How a California rice farmer uses the market to protect wildlife - and boost profits

Ann Hayden

Meet John Brennan, a farm manager for the Knaggs Ranch in California’s Central Valley who is exploring the latest market incentives to boost farm profits while protecting his land.

“Farmers are environmentalists, too,” Brennan says. “Programs like this will help us fulfill our responsibility to nature and to coming generations.”

It’s all coming together on sprawling, water-soaked rice fields that are part of the 1,700-acre farm he has overseen for the past 10-plus years and co-owned since 2011.

Exchange compensates farmers

A project on Knaggs Ranch is helping to keep water on the fields during a time and at a volume critical to support salmon nurseries while providing beneficial habitat for water fowl and shore birds.

By adjusting land management to benefit such species, Brennan is generating conservation outcomes that he hopes can be sold as a commodity to private and public investors through the Central Valley Habitat Exchange. Potential investors include state agencies seeking credits to meet mitigation requirements or restoration mandates.

The region southwest of Sacramento was once dominated by marshes that flanked the Sacramento River and its tributaries and created vital seasonal floodplain habitat for waterfowl and fish such as the Chinook salmon. Only 5 percent of these floodplain habitats remain after a century of agricultural expansion and reservoir construction.

Brennan has committed to the Exchange because he believes that compensating landowners for good management practices and helping them diversify their income beyond just farming can be one of the best ways for agriculture to accommodate native species. He also believes that once other land managers learn of the program and its rewards, they’ll get onboard, too.

Adding carbon credits to the mix

There may soon be yet another opportunity to levy market forces for the benefit of Knaggs Ranch.

This spring, the California Air Resources Board is expected to approve the first crop-based standards for rice farmers to generate carbon credits in the state’s cap-and-trade market. Brennan hopes the program will help his farm earn new revenue as it reduces greenhouse gas emissions from its rice fields.

With proven success in the field for habitat exchanges as well as carbon markets, such programs are now ready to be scaled up to boost food production while maintaining profitable farms, a safe environment and healthy people.

Agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions released in the United States today, and forward-looking farmers such as Brennan see an opportunity to help cut such pollution without hurting their bottom line.

Incentive-based programs “help us diversify our income beyond just farming,” he says.