Sunday, May 10, 2015

More bad news for rural (really "agricultural") California

Timothy Egan writes in an editorial in today's New York Times under the headline, "The End of California?" with some bad news for "rural" California.  It seems to me that Egan is, more precisely, writing about agricultural California, which is not quite the same thing.  The story is basically about California's drought and how the state must respond to survive—which Egan is confident it will do. Here are some of the key quotes regarding the rural-urban binary:
The morality tale behind California’s verdant prosperity will most certainly change. In the old narrative, the evil city took water from powerless farmers. Swimming pools in greater Los Angeles were filled with liquid that could have kept orchards alive in the Owens Valley, to the north. 
* * *
But now, just about everyone in California knows that it requires a gallon of water to grow a single almond, or that agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used by humans here. Meanwhile, the cities have become leaders in conservation. It takes 106 gallons of water to produce an ounce of beef — which is more than the average San Francisco Bay Area resident uses in a day. 
* * *  
It’s outlandish, urban critics note, for big farm units to be growing alfalfa — which consumes about 20 percent of the state’s irrigation water — or raising cattle, in a place with a third of the rainfall of other states. And by exporting that alfalfa and other thirsty crops overseas, the state is essentially shipping its precious water to China.
Egan notes other rural vs. urban morality twists, such as the fact that San Francisco gets its water from the Hetch Hetchy dam, in Yosemite.  The flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is widely believed by conservationists to be one of the bigger crimes against nature in the state's history, and many advocate restoration of the Valley.

Egan notes that California agriculture produces just 2% of the state's GDP and employs only 3% of the state's workers.  In light of that, Egan predicts a power shift coming from the drought, one that puts more power in the hands of the wealthy—and the cities, of course (with whom "wealthy" is largely synonymous).

Nevertheless, Egan predicts, "[a]griculture will not give up its perch atop the power pyramid without a fight."


Dakota Sinclair said...

I think Egan touches on something that isn't talked about much: the overwhelming power of agribusiness. I sincerely doubt the average Californian knows that the food business is roughly 2% of the state's economy. Given how much water the farms consume (estimates go up to 95%, as low as 80%) I think people assume the farms are a significant value to the state. Exposing them weakens them.

Consider the Food Inc. movie, which many well educated people have never even heard of, much less the masses. The agribusiness has become a monolithic structure that seeks to control and exploit the rural areas for the personal benefit of the executives running the show. Neighboring towns do not benefit from the presence of agribusiness, even though the companies will proclaim how much good they do while simultaneously filling out work visas to bring in cheap labor.

More bad news for agricultural California might mean good news for rural California. I'm just spitballing here, but if the major corporations were forced out and more inventive ways of farming were brought in to try to stabilize the area, there could be more jobs and a better local economy that benefits the locals over the boardrooms.

Taylor Call said...

I agree with Dakota that with drought, new and inventive ways of farming are bound to occur. We have already seen some change from irrigating line crops with sprinklers (not very efficient) to using drip lines and subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) as ways to conserve water. These techniques are beneficial to the grower (evidence that SDI can increase yields and quality of crops) and they conserve water.

However, I do not see big agribusiness leaving the valley any time soon. The farms still retain water rights to much of the water in the central valley. It would be hard to convince a company, with access to large amounts of water, to change to a more drought resistant crop if they would lose profits doing so. If this story catches on, I am sure we can come up with a way to incentivize companies to grow more drought resistant crops. The problem is though, that droughts don't last forever. At some point, maybe even this year (El Nino year), we will get more rain. As soon as we do, people will most likely lose interest in the story (as they have before) and things will go on the way they always have... at least until the next drought. Perhaps I am being too pessimistic, but only time will tell.

Here is a link to a study about the benefits of using SDI with fertilizers on tomatoes.