Monthly Archives: February 2009

Bad news.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu gave an interview to the LA Times a couple weeks back, saying that we’re going to lose 90% of the snowpack, California ag is doomed, and he isn’t even sure we can hold on to our cities. It was a strong statement and I generally approve of strong statements. It is a worse fate than I expect. I’ve said below that my prediction is losing a third of CA ag, and how we should do that.

Anyway, the New York Times today discussed Chu’s statements, got a bunch of opinions about whether it was too strong or irresponsible. Did experts think Secretary Chu was on target? The answers vary, but none of them said something that I think is really important.

Secretary Chu picked the most extreme prediction from the suite of models. You can argue over whether the models are accurate; you can debate whether you should pick the upper bound or lower bound; you could squabble over how the effects will play out in real life. But the thing that none of those experts said in that interview is that right now, we are exceeding the carbon emissions in the most extreme model. Further, effects are arriving faster than we expected. Based on what we are doing now, the worst case scenario is the floor.

It is plausible that the next decade will see a sharp reduction in emissions, if Pres. Obama prioritizes it. If China joins us (or leads us, for all I know), in ten years we could be back in the mid range of the climate models. But until that happens, when you see a climate prediction and it gives you a range, assume that we are outpacing the worst prediction.

LATER: Apparently MIT has revised their models to include current emissions levels.

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Fix California’s water system!!!

My main take-away from this meeting on a California Constitutional Convention? I didn’t expect to hear so much about water. The first speaker, from the Bay Area Council, listed water as the second most important crisis the state has to solve, after resolving budget procedures. The next speaker, Walters from the SacBee, mentioned it alternately first or second every time, water and the budget. It came up a couple more times, always as an important function of government that California was failing at.

Huh. I pay a lot of attention to water, but I don’t personally consider it a scarier problem than climate change, converting our energy sources and distribution to renewables, densifying cities, matching up our population to a quality of life. I’m pretty scared of the way we imprison people, actually. That strikes me as a real nasty feedback loop. I mean, yeah. Our water system poses some hard problems, but I wouldn’t have picked it as one of the two top problems in the state1. I wonder how much that public perception has to do with being in the third year of a drought.

Anyway, all that talk of the government failing at water made me wonder what the state could actually do for water systems, in a beautiful world of very good governance. These people who want the state to fix the water problems, what can they expect?

I know what they want. They want to keep using water they way they do now, not pay much more for it, and have so much faith that it will always be there when they open the taps that they never think about it again. That’s the standard they’re used to. Heh. A perfectly functioning state government couldn’t provide that. We will have less water overall, spread over more people, and the best Constitution in the world will not make it rain.2 Water will be scarcer and more expensive.

What, then, could the laws of our state actually enable? Three things: reliability, certainty and allocation. This is not the same as more water. Our old strategy was to have so much that even with sloppy management sloshing water all over, reliability, certainty and allocation were largely met. (Unless you were a salmon or smelt.) Now, though, we’re going to have to focus on what people really want.

The way to support reliability is through the budget process. Paying for O&M on our existing plumbing, putting in cross-ties and canals so that regions are served by multiple systems, instead of one that can fail and leave them stranded, reconstructing and getting rid of existing bottlenecks. Our current projects could be optimized and better controlled. Better reliability could be bought by a state government that could budget for it.

Certainty and allocation come from distribution rules, and this is where overhauling the state codes or Constitution can actually have some effect. I have opinions about what that should look like, but it is more important that people realize that this is the field of play. “Fixing water in California” does not mean “perpetuating what we’re used to”. It means making rules for who gets how much of what little water arrives and why. It means deciding who gets the shaft when flood or drought arrives, and whether there will be compensation. It means that Silicon Valley execs can know that they’ll get all of what they need nearly all the time for a lot of money. It means that growers who commit to accepting flood waters know they’ll get paid back from a community fund, so they can exist as farms the year after. It means that cities can plan for expected populations and know they’ll have a smaller but reliable amount of water for all the households they serve.

That’s what new rules could do. That’s the best a new Constitution could do. It won’t “fix the water system” in the sense of making more water exist so we can live like we have. “Fixing the water system” means meeting the underlying needs (reliability, certainty, allocation) so that people can adapt and choose.

 

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Some future post, no doubt.

I should also say that I would like for California’s cities to start growing a noticeable chunk of their own produce.  That should be part of a good future for California agriculture.

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Policies for a pleasant future for California ag.

This piece on the future of CA is kicking my ass. I’ve been trying to make it good, but perhaps I’ll give up on that and just try to make it direct and short not short.

Basically, I see two things we should actively pursue. The labor-intensive farming of the future should be as equitable and pleasant for growers and workers as it can be. The contrast here is vassal feudalism or sharecropping; the San Joaquin Valley has seen this structure within living memory, so that isn’t an impossible alarmist threat. The other is that I think we’re going to need vigorous investment in high and low-tech biology and agronomy. That’s the science with the most promise for a unicorn-style rescue.

Given that farming will involve a lot more labor as fossil fuels and chemical pesticides become prohibitively expensive, here are the economic policies that I think can influence where we land on the spectrum ranging from feudalism to the Jeffersonian ideal of small farms populated by hippies.

Removing barriers to entry for people who want to farm.

The first of these is straight-up pathetic. Farmers need affordable health care; since they are self-employed in a hazardous business, it is expensive for them and their workers. Solving health care for Americans in general would also make non-industrial farming more viable.

Provide a retirement package to farmers. Farmers deal with large fluxes of money, and have an erratic yearly income. Further, some farmers tend to turn their money into very illiquid forms, like additional land or large machinery. A predictable retirement might ease some of the pressure to mine their soil or groundwater for short-term returns. More importantly, it would ease some of the necessity to sell land to urban development at the end of a farming career. The common quote is “my land IS my retirement”. That may be a realistic evaluation for a grower now, but not a good way to keep a stable community of small and mid-size farms around cities. We already have conservation easements, legislation and ag land trusts to address this now. I don’t know how effective they are or which measures work. Perhaps those do a better job keeping land in agriculture. But if cashing out for retirement is a reason reluctant farmers sell land for development, then I’d be happy to pay their retirement instead.

Give them money.

Food will have to be more expensive. I don’t see a way around it. Supporting more people making decent lives farming means internalizing the costs that farm workers bear for us now. Farm workers now pay for mismanagement and rent extraction with their lives, bodies and health. Paying for good management and additional hard but not crippling labor at the cash register will cost food purchasers more. I don’t know what state level economic policy enforces this. As long as race-to-the-bottom agriculture from other countries or states is readily available to compete on price, farms will go out of business before they internalize their environmental and humanitarian costs. That points directly to protectionism. (I don’t personally object to that, and the prospect of economic inefficiency!!! doesn’t offend me either.) I suppose the collapse of international trade from peak oil, or a sudden mass conversion to purchasing sustainably grown produce could also have the same effect. But those are hard tools to manipulate.

I’d also like the collective to confront and make a decision about imposing climate risks on farmers. Agriculture acts as a buffer for climate events. We assume it will be a source of water in drought, and it will inevitably be the place we put floods. This is actually a very nice function, and one the state should value and develop. Further, when we ask farmers to convert from low-input reliable field crops to higher management, locked in capital, and agronomically riskier row crops, we are asking them to live closer to possible failure. Since extreme weather perturbations will happen and hit agriculture harder than the rest, we should plan for a type of farming that can recover from them. The work on resilience favors interconnected, very diverse, distributed and redundant systems. Like, lots of farms growing lots of things. We should also think about bridging farmers through years they can’t farm, perhaps with money.

In conclusion.

Besides those things, there is the pablum of the Ag Vision action items, most of which are fine measures. But fundamentally, for California agriculture, I’d like to see lots of people farming the good soils on mid-sized farms they mostly own, paying laborers decent wages. I like this vision for lots of reasons. It sounds nice for the people involved and I want a good quality of life for our citizens. I believe it is the sturdiest of the options, with the most promise for renewing its population, recovering from shocks, responding to different types of scarcity, and protecting agrarian and environmental resources. The concept of food security is dismissed by economists, but I worry about it enough to prioritize it. We have very good farmland here, which should be gently farmed for a long time.

This will cost the public money, both to implement policies and to buy Californian food. I think farming is important enough to subsidize, although I don’t want to subsidize farming by indirect means, like water projects or crop payments. Frankly, if we want farmers to produce food and be agrarian and environmental stewards, we should pay them to do precisely that. I’m struck by the fact that a hundred years later, I am circling back to the original purposes of the 1902 Reclamation Act. It created the Bureau of Reclamation to build water projects to populate the West with homesteaded agriculture. The goal is a good one: resilient agricultural communities, weathering a lot of change, producing a lot of good food, using our extraordinary natural resources without damaging them, giving agricultural Californians a nice life. It can be done, with decisions and wealth.

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The big gains for ag are in the biological sciences.

The most promise for science intervening to boost agriculture is going to come from the biology side of science. Engineering has had a fine day, but I think the promise of water projects and irrigation is largely delivered, with some moderate implementation left. Chemistry was a fucking disaster. The increased yields from fertilizers and pesticides were nice, but coming to depend on them is a dangerous way to live in a finite world. The pollution costs have been very high. I always hated chemistry.

I don’t especially love biology, but I think that’s the place to look for big gains in the next few decades. Using fancy-sounding biology to explain and verify agricultural craft is a good way to resurrect it. Even more than that, I am resentfully seeing the need for altered plants. There’s talk of turning annual plants into perennials and getting a crop off for multiple years. We could use plants modified to take up salts. We could use crops better able to withstand dry conditions. That may mean GMO’s, which makes me sulky and resistant. But perhaps they’re too useful a tool to refuse.

In any case, I think it is going to mean a lot of very close biological and agronomic study. How much can you deficit irrigate your crops and what happens to yields next year? What is going to happen to nitrogen uptake in a high carbon atmosphere? Why does good tilth increase water retention in soils? What plants and practices increase soil carbon sequestration? I think the biological sciences hold some answers that will give us an edge, and I’ll take every advantage we can get.

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Few more days.

Man. It’ll BE the future by the time I get this last piece up on the future of CA agriculture. But it is half-written and might get finished on my flight. Which means that it will wait for a few days until I get back to where I can post it. Mostly, I just want to say that I’m not abandoning the theme or the blog. Have a good weekend!

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More on the future of agriculture; boundaries and drivers.

Fortunately, all the problems from climate change and depletion point to similar and overlapping solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions will require radical change. It will also considerably reduce California food output, decrease meat in our diet and increase prices.

There are a few realities that I think will form the boundaries of what happens. Within those, we can make choices to direct how agriculture ends up.

First, oil is a substitute for labor. As oil becomes too expensive to be used for current mechanization, human and animal labor will fill in behind it or the enterprise will stop. Increasing energy use efficiency can give us some elasticity in substitution, but re-fitting machines also costs money

California is a great growing region, with very large areas of world class soils and a long growing season close to millions of comparatively rich eaters. Unless we get into paleodrought hydrology, we have enough water to sustain less agriculture (about 2/3rds) as well as desert-friendly cities.

Food prices will go up substantially, either because of reduced supply as land goes out of production, or oil or labor costs, or both. If meat and dairy production are forced to internalize their environmental costs, large concentrated operations will end.

The next many decades will see a constantly moving climate with increasing major perturbations. Under those conditions, rather than lock in expensive responses, the guiding principles should be preserving future capacity and being able to return to productivity after a flood, drought or fire.

These are the drivers that we will be reacting to. We should make decisions about how we want to respond to these constraints. We are a wealthy enough society that we have a lot of resources to put into shaping the agricultural sector.

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