water efficiently and responsibly and emphasizing the importance of providing farmers with a sustainable water supply to ensure they can continue to produce the vegetables, fruits, nuts, dairy, meat and fiber products that feed and clothe our families.

Western Growers – an organization that represents local and regional family farmers who grow fresh produce in California and other Western states – is a proud supporter of Cultivate California. We believe that sharing this information is critical to raising consumers’ understanding about the interconnectivity between farming and food, as well as the importance of innovation in farming.

This latter point is something Western Growers is championing via its new endeavor, the Center for Innovation & Technology, or CIT. The CIT is a technology incubator headquartered in Salinas, Calif., and designed to connect technology entrepreneurs with farmers and ranchers in order to develop groundbreaking, creative solutions to the biggest challenges facing agriculture. Chief among those challenges is how agriculture can respond in an era of dwindling resources.

Currently 10 startups have taken up residence at the CIT, but this is just the beginning. The CIT will support these companies as they develop their ideas, with the goal of ultimately assisting them as they build themselves into viable companies down the line. Access to the agriculture industry provided through the CIT is unprecedented in California, and tenants are already benefiting from regular face time with the farming and ranching organizations that will ultimately become their customers.

All of agriculture is being asked to do more while relying on fewer inputs. Can we use less water, apply fewer pesticides and get by with less labor, yet still grow enough – or better, grow more – to feed the nation and world? These are questions worth asking, and through the CIT and programs like Cultivate California, we think we are on the right track to finding the answers.

The California Connection: Highlighting the food we love to eat & the farms and ranches that grow it

By Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition

I have been working in the farming industry nearly all of my life. When I was 15, my father moved us from the Bay Area to a farm we had owned in Merced County for many years. Years later, I ran the Young Farmers and Ranchers leadership program for the California Farm Bureau and served for 11 years as the executive director for the Merced County Farm Bureau. And for nearly two decades, I’ve been working with the farming community through the California Farm Water Coalition.

During my time in agriculture, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of the men and women who run and work California farms, ranches and dairies. I’ve learned firsthand and from others about the patience and precision needed to raise crops and animals, and about farmers’ relentless commitment to producing high-quality and affordable foods to feed California families. It’s a responsibility they do not take lightly.

I realize that my experience and understanding is not universal among all Californians. Many who’ve grown up in metropolitan regions of our state have never been to a ranch and have never met a farmer. They haven’t had the pleasure of picking an apple straight from a tree, and they may not know the state they call home leads the country in production of dairy and many fruits and vegetables.

This is why I’m so encouraged by the Cultivate California program and the website you see here. The program aims to bring Californians together to better understand the true value of farming and ranching and to introduce them to some of the same hardworking men and women in agriculture whom I have personally spoken with over the years.

California’s historic drought has thrown our farms and ranches into the spotlight in a way we haven’t seen before. And that’s also why this program is important. Despite a deep admiration for the bounty of food grown here, research conducted to help develop the Cultivate California program found that a large portion of our population is unaware of the many ways farmers and ranchers are doing their part to invest in new technologies and sustainable, water-efficient practices.

In all of my time associated with farming, I’ve wanted to be part of an effort that aims to tell a cohesive, unified story about the value of farming in a way that really resonates with Californians. Agriculture is vital to the health of our local, state and national economies and touches each of us every single day. Through Cultivate California, it’s my hope that our collective understanding about farming and ranching continues to be nurtured and grow.