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Climate Change and the End of California’s Big Agriculture

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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

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