Historic Drought. Historic Opportunity?

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown stood in a meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Normally, the meadow would have been covered with five feet of snow. Normally, the governor would have needed cross-country skis to even get there. But this year, there was nothing but brown grass. The measured snowpack was the lowest in more than 60 years.

The scene was a dramatic illustration of just how bad the drought has gotten in California. (And, make no mistake, Gov. Brown capitalized on that, ordering cities and towns to slash their water use by 25 percent.) But the crisis does not affect only California residents. California produces 99 percent of almonds, 95 percent of celery, 94 percent of broccoli, 88 percent of avocados, 86 percent of cauliflower and 81 percent of carrots produced in the United States. The state’s Central Valley, just one percent of the land mass in the United States, produces 25 percent of the food we eat. As the writer Steven Johnson concludes: “California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.”

California boosters say the drought can be managed, that the state will remain an agricultural powerhouse. New groundwater legislation passed in 2014 mandating that local authorities create and implement sustainable management will help. This month, California announced that farmers with rights to surface water will face sharp cutbacks. But water experts point out that human ingenuity (better management, new technology, etc.) alone cannot solve this problem. “Three-fourths of all irrigated agriculture around the world is being produced in places that experience water shortages,” says Brian Richter, the chief water scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “Something’s got to change.”

The good news? Thanks to the drought, people have finally started talking seriously about what real change might look like. Does it make sense for Americans to depend on concentrated food production in only a couple of regions that are so vulnerable to water shortages? Should we be growing water-thirsty crops like lettuce in places like New York, where the population is dense and where we get about 40 inches of rain a year? How do we decide which crops to grow where?

Publicly, the debate has been focused on water footprints, or how much water it takes to grow various types of crops. The results are compelling—almost a one gallon of water per almond; one-quarter of a gallon per strawberry—but the metric is crude and misleading. As Mark Bittman points out, we’re not going to end the California drought by giving up our almond butter (or for that matter, avocados or peaches, either.) There are dozens of factors that should determine how we Americans can use water most efficiently in farming and support American farmers and eaters.

One is revenue per acre-foot, or how much money each crop earns based on the water it requires. According to calculations by economist Ellen Hanak, in 2005 the gross revenue per acre-foot in California was $31 for irrigated pasture for livestock, $127 for rice, $176 for corn and $200 for alfalfa. When you compare that to $3,247 per acre-foot for vegetables and $1,401 for fruits and nuts, there’s a clear case for continuing to grow water-thirsty crops such as fruits, vegetables and nuts over something like alfalfa, which is mostly shipped overseas. Another is what economists call “jobs per drop,” the number of jobs created for water used. By that metric, fruits and vegetables also outpace crops like rice and alfalfa in California.

But, says Heather Cooley, the water program director at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, it’s not that simple either. Farmers have followed the money on crops. That’s why 11 percent of California’s 9 million agricultural acres is now planted with almonds. Given the drought—and the specter of more drought due to climate change—farmers need the flexibility to fallow their fields if water is in short supply. With perennial crops such as almonds, that’s a lot more difficult to do, as trees will die.

More sophisticated metrics can help us to have an intelligent conversation about the future of American farming. Already, though, one lesson is clear: It no longer makes sense to rely on California to feed us. Mike Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University, says that if we’re smart, the drought will be a catalyst to re-regionalize agriculture. This is already beginning to happen as states see an economic opportunity to satisfy the demand for local food. One new study shows that New York State could provide about 70 percent of the New York City metro area’s total food consumption if farmers focused on dairy, eggs, fruits and vegetables. “The key hallmark of climate change is that weather will be more uncertain and extreme weather will be more frequent,” Hamm says. “Under those circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to hedge our bets?”