Monthly Archives: September 2014

New American Dustbowl, Mr. Heathcock (1 of 3)

I am very impressed with Mr. Heathcock’s longform piece on how growers are responding to this year’s drought in the San Joaquin Valley.

I commend him for:

Focusing on the growers and their attitudes. The two major drivers in California’s water system are climate and people. A detailed article about the people for whom we move water shows us the forces (primarily their emotions and influence) behind how we got here.

Going the distance. Mr. Heathcock visited some obscure places and put in the driving hours.

Writing a beautiful and specific article that gives me enough material for commentary.

He did make some common outsider mis-steps, which I only noticed because he tells us about them.

He writes that he is surprised at the lack of talk about the weather. Heh. Why would we talk about the weather? From May to October, I can tell you exactly what the weather is going to be: hot, dry, clear. There’s nothing to talk about.

He mistakes “four hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand acres left idle, or 1,250 square miles of land on the high side” for a lot of land. Longtime readers here know there are about 9.5 million irrigated acres in California (round up to 10M irrigated acres if you want to do easy math). So he’s talking about 5% to 9% of California irrigated acreage idled this year, a year that received about 30% of its snowpack.

He traveled a ton of distance, so I can’t fault this one bit, but he missed that there are different (and occasionally rival) sets of farmers in California. Some century-old farms are in no danger up in the Sac Valley. Others in the Delta are specifically threatened by the actions of the south San Joaquin Valley growers.

This detail surprised me; I don’t think someone with a long familiarity with CA water rights would have included it.

Russ and Jim check on his well. His orchard is only hundreds of feet from the Kings River, which would naturally replenish his well if the river wasn’t dry.

If the Kings River is replenishing the well, the well is not sucking groundwater. It is taking the sub-surface flow of the Kings River. Unless the well owner has an appropriative right to Kings River water (with diversion method specified as “well”), that is straight up water theft. I would have left that out of an article meant to be kind to the well owner.


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New American Dustbowl and not giving a damn. (2 of 3)

Mr. Heathcock writes:

From what I’ve seen and heard I’m confused why the human tragedy has largely been ignored. It’s puzzling why a valley of such agricultural importance is shown so little respect. I post photos on Facebook, one of a vast field of withered grape vines, one of unfarmed land not far from the Wakefields’ home. Though I know many of my Facebook friends are the eco-conscious types the folks in this valley claim are pining for their demise, I’m convinced the photos will receive unanimous sympathy.

The comments on the photos begin as expected, folks thanking me for covering the story, outraged because they had no idea things were so bad. Then the first negative comment pops up. On the picture of the unfarmed land a “friend” posts: “Just saying — these must be really shitty farmers.” Another comment follows saying that one person’s tragedy and is another person’s call for change. The next claims this is what happens when you “over-farm” land. Yet another suggests my story isn’t about a water crisis, but about a “failed colony”.

There are two reasons that Mr. Heathcock’s friends (and urban food consumers in general) don’t care, both fascinating to me.   I am assuming that his friends’ reasoning is like mine. OK, really I am explaining my own reasoning here.

Why should we care?

Mr. Heathcock’s reason for expecting sympathy isn’t directly spelled out, but I believe it to be: “these people deserve sympathy because they are hurting. Have some compassion, you snarling beasts.” He doesn’t give any other reason they deserve sympathy besides the fact that his photos make the damage to farms visible to people who haven’t seen it before.  My reply is that climate change is impoverishing us all, and why should this group get more sympathy than any of the other groups that are hurt by it? Are farmers in the SJV more deserving of my sympathy than the failing restaurateur down the street being squeezed by food prices? He and his family work 14 hour days too. Do they deserve my sympathy more than Syrians drawn into a civil war started when Syrian farms started failing from drought? Do SJV farmers deserve my sympathy more than migrating birds that are starved of food and resting places as they migrate this fall?

Here’s the one that always gets me. Mr. Heathcock could have written a story exactly like this about the salmon industry. You could do rugged resource extractors on boats that their grandfathers built, idled by drought, pulling up to some nostalgic ice cream parlor in the Delta. The story could be the exact same, only with mournful ship bells clanging for atmosphere. That group is the direct competition for water with growers, equally picturesque and endangered by climate change and manly and shit. Why care about one and not the other? I will go to my grave wondering why one gets profiled and the other doesn’t.

So, of all the groups that hurt under the new climate (basically everyone, some worse than others), why should I have sympathy for SJV farmers? Because they are such careful farsighted stewards of the resources they care about? No. They’ve drained and polluted their groundwater for decades. They treat labor like it’s disposable. Because they are such considerate stewards of the resources I care about? No. The subsidence caused by their groundwater overdraft is breaking public roads, overpasses, buildings, canals, and I won’t even bring up the rivers and fish I would like to keep healthy in the state because then I would be “radical”. Reading that they generalize about my tribe as much as I do about theirs, and are intermittently hostile and suspicious of outsiders doesn’t make me more inclined to be sympathetic.

We don’t interact in a system based on mutual caring.

The larger reason that urban food consumers do not care about the San Joaquin Valley farmers is that we do not interact in a system based on caring. Instead we interact through a market. For growers, this means distributing their crops in the manner that gives them the highest profit, no matter where it goes. If a primary market for their sudan grass is in Japan and they make the most profit from it, that works fine so long as they don’t need their purchasers to give a damn about them personally. That connection is just too attenuated for Asian buyers to care about them. And I, their potential Californian consumer who might be close enough to care, have no connection because they aren’t selling me lovely fall pears. Likewise, Vidak’s quote rings true to me:

“No,” Vidak counters. “People in New York or Boise, Idaho, don’t care where their produce comes from.” The valley of farmers could go away, and so long as the product came from elsewhere no one would care.

One flat of onions looks just like the next in a grocery store in Delaware. Why would people in Delaware care about the grower in California? Interacting through a market system means that it is entirely appropriate for the seller to care primarily about profit and the buyer to care primarily about price.

We could choose a system that is based on caring, or at least is based explicitly on values besides profit and price. The state could choose “stable, egalitarian farming community” as a value, reform its water rights and subsidize growers through droughts. It could choose “food security” in return, so that growers first grow staples for direct human consumption, even if that doesn’t earn them as much as almonds do. For higher food prices, farm labor could have better living standards. In this system, farmers would also care about us, the urban consumers. Nowhere in Mr. Heathcock’s piece did I see a grower ever consider the notion of what food producers could do during a drought for the people who purchase their food.

I do care about them!

The last reason I find this question fascinating is that I do care about growers and have been writing on their behalf for years (although I doubt they’ve appreciated my advocacy). I don’t care about them in the way they want, which is to prioritize their water use above the other ways that California could put water to use. But I have warned them here for years that climate change is coming, that their best bet is to get out while they can still extract some capital. I have said here and elsewhere that there will be much less water available overall and much less irrigated acreage, that the transition will fucking suck for the farmers who have optimized to the old climate. They will fall gentle or they will fall hard, and if we gave a damn, the state has the resources to cushion that fall. So far as I know, no one has ever given serious thought to what managed retreat would look like in the San Joaquin Valley. Mr. Heathcock has written a great article on what unmanaged retreat does to the Valley.

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New American Dustbowl and Resilience (3 of 3)

Mr. Heathcock laments that his Facebook friends are unkind to the growers.

On the picture of the unfarmed land a “friend” posts: “Just saying — these must be really shitty farmers.”

I would not have said that these are shitty farmers. But I will say that they are not farming in a way that is resilient to drought, which is more frequent under the new climate. In some ways, the farmers themselves have noticed it. One farmer points out the yellowing leaves in all the pistachio orchards they pass. Another (Mr. Sihota) cannot pay for the cost of water to keep his vines alive this year, so he sells the land. If that land hadn’t been in permanent crops, he might have held on to it by growing nothing this year; at least that wouldn’t have cost him the money to buy water. Growing permanent crops locks them into a brittle system with fewer options: they can procure water at any cost or they can sell the land. The growers who were in row crops (Wakefields, cotton) have been able to sell piecemeal. That may not save their farm either, but it has extended their tenure on their farm.

The most interesting thing I see in this article is that wealth is not acting to create the resilience I’d expect. Rather, if my association of wealth with greater farm equipment or permanent crops (very expensive to plant) holds true, it seems to be making total failure more likely. I generally think that wealth buffers against poor periods, but in Mr. Heathcock’s story, the resiliency appears to be highest in the least wealthy and lowest in the most wealthy. The garlic pickers who are contemplating moving to Washington and Oregon (yes! good choice on their part if farm labor is their goal) have a mobility the others don’t. The growers in row crops can rent their land for the drought year (Barlow, cotton) or only farm the sections they have water for (Allen, cotton). It is the growers in permanent crops that are in all-or-nothing situations. I’d have thought they were the wealthiest, but their wealth hasn’t been kept in a form that can buffer them against drought.  They should be holding it in accessible form so they can get through dry years without farming.   I’ll have to think about this more.


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