Aarij Bashir: Punjabi Farmers and the Healthy Soils Program

The recent Goldman School graduate highlights the barriers farmers of color face in accessing state Climate Smart Agriculture funds.

October 13, 2022

By Austin Price

Farmer Arshdeep Singh checks on his recently planted citrus orchard in Fresno County. Photos by Austin Price

Farmer Surjan Singh on his family’s almond orchard in Fresno County.

What are some of those issues that you highlight in the report?

The biggest one – and I kept hearing this again and again – is that the application process is too difficult. It requires a COMET-Planner and a mapping tool that needs to be exact. When you’re mapping out the land where you plan to apply the funds, the system will reject your application altogether if you’re off by point-one acre, or if you include something like a shed or part of a driveway. Some farmers would even say to me, “Hey, I have an engineering background, and I still can’t figure this out.” And applications are often rejected or sent back for corrections if there is one small typo. That discourages a lot of farmers to do the application, especially farmers who don’t speak English, or those who do not have the same level of education as others.

Another main issue is the lack of flexibility in how farmers use the practices. One of the parameters is that the practice is applied to a mapped-out part of the farm for three years. If you rotate your crops or change your cover crop, you don’t meet those guidelines, so there is not a lot of flexibility built into the program for diversified farming operations. I have been told that CDFA has been working on making the program more flexible. But farmers still say these parameters can be fairly rigid.

One important issue that came up is that there’s not enough technical assistance or knowledge provided to the farmers about the benefits of these practices and how they can best be implemented. The technical assistance program is more like a grant-writing program at this stage, because all the assistance providers contracted by the CDFA are so busy helping farmers get their applications in and approved that they don’t have the time or resources to really talk to farmers about their farms and what practices do or do not make sense in terms of holistic soil health.

The last issue I’ll mention is the first-come, first-served application process. CDFA used to do batch processing for the first few years of the program, when the amount of funding was lower and easier to manage. I work for government, so I completely understand how a first-come, first-served processing is more efficient in getting the funding out. The challenge, however, is that it takes time for farmers to understand what the system requires or work with technical assistance providers to apply, especially if they do not speak English or are not tech savvy. On the other hand, many large farms can afford staff that are trained to do this and know what the system requires. Small-scale farmers and minority farming communities should not be expected to produce the same quality of application in the same timeframe as some of these larger farmers with resources dedicated to grant writing. It’s important to note that some Punjabi owned farms could be considered large-scale. It was interesting for me to see that they had issues accessing the program as well, but these accessibility issues increased with the smaller-scale farmers.

The current program gives an unfair advantage. The easiest option is to make no changes, but here is an opportunity for CDFA to commit resources to making the program more approachable, to provide access to information to everybody.

Your report includes policy recommendations for fixing some of these issues. What were some of the criteria you used to approach and present policy options?

I built a policy matrix based on five factors and evaluated options according to these criteria: equity, increased adoption of the program, increased number of applications, farmer centricity, and political feasibility. Political feasibility is a key factor when suggesting solutions because I want to focus on improvements to the program that could be realistically implemented. Based on that matrix, I present two recommendations. One of them is a no-brainer. It’s a list of suggestions for equity-based improvements that could be made relatively quickly, even before the upcoming application cycle – suggestions like going back to batch application processing, allowing farmers with short-term land tenure to participate, and giving technical assistance providers more time to conduct outreach. Overall, making the program more farmer-centric.

The second recommendation is for CDFA to experiment with the block grant approach and administer the program through a third-party provider. The idea is that CDFA can deliver Healthy Soils Program funds through an organization on the ground with farming communities, and this organization could then run the program. Using the Punjabi community as a proof of concept, the delivery partner could be the Punjabi American Growers Group or UC Cooperative Extension. I initially thought that this option might not be politically feasible, but there’s precedence of block grant pilots in other CDFA programs, like the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program.

As the Healthy Soils Program grows, it’s interesting to see how there might be a trade-off between one of your criteria – increased adoption of healthy soils practices by acreage – and other criteria like equity and number of applicants. How does this factor into how CDFA might approach these recommendations?

I realize that in order to make the changes I propose, CDFA has to recognize that the Healthy Soils Program has an issue with equity the way it is currently running. If the aim of the program is to get the money out as quickly as possible, and to extend to as many acres as possible, then yes, its current approach is working. It’s easier to give a small number of large grants to large-scale farmers than to give a large number of smaller grants to a variety of farmers. Large-scale, mostly white farmers are vying for the max for each funding category.

But I feel that the CDFA needs a mindset change toward equity. I have heard some CDFA staff members say that providing information to any particular community would give an unfair advantage. But the current program gives an unfair advantage. The easiest option is to make no changes, but here is an opportunity for CDFA to commit resources to making the program more approachable, to provide access to information to everybody. The more transparent – the more equitable – the system is, and the more access people have to the knowledge and resources to better manage the soil on their land, the better the outcomes, in my opinion.