The year the rain stopped

California DroughtWhen I first moved to California from Iowa, I was pleased to discover the summers were warm and dry. The rolling hills turned brown in the summer and green in the winter months, just the opposite of Iowa! Each year, from late October until mid-March, the state received its glorious annual drenching. Storm after storm rolled through from the Pacific, filling the aquifers and depositing a vast snowpack in the Sierra Mountains that slowly quenched California’s thirst during the summer months.  All this came to a parched halt as global weather patterns turned off the spigot.  The past 12 months have been the driest on record since miners began tracking weather during the California the gold rush. California’s life-giving annual soaking has run dry.

In my area, we have received 2 inches of rain in the last 12 months. Normally we average 31 inches per year. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 94.25% of the state is suffering some level of drought conditions and that most of the prime agriculture areas, including the Central Valley, are in extreme drought. What does this mean for our farmers and producers and ultimately the supplies of fresh organic produce and specialty crops?

California agriculture is of profound importance to the nation’s food supply. California is the number one food and agricultural producer in the United States and has been for more than 50 consecutive years. California is the nation’s number one dairy state and is the nation’s leading producer of strawberries. In fact, more than half the nation’s fruit, nuts and vegetables come from the state, and  almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, raisins, clovers and walnuts are supplied almost exclusively ( 99% or more) from California producers. The list of statistics is staggering when you dig in: 80% of the ripe olives, 43 % the green onions and 25% of onions.

For organic producers it will be especially challenging to endure the drought that has befallen the state. Organic producers use the rainy season to plant cover crops, also known as “green manure”, which include legumes such as vetch or clover. These plants have nitrogen fixing properties which help to build the fertility of the soil without using synthetic fertilizers.  Planting these cover crops during the rainy season also discourages invasive weeds and plants, reducing costs of weed control later in the year. How will this green manure grow without the winter rains?

Organic dairy producers are also in a predicament because organic regulations require that dairy cows have access to pasture. If the rains don’t come the pastures will stay brown and the girls will have nothing green to eat!

Organic strawberry producers will also be affected because young strawberry plants are set in the ground during the wet months to produce some of our first fresh fruits in March and April. If producers have to buy expensive water and irrigate in order to get the early starts to grow, it will increase the cost of production. In the marketplace this could result in decreased demand for organic berries.

The cost of water will be of prime concern for all California producers. With normal rainfall and snow pack, water costs are reasonable and can be included in the cost of production and tolerated in the marketplace to support fair prices. When growers decide what to plant, they will likely shy away from water hungry plants such as melons and onions. As a result, we will see scarcity in the market and drastically higher prices. Because organic production in California is just 2%, with fewer than 3000 producers, certain organic items will experience severe shortages, producing drastically higher prices at the supermarket.

Tom Avinelis, President of AgriCare Inc., represents several organic growers in the Central Valley. He said, “The current drought status and the lack of long term resource planning by the legislature of California and the Federal Government will drive the outcome of California’s economy and ultimately the sustainable status of Organic Farming.  We have a State and a world that must eat and have clean water to drink.  If ever there were a time to come together and bring all sides together, it is now.  Organic farming, conventional farming, agribusiness, environmental advocates and every family in America have a stake in the outcome of sustainable stewardship for our future.”

Even as I was penning this blog, dear reader, the Huffington Post published an article about the catastrophic repercussions of climate change.  The article suggests that, as a result of climate change, there could be massive disruptions in our ability to grow food and feed the nine billion human inhabitants of our planet. The article goes on to cite:  “…the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it was “extremely likely” that human activity was the dominant cause of global warming.”

Climate change is the single most pressing issue facing us and our children. Organic agriculture contributes to carbon sequestration, which helps to offset climate change. In order for organic agriculture to flourish in California, it needs water. Pray that rain comes soon to this critical growing region. Tell me what you are doing to reduce your carbon footprint.

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