That’s old school.

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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “That’s old school.

  1. Steve Bloom

    Basically Michael seems to be complaining that a severe drought (and the expectation that climate change will drive more of it) has changed the terms of the conversation. Well, yes.

    BTW, you should get a twitter feed for your posts. They can be automated and left alone, although interaction would be good.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Oh boy. I can hardly imagine a worse temptation for my smart mouth than a Twitter feed. The blog is bad enough; a Twitter feed would bring out the worst in me.
    Want to hear something even more Luddite? I can’t see most of the conversation about the blog. My referral logs say that my traffic comes from Facebook, but when I click to see the source, Facebook asks me to log in. I don’t have a Facebook account, so I can’t get past that, even to public Facebook pages.
    I’ve decided that is good, because it keeps me generating my own content rather than reacting to conversations. I shall blog like it is 2005 indefinitely. Anyway, if anyone has ever said that I should show up and explain something (or cite sources, or give my reasoning), I didn’t know about it. I didn’t mean to be rude by ignoring it!

  3. Steve Bloom

    More than fair enough. But notification-only for Twitter (TBC you never even need to look at the feed) would still be good, as that’s probably the main venue for such things these days (much more than FB in my experience). Krugman e.g. does it that way.

  4. Steve Bloom

    In my not extremely informed opinion (I spend most of my time on climate science and policy), in addition to serious regulations on groundwater extraction and eliminating the present system of water rights, what would make sense for ag in our new dryer climate is some sort of sectoral cap-and-trade system with e.g. a priority allocation for veg and a much lower one for tree crops that can’t be fallowed during dry years. But I think it will take another couple dry years before something along those lines becomes politically palatable, and even then it would probably need to be done by initiative, the legislature being the legislature. Of course urbanization also needs to be constrained within its current footprint as part of any serious reform

    Speaking of tree crops, olives are interesting. As best I can tell they require about the same amount of irrigation as almonds to produce a good crop, but the key difference is that they can survive dry years with minimal or no irrigation. They also seem to have a much longer potential productive life.

    One of my few luxuries is the excellent (*very* highly-rated in a Consumer Reports blind taste test) affordable CA olive oil sold at Trader Joe’s, and I suspect the sky’s the limit on the market for that stuff. AFAICT direct olive products have the drawback of needing to be salted, but OTOH most almond products seem to be heavily salted too even though it doesn’t seem like it’s needed for at least short-term preservation.

    Over time, as the Mediterranean dries further (yes, more global warming), the competitive position of CA olives should improve considerably since most places around the Med lack the sort of irrigation infrastructure we have, and even if they did have it have nothing like CA’s mountain ranges to couple it to.

    So why not olives? Having not gone so far as to consult anyone with expertise on the subject, my guess is it’s the mechanization. But all that equipment costs money too, so I’d be curious to see a careful analysis.

    Any thoughts?

  5. Steve Bloom

    Oh yes, also a widget for allowing people to send posts to social media. Convenience => traffic.

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Good lord. I thought I had become all modern when I added the “follow” widget.

    No, I don’t have a take on olives, besides liking to eat them and admire the trees.