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California’s Wildfire Season Looms. Regenerative Agriculture Could Offer Hope.

California may see an earlier fire season, but regenerative agriculturalists say benefits to their approach are visible.

People watch the Walbridge fire, part of the larger LNU Lightning Complex fire, from a vineyard in Healdsburg, California, on August 20, 2020.

Part of the Series

When Alexis Koefoed’s farm burned for the first time in 2008, she and her husband, who made a living raising pasture-grazing chickens at the time, lost 1,000 baby chicks and a brand-new barn. “I thought there could never be anything worse than this experience, until it happened three more times,” she said.

That first time, an arsonist was to blame. But parts of the farm, in Vacaville, California, ignited again in 2010 after an incident with power tools, and once more in 2013, though she doesn’t know what started that one. Then in August 2020, the “whole valley went up.”

At 1 am, Koefoed and her husband were given 10 minutes to evacuate. They grabbed their dogs, the deed to their house, and left. “We did not imagine we would ever come home,” Koefoed said.

The fire was part of the LNU Lightning Complex, started by the convergence of numerous lightning-sparked fires, which according to Solano County data, killed six people, scorched 192,000 acres and 1,491 structures, and burned for 46 days. In general, the 2020 fire season was the worst California has ever seen.

When Koefoed and her husband broke through the police barrier and made it back to their farm later that morning, the olive orchard was still ablaze. Embers the size of baseballs dropped from above. Pacific Gas and Electric had cut off their power, which meant water pumps weren’t working, so Koefoed and her husband and daughter spent six hours patting down the fire with shovels and small buckets of water they carried by hand from animal troughs. Miraculously, their house still stood, as did the lavender field. And they were able to save the olive trees.

How is it possible that any of Koefoed’s farm survived this fire? She wonders if her embrace of regenerative farming — a set of practices that restore soil health by mimicking natural processes — may have helped. In 2015, Koefoed shifted her philosophy on farming after coming across a lecture by Allan Savory, the Zimbabwean ecologist known for his systems-thinking approach to managing land. Before doing so, she had concentrated her efforts on taking care of the animals, trees and plants on her farm. But learning about Savory’s holistic farming practices caused her to flip her focus to the ground and work her way up. “First we’re building soil and everything else comes from that,” Koefoed said.

She stopped tilling the dirt. “No-till” practices help the soil sequester more carbon among other nutrients, and store water. She encouraged her animals to graze and added hedgerows (lines of native shrubs and trees which support pollinators).

Koefoed has not formally measured moisture levels since making these changes, but says she saw signs that things were shifting. Since she began employing more holistic practices six years ago, the grass stays greener later in the summer and there are more perennial grasses — signs of increased water-holding capacity.

“I think what the fire reinforced for me is that regenerative agriculture, managing the soil, using animals as grazers to build healthy soil is absolutely the direction to go in,” Koefoed said.

“As Soon as It Hit Our Grassland, It Slowed Down”

Other farmers and ranchers who have survived California wildfires have made similar observations.

Doniga Markegard is a cattle rancher in Half Moon Bay, where she leases 11,000 acres from regional parks, private land trusts, and other individual landowners. Markegard’s animals graze on grasses, instead of corn, as they’re often given on feedlots. Their grazing prevents the emergence of the most flammable kind of woody undergrowth that, when left unmanaged, contributes to fires growing hotter and getting out of hand. The animals eat and trim the grasses just enough to stimulate more root growth, which thereby improves water-holding capacity. Markegard moves them on to a new patch of land before they deplete the grasses, similar to how herds of wild animals used to migrate before humans built roads, cities and subdivisions.

Markegard says the benefits of the approach are visible, even to the untrained eye, during wildfire season.

In 2019, a brushfire began on a neighboring property, and spread quickly. “As soon as it hit our grassland, it slowed down,” Markegard described. Then, when CalFire arrived, they were able to cut a fuel break because unlike elsewhere, the fire had been tamed so much, they could walk over the land safely. If the land hadn’t been managed, Markegard speculates, the fire could have become devastating like so many others.

Markegard saw the same thing happen on other ranchers’ land last year. But she says there’s a marked absence of holistic practices on public lands, which contribute to the level of devastation of the 2020 wildfire season. Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest, was devastated by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, for instance. “The problem is that so many of these parks have removed agriculture. They’ve removed livestock and they haven’t put anything in its place to manage those lands. If you have no management, then a fire is going to come in and burn that vegetation,” Markegard said. The founding of many state and national parks also entailed the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples living there, many of whom practiced traditional ecological knowledge, which what we now call regenerative agriculture draws from.

According to an article published in January 2021 in the journal Global Environmental Change, the removal of livestock grazing, which in the study area in the Rocky Mountains declined 62 percent since 1940, can lead to decreases in biodiversity, increases in fuel loads for wildland fire and encroachment of trees and shrubs into meadows. Project Drawdown calls managed grazing number 16 of the top 100 solutions for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.

Lightning Could Strike Anywhere

On account of ongoing megadrought conditions in the state, climate scientists say California could be on track for an even earlier and more grim fire season this year. Half of the U.S. is also experiencing drier than usual or drought conditions.

Amid the ongoing risk, farmers, ranchers, and other land stewards are making their usual preparations. Pie Ranch is a regenerative farm in Pescadero dedicated to food accessibility and youth education. Co-founder Jered Lawson told Truthout those working the land on their ranch are removing eucalyptus trees and replanting with a more diverse landscape in partnership with the Native Stewardship Corp of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which is bringing back cultural burns to the area, a practice that restores culturally significant plants and helps mitigate the risk of devastating fires. The Indigenous women-led Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which facilitates the return of Native land to Native people in San Francisco’s East Bay area, has built its first community resiliency center in anticipation of future fires and power outages. The center combines a ceremonial space, seed saving library, first-aid supplies, and food and medicine gardens.

But only so much is in the realm of control of a single farm or land trust, since lightning could strike anywhere.

Fire departments should more formally partner with farmers and ranchers on fire management, Lawson and Markegard say, because they know the land intimately. State governments might consider re-embracing grazing as a fire prevention strategy.

Reforms to fire insurance are also needed. A report quantifying the impacts of last year’s wildfires by the California Council on Science and Technology found that data on crop losses to wildfire is not systematically tracked across the state, and that high-value crops in California are not covered by federal crop insurance. Only 50 percent of agricultural producers have insurance, the report found. Of all that burned on Koefoed’s farm — decades worth of work — only a shipping container and a barn were covered by her policy. “Replacing 500 trees and waiting 22 years for them to grow is kind of an overwhelming idea,” Koefoed said.

Sherri Dugger, executive director of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, envisions farms and ranches like Koefoed’s, Lawson’s and Markegard’s dotting the landscape all over the country to feed communities fresh, healthy and locally raised foods and provide ecosystem services like fire management.

“The Farm System Reform Act, which will be reintroduced this year to Congress, and the Climate Stewardship Act, which was just reintroduced, are two really good first steps to supporting these regenerative-focused independent farmers, to halting environmental injustices, and to mitigating climate change,” Dugger told Truthout, noting that boosting regenerative agriculture programs might be funded by rerouting $25 billion in subsidies that industrial agriculture operations receive annually. A 2019 report by the Food and Land Use Coalition found that globally, just 1 percent of the $700 billion annually given to farmers is used to improve the environment and thereby, community well-being.

In 2023, the next U.S. Farm Bill is the Biden administration’s most significant opportunity to restructure, hold multinational corporate agribusinesses accountable for their pollution and reduce our agriculture system’s climate impact, Dugger said. It’s also an opportunity for the administration to call on farmers and agricultural workers to more formally collaborate on averting traumatic, high-carbon emitting wildfires on an economy-wide scale.

“We know the solution to managing the understory. We know that animal impact can make a huge difference in clearing out old debris and oxidized material,” Koefoed said. “But there’s just this disconnect between understanding this and moving it forward into the hands of decision makers.”

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