From the Field

Diversified Farming Hits Hurdles in California’s Central Coast

The Central Coast is a crucial region for organic agriculture. Even here, farmers face persistent barriers to adopting diversified farming practices.

August 30, 2022

By Austin Price

Noncrop vegetation provides habitat for wildlife but is often removed, according to stringent food safety standards. Photos provided by Kenzo Esquivel

Other barriers come through supply chain pressures, such as stringent food safety standards decided by buyers. In 2006, a deadly outbreak of E. coli was traced back to bagged spinach grown in California’s Central Coast. No definitive cause for the outbreak was ever identified, according to research by Daniel Karp, an associate professor of biology at UC Davis and a former postdoc at ESPM, but the blame fell on wildlife, particularly birds who roosted in vegetation adjacent to farms. To reduce food safety risks, farmers started feeling pressure to clear out this vegetation – eliminating large swaths of wildlife habitat in the process.

Not only is this practice at odds with organic certification by the USDA that stipulates that organic farmers “maintain or improve” biodiversity on farms, it also isn’t backed by science. In fact, Karp’s lab at UC Davis has been gathering evidence in the Central Coast that maintaining bird habitat could actually “mitigate food-safety risks and decrease crop damage from birds,” contrary to current buyer mandates. More research in this area is forthcoming.

Of course, there’s no silver bullet to addressing these persistent barriers. Other recent papers from this team discuss the “sweet spot” for diversified farmers, which Esquivel describes as the right combination of individual and structural factors that enable farmers to adopt diversified farming practices and maintain them with sustainability.

But this recent paper also discusses a range of both farm level innovations and policy changes, ranging from state-level policy on farmland acquisition, to science-based food safety standards, to farmer-to-farmer training, to state support for climate smart farming through programs like California’s Healthy Soils Program. “Solving these barriers will take some strategic and creative thinking from policymakers,” says Esquivel, “while also supporting farmers on the ground.”

Liz Carlisle, co-lead with Esquivel, an assistant professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, and BFI alum, sees a throughline from some of these local discussions to next year’s Farm Bill. “One of the most interesting insights that emerged from this project is that diversifying farms requires policy action at all levels,” she says. “The 2023 Farm Bill is the most high profile vehicle for such policies, and we’ve identified a number of specific opportunities we see there.”

The paper was supported by a Coupled Natural and Human Systems grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Timothy Bowles, BFI’s co-associate faculty director, and a team that includes BFI founding co-faculty directors Alastair Iles and Claire Kremen, and a roster of soil scientists, social scientists, wildlife biologists, and policy experts associated with CDFS. Nina F. Ichikawa, BFI’s executive director, is listed as a coauthor for providing policy expertise.

Learn more about diversified farming and its barriers in California