It rained in Northern California last week, a late season downpour after six weeks of parched, record heat conditions. This is an April gift to the thirsty soils of California, but not a drought breaker. I listened to the rare sound of heavy drops pounding on my rooftop and pondered the reality. Snowpack in the Sierras is 5% of normal, its lowest in recorded history. Groundwater tables have dropped 50% in some areas and the land is sinking, caving in under its own weight. California’s crippling drought will have far reaching affects for all of us.
Whether you live in the Golden State or not you are guaranteed to feel the woes of this climate catastrophe, now in its fourth year. California is home to the largest single agricultural phenomena on the planet. Over 90% of all U.S. almonds, walnuts, pistachios, broccoli, strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes are grown there. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are generally a thirsty crowd. They require much more water than say millet or beans which don’t always add much excitement to the table. It’s worth reading the Mother Jones Article “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!” to get a visual of how water thirsty some of our favorite foods are and where they are grown… California!
Mandatory water cuts ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown don’t specifically target agriculture, which accounts for 80% of water use. Agriculture is profoundly affected and according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, this will be the second year of “zero allocation” of federal irrigation water to farmers. Those farmers, who have had water rights in the family for more than a century, will face new restrictions according to the Farm Journal.
A scary prediction came from Jay Lund, a water expert at the University of California-Davis, who was quoted “…. water problems mean that agriculture may soon play a less important role in California’s economy, as the business of growing food moves to the South and the Midwest, where water is less expensive.” From where I sit, with over 30 years in organic agriculture, this is a bone chilling prophecy for several reasons.
Many of those food varieties grow here for a good reason; they are especially suited to the unique Mediterranean climate which fosters dry summers and wet winters. How many large scale berry or grape operations do you find in Kansas or Nebraska? The price of most of these specialty crops is going to rise dramatically in the future. Will we see the day when low-income children cannot enjoy a succulent strawberry or piquant pistachio because of price?
Farmers and farm workers can’t easily be exported to other regions of the country. I know many fourth and fifth generation farmers whose family roots reach down well past the water table. These families have lived in small towns, building communities, kinships, and cultures for generations. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, “in 2013, California’s 76,400 farms and ranches received $46.4 billion for their output”. If producers are forced to let their trees die and fields lay fallow, entire communities will collapse under this economic shift. The human physical and spiritual toll will be profound.
Let us not forget the migrant and much needed farm workers who depend on the annual California harvests to feed and clothe their families. Since they exist in an already precarious position their plight will be even more acute.
It’s not often celebrated but California is the Capitol of Organic Production. According to the last 2012 Agricultural census, California leads in the nation’s number of certified organic farms and has the highest sales of certified organic commodities. A graphic visual can be viewed on National Sustainable Ag Coalition’s blog site, 2012 CENSUS DRILLDOWN: ORGANIC AND LOCAL FOOD. My colleague Karen Klonsky conducted a survey of organic producers back in 2011, using data from the 2008 census. This survey revealed that California produces more than 90 percent of all U.S. organic sales for 14 different commodities, including 99 percent of the nation’s organic walnuts, lemons, figs, and artichokes and 100 percent of its organic almonds and dates. Since California produces most of the nation’s organic products, this drought will have serious supply ramifications for the consumer, manufacturer, and retailer. Get ready for drought induced shortages and skyrocketing prices in the organic section.
Recently the USDA announced it will provide up to $100 million in livestock disaster assistance and an additional $10 million for water conservation in California. This is a mere drop in the bucket of what is needed to quell California’s intense thirst. Innovations in agricultural techniques and practices must be researched and implemented immediately. The way we irrigate and what we grow must be evaluated and fine-tuned. As our climate continues to change and casts new challenges, California may become the leader in sustainable water usage and innovation for the entire world.
California’s “Agri-Culture” is worth saving because it’s just too important to the nation’s dinner table and its western heritage. It plays a critical role for the organic community. In this case the baby and the bath water must both be maintained. As we maneuver through a world of chaotic climate change, it is a certainty that all of us will feel the ramification of what is happening in the Golden State. The rest of the world just may depend on us to rise to this challenge.