The nature and extent of California’s agriculture should be an intentional choice.

I have been somewhat baffled at Governor Brown’s reluctance to challenge agriculture during the drought. The crass explanation is that he has been bought by the Resnicks, but he isn’t running for anything again and I’d like to give him more credit than that. He may genuinely believe that whatever “the market” produces should determine what California ag should look like. Recently I have been wondering if Governor Brown’s picture of California agriculture is being distorted by his visits to Colusa.

Returning to his roots, the governor and his wife, Anne Gust Brown, spent the long Memorial Day weekend in a small cabin he had built on 2,700 acres of isolated family-owned property in Colusa County.

Colusa, in eastern Sacramento Valley, follows the rule that towns along the 99 are (or were once) charming and maybe have charming remnants of a main street. This is not coincidence; the towns along the 99 are the oldest of ag towns and were founded under the original rules of the Reclamation Act: small farmers, holdings of 160 acres, one-farmer one-vote (not voting by acreage). The farms are nice-looking, smaller orchards might have greenery under old walnuts, a couple goats, old water towers. Towns along the 5 are visually unappealing and so is the large-scale agribusiness there. The large-scale agriculture can have great efficiency and tremendous production, but visiting them, it is very clear that these are biological factories. There is no life between the rows (good for irrigation efficiency!), no quainte barns, clean hard lines as far as the eye can see.

If old-style farming is what Governor Brown thinks of when he thinks of ag, I remind him that it was created by the original rules of the Homestead Act and the Reclamation Act and will have to be intermittently reinforced by government rules. Large players like hedge funds are buying and consolidating lands for almonds. Wealthier farmers are paying for deeper wells and sending smaller farmers out of business. Having attractive small ag is a choice that must be made repeatedly, with new rules to combat capital consolidation, not a default.

The extent of California agriculture must also be a choice. This article deftly illustrates that there is more arable land than irrigation water, comparing land conversion to induced traffic demand.

At the same time, given the size of the state, we will always have more land available to bring into production than we will have water to put on it.

This paradox – that enough water will never be enough – means that efforts to increase supply of water or reduce demand for water will ultimately lead to more agricultural lands being brought into production, more water available for cities to grow, and more water to remain in streams to ensure a healthy environment. But, eventually, we will face a new drought, and water supplies will again be inadequate to meet the new, higher levels of demand.

Further, market demand for tree nuts (and increasingly, meat and dairy) is insatiable. I have been called a bigot for specifying that our almonds are going to China and India’s growing middle classes, but the fact that they are China and India is specifically relevant. Some smaller country’s new taste for tree nuts might eventually top out, but relative to our land and water supplies, China and India’s vast demand will absorb any quantity that California could supply. Since tree nut suppliers have shown themselves willing to use all available groundwater at any drilling or pumping costs, there is no effective limiting factor. If we don’t want indefinitely expanding tree nuts in the state, there must ultimately be a choice independent from land availability, groundwater sustainability or market demand. I suggest we choose that now, while there are still resources to preserve.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The nature and extent of California’s agriculture should be an intentional choice.

  1. Paul

    California’s people, in the form of its elected officials, make many choices. One of those choices is to continue to raise the minimum wage significantly above the federal minimum. I imagine you support this policy.

    Wage laws and labor regulations have been the primary driver pushing CA farmers towards nut crops, which are highly mechanized. The conversion of cropland to nuts predates the recent inflation of demand from China and India, as well as the hedge fund trend of investing in nuts.

    In a recent blog, you expressed your preference for California farmers to grow fresh produce. In fact, exactly the opposite is occurring. Most fresh produce is harvested by hand. While the minimum wage has been rising, the supply of labor from Mexico has been limited by immigration enforcement at the border. Labor costs for hand harvest have increased, and labor availability has decreased. Across the state, fresh produce farmers have been unable to find enough people to harvest their produce. Meanwhile, prices have not risen to cover increased labor cost due to continuous pressure from (mostly Mexican-grown) imported fresh produce.

    You would like our state to make conscious choices as to what is grown here or not, but what really drives farmers’ decisions are unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning policies. In a few short years, the minimum wage in California will be $15 or more, and the minimum wage in Mexico will still be less than $10/day. And little if any fresh produce will still be grown on any land that is suitable for growing mechanized crops like almonds, walnuts and pistachios that are already far more profitable than fresh produce even now.

    The factors that influence agriculture are among the most complicated affecting any industry in the world. Thankfully many California policymakers, Gov. Brown included, understand this. Your attempts to boil it down to one or two factors are naive at best and insulting at worst. You need to spend a whole lot more time studying these issues before you continue to proffer your ill-informed and myopic opinions.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    Heh. I regularly buy produce from your farm.

  3. Cap and trade (or equivalent) is necessary to keep demand under supply.

  4. It’s all well and good to want to make that choice, but I think the catch is how to do it ONLY through the regulation of public goods. Maybe you would disagree, but I wouldn’t want a California that tells farmers what they can or can’t grow on their land, or starts redistributing private land.