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.