No Water, No Produce

If the Midwest is America’s (and the world’s) Bread Basket, the San Joaquin Valley of Southern California is the nation’s and the world’s fruit, nut, and vegetable source.  Eighty percent of the world’s almond crop is produced there.  Almost every head of lettuce and virtually all those tomatoes and cukes, and carrots, not to mention grapes and sugar beets–almost a quarter of the nation’s agriculture production comes from that valley.

And that valley is running out of water.

…rationing has already become a way of life in the San Joaquin Valley, where agriculture interests have enjoyed bountiful, cheap water for decades. The effects are most telling on the west side, where once-fertile land growing lettuce and tomatoes is now being abandoned. Some fruit and nut orchards are being ripped out.[Gardner, Michael. “Farmers feel squeeze, which could worsen.” San Diego Union-Tribune. 25 Jan 2009]

What happens to grocery store prices when farms in California go dry?

Consumers won’t be immune either. Another year of idle fields and dry cattle pastures could lead to an increase in prices at the grocery store. A more long-term fear, growers say, is that food companies will turn to foreign suppliers if they cannot count on California growers to deliver a steady stream of goods, from tomatoes for pasta sauce to almonds for cookies.

Making matters worse: Cities and farmers may not be able to readily turn to once-reliable standbys for additional supply – reservoirs, transfers and groundwater – to bail them out. Just about every major reservoir in California is less than half full, and most are hovering around one-third of capacity.

The drought is also causing massive layoffs of farm workers, some of the nation’s poorest-paid workers:

MENDOTA, Calif.—Idled farm workers are searching for food in the nation’s most prolific agricultural region, where a double blow of drought and a court-ordered cutback of water supplies has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

This bedraggled town is struggling with an unemployment rate that city officials say is 40 percent and rising. This month, 600 farm families depleted the cupboards of the local food bank, which turned away families—more than 100 of them—for the first time.

“We’re supposed to supply the world,” said Mendota Mayor Robert Silva, “and people are starving.”

The state’s most dire water shortage in three decades is expected to erase more than 55,000 jobs across the fertile San Joaquin Valley by summer and drive up food prices across the nation, university economists predict. [Cone, Tracy. “Drought means workers hungry is U.S. produce capital.” AP/San Jose Mercury News. 12 Dec. 2008.]

It might be a very good time to start planning that garden.

We’ll start leasing Community Garden plots on February 17 at our community-wide Seed Swap event at 7:15pm in the Vermillion Public Library Community Room. You can pick up some seeds, advice, and perhaps a little peace of mind, and you can meet other gardeners or wannabe gardeners.


7 responses

  1. The question is: Do we lose the food to “save the environment” or do we just carry on as normal? That “court-ordered” water reduction probably has to do with the NorCal lawsuits regarding protecting watershed/salmon habitats etc

    Personally, food is already too expensive. I love the salmon. I really do. But it’s kind of a crazy world where we’d let such an important valley go dry for a fish.

    In any case, this really does boost my opinion that we should annex Mexico – fertile land, year round growing season, it’s just poorly run.

    • Hmm–I don’t know about annexing Mexico. They might have something to say about that, and I’d prefer to have a southern place to disappear to should I need one. They may have extradition, but if it’s “poorly run,” as you say, then it’s easier to hide. 😉

      The thing is, even if they do say to hell with the fish and drain the water, that’s not a long term solution. I don’t see it as a give up the food and save the environment question–it can’t be that because protecting the environment is a necessary part of preserving our food supply. I think it’s a crazy world where we are presented with the either/or of endangered fish or irrigation like that’s a real choice. If we drain the river dry to grow the vegetables, then pretty soon we’ll have no water, no fish, and no vegetables.

      A longer term and more stable solution would be to develop local food production in all areas where it is feasible. It seems a madness to me to depend on one place to provide all the food–that makes our food supply highly vulnerable to all kinds of disruptions–be it contamination, terrorism, weather, fuel costs, drought–you name it. And much of the expense of food in grocery stores is transportation and processing and marketing and packaging–not the food itself.

      The huge ag interests in that area are posing this, “which is more important–food or fish?” question like they are the only ones that can grow food–but it’s not necessarily about food, it’s about their own business survival in that location (and yes, the employment issue is big, too–and is part of the reason illegal immigration is lessening in the current economy).

      We can’t grow oranges here last I checked, but we sure as heck can grow a lot of other crops they grow–even year ’round with high tunnels and a little supplemental light in the darkest months. IMHO, we should take these sorts of stories as a big boot in the butt to develop our local food system ASAP.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Rebecca, you nailed it on the framing. Industry PR folks set up false either/ors whenver they can because they know a) a lot of people are susceptible to false binary thinking and b) they often have polling that tells them in advance which side folks will come down on if an issue is presented as a simplistic either/or choice. We see false “energy vs. the environment” choices a lot these days, and we’ll increasingly see false “economic recovery vs. the environment” choices.

    Journalists shouldn’t fall for this framing when they write their stories, but they are overworked and often have sensationalistic editors who like the framing because it has a clear conflict.

  3. One thing I wonder and don’t know much about — as once fertile areas turn arid, does this mean that other areas will receive more of the rainfall, etc., that once used to come to the drying areas? Or is there, overall, less rainfall? Or is the increasingly arid condition due to low levels of ground water? And if so, are rainwater levels the same as they used to be?

    I’m unclear on how much weather patterns versus ground water impacts land change — is it better to move farms, or preserve what water does fall? (Besides, of course, working towards better use of the water we have.)

    Thank you thank you for writing about this!

    • I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on this, but a lot of areas that are used for growing in Southern California and the Southwest aren’t necessarily that moist to begin with–a lot of growing is done in fairly arid areas, fed with water piped in from elsewhere or pulled up from deep wells. The drought in that area (and in other areas that feed into the water supply) is simply exacerbating the problem. Long-term drought dries up ground water reserves and shrinks aquifers more quickly because of the supplemental well water needed for irrigation and livestock when the rains don’t come.

      It is certainly possible to do some growing in those areas, but the scale is so massive (and the population is, too), that growing there on that scale is just not sustainable–in a drought the farmers have to suck everyone else dry to water their produce. Native peoples in the Southwest had specific growing methods and specific plant varieties that were developed for that climate–and there weren’t millions of them with swimming pools and lawns and golf courses.

      I wouldn’t advocate getting rid of all the farms in the region, and in some states there are definite laws governing the collection of rainwater, so that’s tricky. What farmers can do is to incorporate as much organic matter into their soil as possible (which acts as a sponge, absorbing water, and helps plants develop deeper, healthier root systems to utilize that water). This practice also sequesters carbon–a good side benefit.

      We can think about (well, I think about this all the time) alleviating some of the burden on the Southwest by developing local food systems in our own communities and using sustainable and water-conserving techniques. Of course “alleviating the burden” does mean taking some of their business away and giving it to farmers closer to home, which may result in fewer farms there, but that looks like what may happen anyhow because of the non-sustainability of large-scale growing in that region.

      I think every region that is suited to growing something, should do so in as sustainable a way as possible. We have to be able to feed ourselves. I’m not against getting oranges or almonds from Florida or California, but it seems dumb to be getting tomatoes from there in the middle of summer.

  4. The water situation in SoCal and the farming central regions is a mess. Basically, they really didn’t have water to begin with. It has always been brought in. So, now that the population is huge and the agribusiness is huge, the water demands are unsustainable. This may be a simplistic thought on the matter, but if SoCal would move to desert landscaping instead of lush green lawns (which take a great deal of watering) that might help the situation at least a little bit. I hate to say it, but for all their recycling gusto, no one seems willing to give up the green lawn. That was something I did appreciate in Phoenix 12 years ago when I lived there – a nice lawn full of rocks and cacti.

  5. Who is trying to tell me that ALL of those fish are going down that canal?None are going down the river?
    The people that stop that water should be taken out to the wood shed. I guess they think we should fill that valley with banks and shopping malls so they have a place for them to put ALL their money and shop. The stupid S.O.B.s.

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