I liked this article fine, because it points out that there are trade-offs for most agricultural crops and farmers plant them for reasons. I have said before that I tend not to care whether crops are “thirstier” because the difference isn’t that big, and I personally respect any well-managed irrigation method. If we ever decide to do so, I’d prefer to judge crops by explicit values, such as whether it is an important source of calories for humans or whether it is deeply culturally relevant. In that piece, Mr. Michael made the observation that:
Still, the nut boom has mostly been a rational reaction to changing economic circumstances. For years San Joaquin Valley farmers “were criticized for growing low-value crops,” Bowles Farming’s Cannon Michael said. “They took a huge risk on almonds, and now that’s what’s wrong.”
He’s right. When I started blogging, the enviro line was that farmers grew too much low-value agricultural products and they should switch to higher value crops. I believe the subtext was “so that they could make the same amount of money using less water and that would keep them happy and no one gets mad”. I personally think of that as old-guard water environmentalism (I don’t get out much and don’t know whether anyone else sees it similarly). My thinking was that climate change means we’re going to get substantially less water and be able to do much less with it. That we would have to make choices about what we want to do with the precip we do get (or can catch). That’s why I was never on board with “switch to almonds or vines.” If we can’t irrigate as many acres, I’d rather have abundant table fruits and vegetables than snacks (or wine, or cheap meat and dairy). I would certainly rather have table fruits and vegetables than provide snacks to the world. Since then, I have also come to object to tree nuts for Piketty/Occupy-kinds of reasons. They make rich people (who can afford the high capital costs of installation) richer by cheaply extracting California’s unprotected natural resources and selling them abroad.
These types of arguments are new to water policy; I can see why farmers might perceive this as environmentalists moving the goal posts. From what I’ve seen in the media, I don’t think the environmentalists supporting almonds (and conversion to high value agriculture in general) have themselves changed their mind (although maybe they didn’t foresee the extensive expansion and reckless overdraft). I think a new strain of environmentalist thought (more motivated by climate change adaptation and less concerned with finding win-win solutions with a decreasingly powerful agricultural sector) has entered the policy discussions.