Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles celebrating local individuals and organizations that are providing leadership in solving the problem of climate change.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a humanitarian and environmental disaster caused by severe drought and human-caused soil erosion. It inspired President Roosevelt to find a new way to address local environmental challenges to head off future catastrophes. And so the Resource Conservation District (RCD), a local agency with staff who could get their hands and boots dirty with local farmers and residents, was born. The agency was so popular and effective that in the 1940s, many communities across the nation formed their own local districts. Napa County’s RCD was established in 1945.
As climate change threatens California with increasing drought, the work of the RCD is more important than ever. Recently, Napa Climate NOW! honored the Napa County RCD for its ongoing work in finding and implementing local solutions to the current climate crisis.
Lucas Patzek, RCD executive director, accepted the award for the district. Fascinated by the intersection of agriculture and society, Patzek earned his Ph.D. in crop science after studying the effects of palm oil plantation development on deforestation and other factors in Southeast Asia.
During the award ceremony, Napa Climate NOW! cited the Huichica Creek Demonstration Vineyard in south county as one of the district’s important contributions.
The district purchased the property in 1990 to demonstrate a practical, economically viable agricultural system that can become part of a sustainable natural system. The grapes are sold to local winemakers, and the proceeds help pay for research and education activities that benefit the community.
“We are farmers,” said Patzek said. He described the complexity of managing a working vineyard and the need to consider the weather, pests, irrigation, markets and labor.
Since 2016, the demonstration vineyard has been part of the North Coast Soil Health Hub, an initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health and climate beneficial management practices in wine country. A primary goal is education — to raise awareness of how different farming practices impact soil health, vineyard carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions. Cover cropping, conservation tillage and composting can provide numerous environmental and production benefits. The district sets up trials and quantifies the impacts of these practices in its vineyard and shares the results. It also provides workshops and one-on-one technical assistance to farmers.
Several new tools are being used to optimize carbon capture in vineyards and achieve a successful, regenerative bottom-line. The RCD has worked with four vineyards to produce carbon farm plans, and it is conducting comprehensive soil tests to help farmers understand how management decisions can affect soil health and reduce greenhouse gases.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded the district a Conservation Innovation Grant to expand on this soil health management work in partnership with several universities and agencies.
The district’s re-oaking program also directly addresses the global climate crisis. District staff recruit volunteers from the community to plant native oaks throughout Napa County and provide opportunities for the community to connect and care for local oak woodlands.
“Our work relies on empowering the local community to make good decisions about what they do on the land,” Patzek said. “Our re-oaking program provides education about the unique ecological diversity of Napa County and the benefits that this diversity brings to our daily lives, along with the chance to plant trees to ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy these benefits.”
Planting oak trees removes carbon from the air, enhances natural habitat, prevents soil erosion, provides shade, protects water resources, increases the economic value of properties, and adds to the beauty and overall well-being of the community. The program provides opportunities for classrooms, businesses individuals, and landowners to contribute. “Over 100 volunteers planted 195 trees at our last Community Oak Planting Day,” Patzek said.
Volunteers also collect acorns and participate in group field days to take care of older plantings. The next field day is scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service at Alston Park on Jan. 21. “We would welcome volunteers to work with RCD staff to track the success of plantings over time,” said Patzek, adding, “We’re also seeking landowners who want to plant trees on their property. We will provide planting materials and guidance on proper planting methods.”
Climate change is a looming and daunting threat, and the widespread use of best practices on working lands could make a huge contribution to reducing that threat. The Napa RCD is one Climate Champion helping to lead the way in addressing the climate crisis in a positive manner.