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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3 responses to “New American Dustbowl and Resilience (3 of 3)

  1. ScottB

    I clearly remember a comment you made long ago about moving from an era of utilization to an era of optimization, which rang true to me at the time. This seems somehow related – in a system where optimization is critical, better optimization probably leads to more profits (relatively) but reduces resilience.

  2. ScottM

    I’m glad you wrote again. The sad thing is that the original article and yours are both true–I can empathize with the weekend farmers, like my grandfather, who taught school to support his farm hobby. It’s never been an easy life, but it’s been so long morally praised that I can understand why they’re disappointed that they have to make active arguments instead of relying on the generation’s built paeans to farmers.

    I saw a lot of cotton and corn along 41 and into Hanford this summer. Being able to shift crops in response to reservoir water levels is looking increasingly critical these days.I pine for a past of plenty, but dreaming doesn’t put you on a sustainable path.

  3. jda

    You may be confusing assets and wealth. Those in permanent crops and with lots of expensive farm equipment may also have lots of debt