The success of California’s agricultural production, and the food security of its communities, is closely tied to the impacts of climate change. For additional background information and discussion of climate impacts and vulnerabilities of the Agricultural Sector, visit the Background & Climate Impacts information excerpted from the Adaptation Planning Guide and explore the Topic search below.
Despite the impacts of climate change, the diversity of California agriculture and the State's unique micro-climates offer a suite of potential opportunities to minimize negative impacts and improve resiliency. An agricultural food production sector resilient to climate change will remain diverse and highly productive in the midst of disruptions. State, regional, and local jurisdictions can support the efforts of California farmers and ranchers to adapt to climate change by developing tools, providing outreach and education opportunities, and incentivizing on-farm management practices that offer increased resiliency to climate change impacts. Example adaptation strategies are provided on the Adaptation Strategies page and can be found in many of the resources available by search below.
Defining the Sector
Agriculture is any activity that involves growing plants or fungi or raising animals to provide a product. Most agriculture produces food, but other agricultural products include ornamental plants, fibers such as cotton and wool, and medicinal plants. Agriculture often includes processing crops or livestock into a final product, such as converting grapes to wine.
Agriculture in California
Agricultural activities take place in all 58 counties of California, although the largest agricultural centers are in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. California produces over 400 different agricultural products and is effectively the only US producer of several products, including figs, garlic, olives, and walnuts. The state’s largest products are dairy, grapes, almonds, strawberries, and beef.
Agricultural activities usually require specialized land uses, such as fields, orchards, vineyards, greenhouses, and pastures. Processing and sales of products may require additional uses, such as farm stands, wineries and tasting rooms, commercial kitchens, or small-scale manufacturing facilities. Practices that take place on natural forest lands or tree plantations, such as harvesting trees for timber, are discussed in the Forests section of this guide. Practices that involve raising seafood, including fish, shellfish, aquatic plants, and related products, are discussed in the Ocean and Coast section of this guide.
California is by far the largest agricultural production state in the country. In 2017, California produced over $50 billion in agricultural products, almost twice that of the next most productive state. Agriculture varies widely across California and is found in most parts of the state, from citrus orchards near Riverside to the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley, and from small-scale farms to cattle ranches covering hundreds of thousands of acres. Most agricultural land is in unincorporated areas, although some incorporated communities, even in major urban areas, may have agricultural uses.
The primary climate change concern for agricultural activities is ensuring that they can remain economically viable in the face of changing temperature and precipitation patterns. Many communities depend on agriculture as a major employment sector and a key part of their economy. Some agricultural areas are prime tourist attractions, such as the wine-producing regions of Northern California and the Central Coast. The agriculture sector employs many members of frontline communities, including migrant and undocumented workers, so there are significant equity issues in this sector as well.
Many crops require a particular range of temperatures at different points in the year to be highly productive. If temperatures shift outside of this range, the plants may not be as productive, or the crops may not be as high in quality as buyers expect. For example, many nuts and stone-fruit trees require a specific number of hours each winter (called “chill hours”) where the outdoor temperature is below 45 degrees to help the flowers and leaves fully develop. Without enough chill hours, the trees produce fewer crops that are often of lower quality. On the other hand, some crops, such as rice and tomatoes, are susceptible to very high temperatures, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events can cause crop loss.
Changes to precipitation patterns are expected to affect crop growing throughout the state. Very wet years and floods caused by a rapidly melting snowpack can cause farmers to delay crop planting, and floods may wash away young plants and leach nutrients out of the soil. Shifts in precipitation patterns can cause significant harm to crops that are grown without irrigation, and even irrigated crops can suffer during intense drought conditions if not enough water for irrigation is available.
Livestock such as cattle and chickens are also susceptible to climate change. Very high temperatures can cause illness and mortality in livestock. During droughts, there may not be enough wild food, such as grasses in pastures, forcing ranchers to purchase feed that may be expensive or available in limited quantities. Heavy floods, especially flash floods, can drown large numbers of livestock.
Both plant crops and livestock are at risk of increased disease activity due to climate change. Warmer temperatures and wetter conditions can increase the population of many disease organisms and vectors, and warmer temperatures in the spring and autumn can cause them to stay active for a larger part of the year. Waterlogged plants, or plants and animals weakened by drought or high temperatures, often have less resistance to diseases and so may suffer greater harm from infections.
People working in the agricultural sector face harm from climate changes. Most agricultural work is outdoors, increasing workers’ exposure to extreme heat, poor air quality, and some disease vectors such as mosquitoes. Physical stress, such as lifting heavy loads or repeatedly bending over to pick crops, can exacerbate the risk of adverse health impacts. Many farmworkers are also low income, migrant, and/or undocumented, which can escalate their susceptibility to harm. Loss of agricultural activity can lead to fewer available jobs, and many agricultural workers have challenges finding jobs in other industries. A weaker agricultural sector can also cause more widespread economic harm in communities where agriculture is a significant industry.
Agricultural lands are not open space, but they do provide some of the same ecosystem benefits as open space. These benefits include promoting groundwater recharge, reducing flooding, improving water quality, sequestering carbon, and providing habitat to local wildlife (especially in agricultural buffer areas). If agricultural lands are damaged or become in some way less viable because of climate-related effects, these benefits may be lost. This is particularly true if economic conditions result in agricultural land being converted to developed areas.
Appendix C presents adaptation strategies as examples of ways that communities can support a more resilient agricultural sector as part of adaptation planning effort. These strategies are generalized approaches that can be refined for the specific agricultural activities in a community.
|Climate hazards||Adaptation Strategy||Factors to Consider||Category||Sector overlap||Responsible Agencies||Funding||Examples & Sources|
|Extreme Heat, drought, flooding||Strategy AG-1: Encourage the breeding of livestock animals and adoption of crops that are better adapted to warmer temperatures and greater precipitation variability. This is a broad, high-level strategy responding to concerns that warmer temperatures and more precipitation extremes will decrease the productivity or quality of agricultural products for plants and animals that are susceptible to these changes. In many cases, projected future conditions may better suit particular varieties of plants or livestock animals. If not, ongoing research efforts may be successful in producing such examples. Local governments do not (and should not seek to) control what varieties of plant or livestock animal are grown or raised, nor do they conduct research on new crop or livestock varieties. However, communities can work with farming and ranching groups to encourage adoption of these varieties, and in some cases may be able to support research efforts at local institutions.||Every community will face different specific needs for this strategy, depending on the types of crops and livestock in the local agricultural industry and the changes in climate conditions that are projected for the area. Some crops and livestock have readily available varieties that are suitable for future conditions and meet market requirements, while more research may be needed for other crops and livestock to produce a viable future-adapted variety. If a viable strain is available but adoption is slow, consider pilot incentive programs to encourage this.||Education, Outreach, Coordination Programmatic Evaluation||Water||Cities and counties||General Fund State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program grant Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program grant FEMA hazard mitigation grant Other grant funding||Adaptation Resources for Agriculture Southwest Regional Climate Hub Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan|
|All climate hazards||Strategy AG-2: Revise land use plans to accommodate changes in types of agricultural activities, and to allow for shifts in agriculturally viable areas. As the climate changes, crops and livestock currently raised in an area may no longer be viable, and newly viable crops and livestock may require different land uses (for example, orchards converting to row crops). Agricultural operations may also consider accessory uses, including agritourism and direct retail activities, to help keep their businesses successful. Communities should revise and revise as needed their land use plans, including General Plan land use elements, zoning codes, and development standards, to ensure that they are not creating unintended barriers to continued viability of agricultural areas as climate conditions change. In communities with a range of topographic and climate conditions, these changes may include allowing certain types of agricultural activities in areas that were previously unsuitable.||As with any land use decision, communities should consider changes to the standards that govern where and how agricultural operations occur as part of addressing overall community well-being and quality of life. Keep in mind that changes to agricultural locations and types of operations may create conflicts with other land uses, including natural ecosystems which may also be stressed by climate change. Strategies such as agricultural buffers and wind rows can help minimize potential incompatibilities. Local governments may need to remove some barriers on agricultural operations while simultaneously enacting additional regulations. If a community has a right to farm ordinance or a land conservation program, be aware of any changes that may need to be made to accommodate shifts in agricultural activities. Multiple jurisdictions working together can take a regional approach to help maintain agricultural viability across political boundaries.||Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development||Land Use and Community Development Water||Cities and counties Council for Association of Governments||General Fund SB 1 Grant Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program grant State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program grant Other grant funding||Adaptation Resources for Agriculture Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan|
|All climate hazards||Strategy AG-3: Change soil management and planting and growing techniques to improve soil and plant health. Farmers rely on specific techniques to ensure that their soil and crops remain healthy and productive. These may include specific planting schedules, use of soil additives, growing plants to a particular height or shape, combining multiple plants in the same growing area, and many others. Farmers may make several adjustments to these strategies in response to climate change. For example, altered crop rotation and soil cover management can help maintain soil moisture levels, protecting against drought, and changes to the types of additives used in soils may provide additional nutrients to plants that can protect them against climate stress. Decisions about the types of changes made to these activities should be left to individual farmers, and local governments should not impose requirements for specific growing activities. However, in coordination with agricultural operations and research institutions, local governments can provide important education and outreach opportunities, and may be able to incentivize pilot programs.||Changes to soil management and planting and growing techniques should largely fall within the existing framework of agricultural regulations established by state and local governments. However, be aware of potential conflicts. For example, farmers may wish to erect shade structures in fields that could exceed height requirements for row crops, or it may be necessary to alter aerial crop-spraying schedules. In consultation with farming groups, identify what changes to these techniques farmers intend to make, and review local regulations to make sure there are no unnecessary barriers to these changes. In cases where changes to these techniques may expose workers or community members to new or increased levels of potentially harmful materials, ensure that local governments and agricultural operations take all needed steps to minimize the risk, remembering that protection of community (including ecological) health, safety, and welfare is paramount.||Education, Outreach, Coordination Programmatic Evaluation Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development||Biodiversity and Habitat Water||Cities and counties||General Fund Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program grant Healthy Soils Program grant FEMA hazard mitigation grant State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program grant Other grant funding||California Healthy Soils|
|Extreme heat||Strategy AG-4: Plant trees or construct shade structures for livestock. Extreme heat can be very harmful for livestock animals, leading to significant illness or death. These conditions may also decrease the quantity or quality of products from livestock, such as milk from dairy cattle or eggs from laying hens. Providing shade for livestock can provide protection against harm from extreme heat, as temperatures in the shade may feel 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the sun. Ranchers can plant trees or tall shrubs to provide shade, which may provide fruit or other crops as a side benefit. Ranchers may also erect shade structures, which they can use as a trellis for crop plants or as a mount for solar panels, providing energy to the ranch. Positioning water troughs under shade structures can also reduce evaporation, decreasing overall water use.||Local governments should encourage farmers to plant shade trees that are drought tolerant. Ideally, farmers would also plant native trees that provide habitat to beneficial insects and other animals. While landscaping and tree ordinances often do not apply to agricultural lands, if these regulations are applicable, ensure that there are allowable trees that meet the needs of ranchers. Communities may need to amend the zoning code or development standards to allow shade structures, including elevated ground-mounted solar arrays, on pastures or other ranch lands. If agricultural areas abut other land uses, local governments may require farmers to screen the view of the shade structure. If the community encourages farmers to install solar panels as a shade structure, ensure that these efforts are coordinated with any existing community-wide renewable energy and energy efficiency strategies. Communities may want to use incentive programs to encourage adoption of shade trees or shade structures.||Education, Outreach, Coordination Evaluation Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development||Biodiversity and Habitat Water||Cities and counties||General Fund Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program grant Healthy Soils Program grant FEMA hazard mitigation grant State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program grant Other grant funding||Adaptation Resources for Agriculture Southwest Regional Climate Hub Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan|
|Extreme heat, air quality, pests and diseases||Strategy AG-5: Ensure that all agricultural workers have adequate protection from extreme conditions, and that healthy and safe working conditions are maintained. Agricultural work is vital, but often physically demanding, and can lead to chronic health impacts. The socially vulnerable nature of many agricultural workers may be a barrier to receiving the safe and just working conditions that they deserve. Through educational efforts, as well as enforcement of labor laws in coordination with state and federal agencies, communities can make sure that agricultural workers have the resources and supplies they need to be safe and to remain healthy while at work. This can include access to appropriate protective gear (such as N95 masks during days of poor air quality), sufficient water and rest breaks during high heat conditions, access to safe and comfortable shelter, and ensuring that workers suffering from heat-related illnesses receive prompt and appropriate medical care.||Community-based organizations are vital partners to implementation of this strategy, as agricultural areas often have organizations that work directly with agricultural workers on issues of health and equity. Communities should work with these organizations to purchase and distribute supplies, and to listen to complaints that agricultural workers may have about their working conditions. Be aware that some agricultural workers, especially undocumented workers, may be reluctant to interact with government staff. Simultaneously, communities should work with agricultural groups to ensure that owners and managers fully understand their own responsibilities to maintain a safe and healthy working environment, especially as climate conditions change. Communities should not hesitate to coordinate with state and federal labor agencies about potential health or safety violations.||Education, Outreach, Coordination Programmatic||Climate Justice Public Health||Cities and counties Community-based organizations State and federal agencies||General Fund Transformative Climate Communities grant Other grant funding||Adaptation Resources for Agriculture Southwest Regional Climate Hub Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan|
|All climate hazards||Strategy AG-6: Provide sufficient habitat for native pollinators and beneficial species in and adjacent to agricultural areas. Agricultural lands, especially buffers and other areas left in a more natural state, are directly beneficial to agricultural operations. These natural areas act as habitat to pollinator species as well as animals that prey on agricultural pests and disease vectors. Providing this habitat helps ensure healthy crops and livestock, especially in the face of increased climate stressors, and for crops such as almonds and melons that are heavily reliant on managed pollinators (which themselves may face greater stress from climate change). Natural lands can also provide other ecosystem benefits, including increased carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge, and flood protection and water filtering.||Local governments can encourage or incentivize habitat for these species, require natural buffers as part of land use standards. In cases where agricultural buffers are required habitat for native species can meet this need. Agricultural operators do not necessarily need to dedicate part of their own land as buffers, as it could be set aside as part of a development adjacent to an agricultural land (this has the added benefit of not taking land out of agricultural development). Neighboring property owners and managers should take care not to expose native habitat buffer areas to herbicides, insecticides, or other compounds that may be harmful to native species. Local governments can integrate proper care and maintenance of these habitats into a community-wide integrated pest management strategy.||Education, Outreach, Coordination Plans, Regulations, and Policy Development||Biodiversity and Habitat||Cities and counties||General Fund Health Soils Program grant State Water Efficiency & Enhancement program grant Other grant funding|