On its web site, The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) says it conducts hundreds of surveys every year and prepares reports covering virtually every aspect of U.S. agriculture. The agency reports the facts on American agriculture, “…that are needed by people working in and depending upon U.S. agriculture.”Continue reading
One failure is we’re not capturing and storing nearly as much floodwater as we should.Continue reading
With drought conditions continuing to blanket the Western U.S., and farmers struggling to find adequate water supplies, competing interests are pressuring the federal government to cut the water supply farmers are using to grow our food, including alfalfa, which is a foundational food chain crop.
In response, the Family Farm Alliance and California Farm Water Coalition have produced a White Paper titled, “Our Food Supply at Risk; The Importance of Alfalfa Production in the American West” detailing the valuable role alfalfa plays as a principal feed source for the nation’s livestock and diary industries, its environmental benefits, and contribution to effective drought management.
Family Farm Alliance Executive Director, Dan Keppen, said reducing the acreage devoted to alfalfa may seem like an easy fix to save water, but a decision to do so has bigger ramifications for our nation’s food supply.
“Alfalfa is grown as livestock feed for the beef and dairy industries, both of which contribute to a balanced diet, including high protein foods, such as beef, milk, and milk products, such as yogurt, butter, cheese, ice cream, and cottage cheese,” said Keppen. “At a time when consumers are facing record inflation and sticker shock every time they to go to the grocery store, it makes no sense to aggravate the problem and drive prices even higher by cutting out a vital component of our food supply.
Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said that Arizona and California lead the nation in per-acre production of alfalfa.
“With crop yields that are double the per-acre yields in most other states, the ability to make-up lost production from Arizona and California is very unlikely, which would lead to shortages, higher feed costs for producers, and the loss of more family farms when so many are already struggling,” he said.
The report outlines many of the additional benefits that come from alfalfa production, including enhanced soil health because of deep rooting and the nitrogen alfalfa naturally adds to the soil during its growth cycle. This reduces the amount of chemical fertilizers that have to be used to grow crops that follow alfalfa during crop rotation.
Alfalfa also contributes to the health of pollinators, such as bees, when it grows because of the crop’s prolific flower production. Bees use alfalfa for honey production, more of which comes from alfalfa farms than any other source in the U.S.
And alfalfa is an efficient water user, producing a crop year-round in warmer climates, but is also able to survive droughts as well as intentional “dry down” to make water available for other so-called high-value crops, including fruits, nuts, and vegetables, that face drought-driven water shortages.
In times of crisis, drastic measures born out of panic almost always make things worse, and the same applies to dealing with California’s current drought.
There is no doubt that people, farms, our communities, and the environment are suffering. And there is a theory being floated among the state’s water bureaucracy that if we abandon our long-established system of water rights, our problems will be solved.
They won’t. Water rights are not the cause of California’s changing weather patterns and neither discarding this long-established law, nor fighting the legal battles that would result from trying to do so, will move, store, or create one drop of water.
Water rights provide stability during dry times
Water rights, a form of property rights, lend some predictability to water users in times of scarcity. Cities, businesses, farms, and rural communities all need some idea of available supply during a drought in order to plan and adjust.
In addition, it’s important to understand that even under existing water rights, regulators have sufficient flexibility to alter water deliveries in critical situations. In 2021 and 2022 those powers were used to make drastic cuts to most farms and some cities, with many farms receiving none of their normal allocation.
A safe food supply is a matter of national security
Under the state constitution, all water, no matter the rights attached to it, must be put to “beneficial use.” We argue that maintaining a healthy, abundant, and safe food supply is also a matter of national security. Sixty percent of our nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California and that production cannot simply be moved to other states. If we abandon California farms, we’re accepting food shortages, higher prices, and more imports from foreign countries, many with significantly lower safety standards. To put it in perspective, for every acre that is left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, it is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that would not be available to consumers.
And while most calls to eliminate water rights are aimed at farmers, upending the system would impact all Californians.
Some of the most senior water rights holders are water agencies in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and other Bay Area cities serving more than 1.8 million Californians.
We can store more water in wet years without harm
The inconvenient truth for all Californians is that our state has not moved quickly enough to deal with the impacts of climate change. For some time, climate scientists have been telling us that precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow is the new normal. That means we must build additional storage for both above and below ground water in order to capture water when Mother Nature delivers it. A recent policy brief by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoed the need for more storage saying, “. . .it is possible to do a better job of storing water during wet years—both above and below ground—without doing harm.”
The kind of projects needed include new or expanded reservoirs that can serve as environmentally-friendly water storage. New canals and pipelines would help distribute floodwater to areas in California’s Central Valley and also help recharge groundwater basins. PPIC estimates increasing storage could allow us to capture between 400,000 and 800,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to serve hundreds of thousands of homes for a year or grow literally millions of salads.
There is money to pay for projects right now
And we have the money to do this. The federal government passed a huge infrastructure bill last year and California’s government currently has a $100 billion surplus.
Difficult times call for balanced, collaborative solutions, not drastic measures like upending water rights, which solves nothing and could make things worse for all Californians.
Family farmers and ranchers in Siskiyou County in far-northern California will continue to face unprecedented groundwater and surface water curtailments this summer and next if the drought continues.Continue reading
The war in Ukraine and all the global unrest it is causing has focused American’s attention on just how uncertain a world we inhabit.
Inflation was already wreaking havoc on family budgets and now gas prices are also skyrocketing.
Which is exactly why our government should be doing everything it can to reduce reliance on foreign sources for our basic needs, especially food.
Unfortunately, that is the exact opposite of what is happening.
Through out-of-balance regulatory policies and a failure to prioritize western farming, our government is putting our safe, affordable, domestic food supply at risk.
Over 80% of our country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables are grown west of the Rockies and simply cannot be moved elsewhere. Without that supply, Americans will see shortages at the store, even higher prices, be forced to rely more heavily on increasingly unstable foreign sources, or all of these at the same time.
When you make a salad, have fruit for breakfast, eat a hamburger with cheese, or put tomato sauce and garlic on a pizza, odds are that at least some of those products came from California.
But without a reliable water supply, that farmland simply cannot produce what our country needs.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In some western states, the government is holding on to existing water supply, rather than release it to farms to grow food. In California, we must move more quickly to build and repair infrastructure that will help us store more water in wet years for use in dry ones like this one. And in general, water policy has become unbalanced in ways that penalize the farms trying to produce our food supply.
California farmers are doing their part and have reduced water use by double digits since 1980. Throughout the West, farms are also important in the battle against climate change because crop production helps remove carbon dioxide from the air. If things continue the way they are, our government is essentially creating deserts instead of food production, which will only perpetuate the cycles of drought and wildfires we’d like to avoid.
Food price increases in 2022 are now expected to exceed those observed in 2020 and 2021. Without changes in water policy, it will continue to get worse.
It has never been more important that U.S. consumers insist on domestically grown food in our stores.
California’s water supply continues to face serious challenges and nowhere is the evidence clearer than on the farms that grow our food. Some of the most critical shortages expected this year extend from the Klamath Basin and Scott Valley, near the Oregon border, to Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. This 450-mile stretch includes some of the most productive farmland on the planet, where the ongoing drought threatens thousands of farms.
And it’s not just farmers who will suffer the consequences of vanishing water supplies. Consumers also face uncertainties when it comes to the food they buy. It’s hard to imagine empty shelves at the grocery store but the evidence of food shortages is already here in the form of higher prices.
In the Scott Valley an unprecedented water curtailment by the State Water Resources Control Board is aimed at reducing the use of irrigation water from both the Scott River and the area’s groundwater basin. Unlike most of California, this area is not served by the large state and federal water projects, nor does it have any reservoirs. The water in the Scott River and underground wells is the sole supply for these farmers on their 30,000 acres of irrigated land, located within a 512,000-acre watershed. This mountain valley primarily produces alfalfa and grass hay, pasture, grain, and cattle. Besides two organic dairies, beef production is either organic or conventional pasture-based for popular markets.
And unlike other areas of the state experiencing critically overdrafted groundwater basins, the Scott Valley basin is designated a “moderate priority,” with a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) recently completed for SGMA and submitted to CDWR for approval. Despite this concerted effort, farmers in the area are wondering why another State agency is ignoring their GSP strategy and is forcing them to cut all groundwater use as part of the surface water curtailments on the Scott River.
Retired local watershed consultant, Sari Sommarstrom, said the inclusion of all agricultural wells in this drought emergency order appears to be a new extension of the State Water Board’s water rights enforcement powers. – an action that other well users in the state should be aware of. The agency asserts that this severe curtailment is needed to protect Coho salmon, a species listed as threatened under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts, from going extinct.
“If minimum instream flow targets designed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to protect salmon are not attained each month, all ag water diversions – under both junior and senior water rights – will be cut back 100%. A 30% reduction option is available for well users through negotiation but is not guaranteed. Many irrigators fear the permanent loss of family farms this year if no irrigation is allowed.” Scott Valley organic rancher Gareth Plank adds, “It’s important to know that a 30% water curtailment translates into a 90% income reduction. Farming in a region with a short growing season necessitates utilizing 100% of those precious frost-free days.”
Further, hydrologic modeling done by UC Davis water experts shows the target flow the Board is trying to achieve with these draconian cutbacks could not be met even with zero irrigation.
Sommarstrom, who helped create the Scott River Water Trust as a win-win option for fish and farmers, commented: “The California Water Code requires ‘reasonable’ decisions among competing water uses, yet the State Board is asking for the beneficial use of water for fish to almost entirely supersede the beneficial use for agriculture, which is not ‘reasonable’. And the Public Trust Doctrine seeks a ‘balance’ of uses, yet this curtailment is not a balance.”
The Scott River, she said, “currently represents the largest Coho population in the Klamath River system with an annual average of about 800 adults, similar to estimates for the Scott made by CDFW back in the 1960s and a significant improvement over 20 years ago. Its trend does not indicate any probable risk of “extinction”.
“CDFW agrees that local restoration efforts have helped lead to this significant increase in the salmon population,” leaving her questioning the Coho population rationale as the necessity for the State Water Board’s unprecedented measures in the Scott River watershed.
Plank added, “It’s astounding that after so many years of collaborative efforts with their corresponding successes that the state would want to blow it all up with an ill-conceived draconian plan.”
This year is going to be rough for farmers throughout the state. In situations like this, California’s leadership must take into account the dire situation for farmers with few options and even less water when they’re making decisions that could end farming for thousands of people and the rural communities in which they live.
The highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report this week that provides guidance and recommendations on water-related spending by the Governor and the State Legislature. The report cites drought-related spending priorities from the past as well as current proposals, and makes a number of recommendations contrary to the current direction of California’s executive and legislative leadership.
In short, the LAO says that the current, $750 million drought response spending proposal does not address the immediate needs of the drought because it won’t result in an immediate increase in the water supply or in a reduction in water use.
“The LAO report shows While the Governor has presented his $750 million package as being for drought response, most of the proposed activities would not address conditions this summer and fall. This is because the majority of the activities would not result in an immediate increase in water supply or reduction in water use, or respond to emergency needs.”
In contrast, according to the report, “the majority of the proposed activities would focus on longer‑term efforts that might improve the State’s and local communities’ abilities to respond to future droughts. Specifically, both the infrastructure projects that would be funded in urban and small communities, as well as many of the water conservation initiatives and habitat improvement projects, likely would take at least a year and perhaps multiple years to implement.”
Preparing for the future is always a good idea. That’s why smart individuals have both a checking and a savings account. While the LAO praises the Governor for long-term drought resilience, its report highlights the lop-sided priorities where water storage projects account for only $30 million in proposed spending, or about six percent of the total.
“As shown in Figure 2, the Governor dedicates only $30 million from his new proposal for water storage projects. These funds would be used for groundwater recharge projects related to implementing local groundwater management plans in accordance with SGMA. In the context of the changing hydrology described above, this is not a particularly large level of spending.”
Groundwater storage projects also provide benefits beyond the obvious, such as developing both built and natural infrastructure such as canals, flood bypasses, and designated recharge basins—including farm fields—to direct runoff and floodwaters onto land where it can percolate into the ground to be used later. In addition to potentially restoring some existing groundwater deficits (and mitigating associated negative impacts) and increasing the water supply upon which farmers and residents can draw during dry periods, such projects often have the co‑benefit of reducing flood risk. As such, increasing available groundwater storage and opportunities to capture water runoff in managed aquifer recharge projects might merit additional investments beyond what the Governor proposes.
“The Legislature could also consider a package that provides comparatively more funding for groundwater recharge and storage projects, given their potential to help increase water supply, address groundwater deficiencies, and improve flood control.”
The LAO report has it right. More emphasis on capturing water during wet years and getting it into storage, is the most effective way to address immediate drought needs and dry years in the future. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides over the decades in water conservation.
The traditional Thanksgiving celebration is centered around the blessings of harvest. Farmers have an obvious connection because of their year-long efforts to grow the food that we all bring home to our families. Like most Americans, we are thankful for the food on our plates and the people who make it possible.
This Thanksgiving will be a bigger challenge for a lot of families because of higher food prices and fewer choices at the store. According to the Consumer Price Index, food prices in general have been 4.6 percent higher since September of 2020. Meat prices rose the most, up 12.6 percent, followed by fish and other seafood at a 10.7 percent increase and higher prices for fruits and vegetables and other grocery staples.
“Food prices, along with prices of a lot of other goods, are rising and that means Thanksgiving dinner, along with all of our other meals, are more expensive than they were a year ago,” said Purdue Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Joseph Balagtas, on the news outlet wlfi.com in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Price increases are also affecting food banks and pantries. According to the Marin Independent Journal, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank has seen an 80 percent increase in the prices they pay for poultry and other items they stock for underserved communities.
According to the Marin IJ, approximately 60% of the food the nonprofit distributes is fresh fruits and vegetables. For the first quarter this year, the food bank is about $400,000 over budget on produce, and about $75,000 on eggs.
Connecting the dots between the food bank shortages and local farmers, the Marin County Agricultural Commissioner said that water supply shortages due to the drought have resulted in reduced acreage of some farm crops. He encouraged residents to buy local to help maintain the viability of the county’s agricultural community.
Water shortages this year caused a steep decline in the number of acres in California planted to processing tomatoes. Between January 18 and May 26, the wholesale price of tomato paste rose 31 percent, and crushed tomatoes rose 22 percent. That’s important for two reasons. Processed tomatoes are used in a large number of foods we buy, from ketchup to salsa to spaghetti sauce, as well as soups, stews, and many other foods found in restaurants and at the grocery store.
Secondly, it is important because California grows more processing tomatoes than any other state in the nation. The No. 2 state is Indiana, which in 2020 grew 389,000 tons of processing tomatoes. That same year, California grew over 12 million tons, or 30 times the production of the Hoosier State because, like most other states, Indiana simply doesn’t have the acreage or climate to come close to the production that’s possible in California. What happens to all those products you buy every day if California can’t produce the amount of tomatoes it does now? You can expect shortages, or higher prices, or less safe imports or all three.
Other examples of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in greater abundance in California are grapes (17 times the production of No. 2, Washington), peaches (6 times the production of No. 2, South Carolina), and lettuce (almost 3 times the production of No. 2, Arizona).
California grows food in greater abundance than anywhere else in the U.S. because we have better soils and the only Mediterranean climate in North America. Most other states face more significant weather extremes, higher altitudes, oppressive humidity, and in some cases, too much water, which limits their ability to grow the same kinds of crops in the quantities that come from California.
Because California is a global leader in food safety, reliability, diversity, quality, and abundance, our leaders should be doing everything possible to support farmers here in California.
We’re already aware that supply chain issues have led to shortages and higher prices at the grocery store, and it only makes sense to keep that chain as short as possible. Imagine a future where much of our food is sitting in container ships off the coast of Los Angeles, waiting to be unloaded while prices at the grocery store rise and the quality of the food on-board declines. Local, California-produced food gives us the assurance that we’re not depending on other states or countries to grow the things we want here.
Politics, more than weather, affects the amount of water farmers have to grow our food. We must ensure that our water supply infrastructure is operating as efficiently as possible to meet the critical health, safety, and nutritional needs of all Californians.
The infrastructure bill signed recently by President Biden includes $3.2 billion to repair and upgrade aging infrastructure. There is another $1.5 billion for new storage projects, including groundwater storage and floodplain management. It’s a start but more needs to be done at the State level to assure consumers that our farms have the water needed to avoid future food shortages and unaffordable price increases.
Thanksgiving is a time to look back and appreciate all that we have. California does many things well, which is why it is the fifth largest economy in the world. Agriculture is a big part of that and, as Californians, we’re fortunate that our farmers can grow almost everything we need and in quantities that are the envy of the world. But it takes water to do that and with the right support from our elected leaders, farming in California will continue to lead the world in food safety, reliability, diversity, quality, and abundance.
That’s something for which we can all be thankful.