Emergency Drought Relief For Family Farms Could Help Some in the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District

Federal cuts and local water sales have left farmers in Shasta County’s Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District without water this year. As fields have gone brown and dead, many small family farmers have sold off livestock they are no longer able to feed. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers says they hope their small emergency grants are enough to help some farmers survive.
Side-by-side-photos of an A.C.I.D. resident’s property taken one year apart. The left hand image shows the property on August 10, 2022. Photo shared on Facebook by Denise Criss.

A series of decisions by federal, state and local water officials this year have left Shasta County residents in the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.) with none of their usual water allocations. 

It’s a situation that’s proving disastrous for many within the small water service area. Without water to irrigate their fields, some small family farmers are making the difficult choice to sell off stock.

Laura Jahnke, an A.C.I.D. irrigator, commented as part of a thread on Facebook earlier this month, that she has sold most of her animals, but is doing her best to hold on to her last two cows, descendants of a calf given to her ninety-four year old grandmother when she was six years old. Jahnke was one of dozens on the thread who said they’d had to sell off livestock due to this year’s lack of water.

A thread on the A.C.I.D. Water Users Facebook page.

Stories like those concern the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a nonprofit that reached out to Shasta Scout earlier this month after reading about the effect of A.C.I.D.’s lack of water on local farmers. Last year the 45-year-old organization, which provides funding and advocacy for small farmers, began offering emergency small grants in response to drought needs. They provide between $5,000 and $10,000 to small family farmers that meet their eligibility requirements. Grant applications this year are due Monday, August 15. 

How farmers use the money once granted will be up to them. CAFF wants to know an idea of how they plan to spend it, but they don’t oversee that use, inspect the farms, or make judgments on what funding uses are most beneficial to ensuring farms survive drought, Wigg explained.

“We want to give the funding to family farmers who are actively working the land,” said Evan Wiig, Communications Director for CAFF, during a phone interview Friday, “who derive a portion of their income from their farm business and who are involved in the day to day operations of their farm.” The organization is very aware, Wiig said, that the small amounts they provide won’t be enough to save family farms. “But we hope,” he said “it will at least help them get by as they come up with some other emergency plans.”

Drought brings farmers face-to-face with difficult, and often uncertain, decisions. During a presentation at the latest A.C.I.D. board meeting Thursday, Josh Davy, a University of California Cooperative Extension Livestock Advisor, outlined some of those choices. As fields dry out, plants die, he explained, but seeds laying dormant in the ground, don’t. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the most hardy and drought resistant plants will emerge from those seeds to take over the fields. In Shasta County, he said, that means fields full of Bermuda and smutgrass, plants that will require eradication once they take root.  

That’s why farmers need to be thinking ahead right now, Davy said, by buying the appropriate cover crop seed to sow this fall. If water does come to the district, that seed will grow to feed their cattle in the years to come. Spending money on seed is a gamble, Davy acknowledged, saying he’s already spent $15,000 on seed for this fall, because no one knows if there will be enough A.C.I.D. water next year to irrigate.

Some farmers don’t have the money in hand to make that gamble. While funding for farmers affected by the A.C.I.D. water shortage may be coming from a variety of sources in future, it’s unlikely to come in time to help ranchers keep their fields, and their cattle, alive, a dilemma that is very much on the minds of those within the A.C.I.D. service area.

The difficulty small family farmers face when trying to access emergency funding, said Wiig, was the reason CAFF’s grant program developed. “We really looked around and noticed that there wasn’t a lot of (emergency) support for small farms. Disaster relief funding often feeds programs not really designed for small farms . . . and the amount of paperwork involved in accessing it . . .  is really tough for small farmers.” 

That’s why CAFF also focuses on advocacy intended to direct more state and federal funding towards small family farms in future, he said. “This (funding) shouldn’t be on the shoulders of a nonprofit like ours,” Wigg explained. “It should be institutionalized, there needs to be regulatory changes to how these emergency funds are doled out. We’re trying to put ourselves out of business, leading by example, saying this is how emergency relief can operate more equitably, and this is how we can reach farmers who’ve been left out in the past.”

That advocacy, he says, has contributed to ensuring that $43 million in the latest California state budget was earmarked for drought relief for small farms. “We don’t know how it will be allocated, or what systems will be put in place,” he said, “but it’s a really great first step.” Meanwhile he hopes emergency funds will provide a stopgap measure for family farmers within A.C.I.D. and elsewhere in California that are struggling to find a way to survive. 

“I hope you can encourage folks to apply,” Wigg said, “because we know that farmers are hurting right now.  We recognize that if your well has gone dry . . .  $5,000 isn’t necessarily going to save your farm. But we certainly hope that it can least help.”

You can see eligibility guidelines here and apply for funding here. The deadline to apply is Monday, August 15, 2022. 

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