Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! CounterPunch is entirely supported by our readers. Your donations pay for our small staff, tiny office, writers, designers, techies, bandwidth and servers. We don’t owe anything to advertisers, foundations, one-percenters or political parties. You are our only safety net. Please make a tax-deductible donation today.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Climate Change and the End of California’s Big Agriculture

by

It’s bone dry in California, and as I wrote in a recent print issue of CounterPunch magazine, it’s likely to remain that way for a long, long time thanks to our warming climate. The melting ice in the Arctic is manipulating the jet stream off the coast, pushing winter storms out of California. By many accounts the California water crisis is in its infancy and we are only beginning to witness the many changes the state will face as a result.

Aside from the lack of water’s many impacts – a changing environment, dead lawns, empty swimming pools – California’s agricultural industry may well experience the largest and most immediate blow. Last February, the federal government announced they were cutting off all irrigation to California’s Central Valley farmers for the rest of 2014. It wasn’t news they wanted to hear.

Yet, it had to happen. In fact, it should have happened long ago. Despite the perception that Californians, especially those in Los Angeles, are the state’s real water wasters, truth is agriculture accounts for over 80% of California’s total water consumption. The future of the state’s big ag is grim. It’s a reality the entire country will have to face.

California, with its 80,500 farms, is the top agricultural state in the country in terms of total dollars in cash receipts – over $40 billion annually. That’s over 11% of the US total. California is easily the agricultural hub of the West, with most of its produce sold in surrounding states. But as California dries up, so too will its agricultural output, the impact of which will most certainly be felt.

Flooding the desert to produce crops, which is essentially what has happened in the Central Valley for the past seventy-five years, is unsustainable. Big agriculture in California has long relied on subsidies in the form of inexpensive irrigation, thanks in no small part to the Central Valley Project, which produced the world’s largest water storage and irrigation transport network. Farmers in the Central Valley have banded together time and again to sue the Federal government in attempts to fend off environmental restrictions on their water usage. Thus far they’ve succeeded in keeping their water prices extremely low. For example, farming operations in the Imperial Irrigation District pay a mere $20 per acre-foot. It can cost ten times that much in some California cities. Earlier this month voters in California supported Prop 1, a slickly marketed ballot measure that will ensure more dams are built in the state to keep the water flowing to Central Valley farmers. The idea is to make it rain, not water, but cash.

California produces 86% percent of all lemons grown in the US, 99% of artichokes, 87% of plums, 44% of asparagus, 66% of carrots, and 50% of bell peppers. And that’s just the beginning. California farms grow nearly 90% of all cauliflower, 88% of strawberries, 84% of peaches and 94% of broccoli. The state controls the market on leafy greens, 90% of lettuce is grown here and over 80% of spinach. To top it off California also grows 90% of all avocados. As for nuts, California produces those too, over 1.8 billion pounds of almonds a year. That’s 82% of the world’s total almond production. Of those, nearly 70% are sold overseas. How much water does the almond industry consume? Almost 10% of all water in the state. It’s just one more cash crop largely dependent on access to cheap water.

That’s right. If you’ve purchased any fresh fruit, nuts or vegetables recently there’s nearly a 50% chance it was grown in the state of California. What does all of this tell us? Especially if we don’t live in California? It tells us we better start thinking about eating produce that is grown locally because purchasing fruit and vegetables from California will slowly (perhaps not too slowly) become more scarce and far more expensive in the years ahead. Cheap irrigation in California, with climate change as the culprit, will be forced to come to an end no matter how many more dams are built.

It simply has to happen. The water is no longer going to be there to sustain California’s multi-billion dollar ag industry. This is not to say the economic fallout won’t be felt. Agriculture employs one million people in the state, and its reaches are substantial. From trucking to packaging to marketing, there is no question that farming in California has created many jobs. However, like so many other sectors, it’s come largely at the expense of the environment. Rivers have evaporated, salmon have gone extinct, and entire populations of indigenous peoples have lost their water rights. Some have called it progress, others have called it a travesty. But no matter what side of the fence you are on, the fact remains that water in California is no longer plentiful and likely will never be again no matter how much groundwater farmers pump to keep their crops alive while irrigation canals dry up.

I have always had a deep appreciation for the farmers that grow our food. My father’s family were Montana sharecroppers, my mother’s operated a family farm in North Dakota. Soil is in my blood. That’s why it’s hard to admit that we’ve simply crossed the line as a culture. Farming isn’t what it used to be, certainly not in California anyway. The operations are far too reliant on irrigation and government subsidies to prosper. The big ag bubble is leaking and is about to burst.

None of this is to say that California’s economy won’t bounce back, or that dinner plates around the country won’t still be full of fresh and healthy foods. We just have to look a little closer to home. In a way, we have to get back to the land ourselves. Planting community gardens, growing our own vegetables, shopping at local Farmer’s Markets are all ways we can survive without relying on the bounty California has provided.

We have no choice, so may as well get started now.

JOSHUA FRANK lives in Long Beach, California and is managing editor of CounterPunch. He is author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, both published by AK Press. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter@brickburner

JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair and published by AK Press. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 29, 2016
Robert Fisk
The Butcher of Qana: Shimon Peres Was No Peacemaker
James Rose
Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Vice Grip on the Presidential Debates
Daniel Kato
Rethinking the Race over Race: What Clinton Should do Now About ‘Super-Predators’
Peter Certo
Clinton’s Awkward Stumbles on Trade
Fran Shor
Demonizing the Green Party Vote
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Road Rage to the White House
Luke O'Brien
Because We Couldn’t Have Sanders, You’ll Get Trump
Michael J. Sainato
How the Payday Loan Industry is Obstructing Reform
Robert Fantina
You Can’t Have War Without Racism
Gregory Barrett
Bad Theater at the United Nations (Starring Kerry, Power, and Obama
James A Haught
The Long, Long Journey to Female Equality
Thomas Knapp
US Military Aid: Thai-ed to Torture
Jack Smith
Must They be Enemies? Russia, Putin and the US
Gilbert Mercier
Clinton vs Trump: Lesser of Two Evils or the Devil You Know
Tom H. Hastings
Manifesting the Worst Old Norms
George Ella Lyon
This Just in From Rancho Politico
September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
Gareth Porter
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail
[i]
[i]
[i]
[i]