How will global warming and peak oil shape farming in California?

At Gristmill, Tom Lawasky relays a question from Fred Kirschenmann:

[L]et’s assume that ten years from now oil will be $300 a barrel, that we only have half the fresh water resources available that we have today for our food and agriculture system and that we have twice the severe weather events. What kind of agriculture should we be designing to put on the landscape that enables farmers to thrive, invites a new generation of farmers to enter farming and that restores the economic health of our rural communities?

Anyone care to take a shot at an answer? I’m all ears.

OK. I’ll take a shot at this. The thing is, he only gave the easy version. I want to pile on a little before I start, because there are other problems that he doesn’t mention. I think they also set the stage. This is only for California. I assume some of it transfers to industrialized agriculture more broadly, but I don’t know how other systems east of the Sierras work.

The standard quote in CA is that the average age of a California grower is 57. No one knows where recruitment will come from. I overheard two lifelong ag guys comparing notes; their children laugh at the prospect of farming or an ag life. They were saddened. My understanding from reading the comments to the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Ag Vision process is that barriers to entry are very high when land and experience isn’t passed down through families. A grower warned us that land in the Sac Valley is consolidating under foreign firms at growers retire out; he warns that the foreign owners have no emotional ties to environmental stewardship here. (All of this is plausible hearsay to me. I can’t vouch better than that.)

I posit that people are leaving the sector because large conventional farms are horrible places to be (especially if they are very water-efficient). Hot, ugly, brutal, stripped of cover, sterile except for rows of identical plants. No one with economic choice would be there long. I think extant farmers acclimated to this slowly. But people who haven’t grown used to it don’t want to spend their lives in that.

Chemical inputs to farming are increasingly expensive.

There will be less water, but that’s just the beginning of it. We will also need places to put new larger floods, and we are eying historical sinks. That’s a fair amount of farmland to be occasionally inundated. I am starting to worry as much about capacity to apply water as the amount of water available. If you cannot put enough water on a field (because a district cannot keep all of its canals full in a heat wave when everyone takes water, or your equipment (looking at you, drip irrigation) is flow limited) a scorching two days can kill your crop. Doesn’t matter if you have enough water for the rest of the season in that case.

I did not need this, but we’re starting to hear from the plant physiologists. Too much carbon in the atmosphere inhibits nitrogen uptake, which means that plants don’t form proteins as well. I was like, so? Does that mean we switch to different crop varieties that have more protein in them, so I don’t starve to death before lunch? And the professor was like, yeah, that’ll matter for the eaters. It’ll matter more that plants won’t grow well, so yields will weaken. Frick.

There is bad news on the food safety front, but I don’t follow that much. I do know that growers have come to think of things like providing shelter to animals or re-using treated urban wastewater as posing an unacceptable risk of contamination from e. coli. A recall and popular fear of a crop can wipe them out in a year or two. That risk makes them unwilling to consider using their land for supplementary purposes, like habitat.

Those are the driving forces I see. To be fair, I suppose I should put up a list of positive drivers (although most likely I won’t get to it). That would be headed by the amazing ag science base we have here, the decent lead time, and potential from the state climate change plan. I’ll post an unplanned and a planned scenario today.

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