Piecemeal land retirement will not be the stable final state.

JFleck tells me that Palo Verde Irrigation district is suing Metropolitan Water District; to thank him for that helpful post, I’ve stolen his picture of PVID’s complaint about one externality:


I’ve written that piecemeal, widely dispersed land retirement will add expensive costs to the land that remains in production. I continue to wonder how that will be handled.  To my deep surprise, at this year’s California Irrigation Institute conference, the growers on the panel about decreased irrigation acreage all expected the same outcome in the San Joaquin Valley. (Jan 30, Session Two)  They thought 30-40% of currently farmed acreage would go out of production, and that every farm would hold their current acreage, but only farm 60-70% every year.  I was shocked.  That’s expensive!  Unfarmed land still has maintenance requirements, but doesn’t bring in any money.  I couldn’t tell whether they thought that was their best option, or whether they simply cannot say out loud that irrigated lands should be consolidated, with some farms going entirely out of business.

I’ve been wondering at that for a while, until Lois Henry raised a new possibility: that John Vidovich would hold all the newly not-irrigable land and that he calculates that water sales will cover the expenses from that land.  It is also possible that he doesn’t intend to pay full costs for the unfarmed lands that he will hold and that they will become nuisance properties.

At this point, I honestly don’t know how the land will be retired.  It is a shame that government involvement is completely taboo.  Government involvement could mean designating a state park, letting current farmers remain on their unfarmed lands for a life tenure, paying current farmworkers to restore habitat.  Government involvement could coordinate land swaps to consolidate farming communities.  But I understand that that might be Stalinism, or maybe Maoism, certainly doomed to failure like everything governments have ever done, and certainly worse than every individual farm in the south San Joaquin Valley carrying 40% of their acreage unfarmed every year.  Seems a pity that a coordinated, planned gentle landing isn’t an option.


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7 responses to “Piecemeal land retirement will not be the stable final state.

  1. Bob Siegfried

    It is possible that piecemeal land retirement will end up the preferred solution. Precision farming yield analysis routinely reveals that yield across a field varies about tenfold. So, one could fallow some acreage and end up with a modest decrease in production and, conceivably, lower input costs. Modern soil mapping techniques developed by the U.S. Salinity Lab enable decisions about which portions of a field to idle.

    Doomsayers should investigate the yields of skip row cotton, in which half the cotton acreage was idled under a Federal program. Much to the chagrin of the Feds, the decrease in cotton production was surprisingly modest.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    The CII conference leads me to think that’s the track we’re on now. But even so, costs are probably about the same for all fields, so I’d think that farms would want to shed the low performing quarter.

  3. Noel Park

    Solar farms.

  4. Jan Kimbrough

    I know this is probably a wildly uninformed and politically naive suggestion but do you think it is in any way possible for California to do as Holland has done?

    • onthepublicrecord

      Well, it probably doesn’t scale. But more importantly, I don’t think California needs to. I think California would still be a major agricultural center if it were 6 million irrigated acres rather than 9 million irrigated acres. However, the techniques in Holland might help other parts of the world feed themselves, rather than relying on cheap food from California.

  5. Jeanette Howard

    Important stuff you bring up here.
    It is obvious that ag land in CA will be retired in the near future. Where we are, on many levels, is unsustainable.
    What retirement looks like can be coordinated, thoughtful and lead to a healthier environment for both people and nature or it can be a piecemeal, uncoordinated approach that leads to more dis-function around water in the state. It’s gonna take some hard work but I feel oddly optimistic that we can have a progressive agenda around CA water. First step may be actually broaching this taboo topic.
    Thanks for your blog and for putting your thoughts out there. Your words are very much appreciated.

  6. Darren palm

    When looking at the percentage of each farm that gets retired, you’d have to know and account for it’s water supply. If it’s a farm that pumps groundwater only and has no surface water rights, then percentage-based cutbacks make sense.
    On the other side of the spectrum, use farms in Consolidated Irrigation District south of Fresno as an example. There, in a wet year like 2017, the canals ran full all summer thus requiring little to no groundwater use, all such canal water is local and gravity fed from Kings River (not part of SWP). Also, in the 1950’s CID had the foresight to set aside a series of sandy recharge basins which are filled in wet years to account for the groundwater pumping in the district in drier years. There might be some annual avg overdraft but comparatively much better than rest of SJV.
    Thus I it would seem land retirement will have to be looked at specifically by irrigation district/SGMA grouping.