Category Archives: Agriculture

Be careful with your words (lest they get overanalyzed by a blogger).

Dave Simmons left a comment on the “Fish, food, feedback loops.” post that I want to talk about for a second. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using it as a discussion point, Mr. Simmons.

3. Westlands has become the most productive in the nation and the most efficient in the state. We get the most crop per drop. That is why! We should be held up as an example to the rest of the state. If all other farmers were as efficient as us maybe there wouldn’t be a crisis.

But instead, our reward is death by strangulation.

First, it is true that farms in Westlands have tremendous irrigation efficiency. They have the capital to put in very nice irrigation systems; they’re the only place I know of where you can’t assume as a matter of course that they’ve undersized their filters. That said, I want to address his closing rhetorical flourish: “our reward is death by strangulation.”

This is why I hate metaphors and analogies. I know that Mr. Simmons did not mean it literally. Mr. Simmons doesn’t really think that as a reward for having very high irrigation efficiency and great yields, state or federal enforcers will systematically strangle all of the 600 growers in Westlands to death. Mr. Simmons is just using dramatic language to make a point. But nevertheless, there are a few problems with these kind of statements.

1. Now we know and Mr. Simmons knows that there will be no death by strangulation involved in any part of the on-going water conflicts. But you know who doesn’t know that? Mr. Simmon’s own un-thinking limbic system. His own body doesn’t know that, and when it hears “death by strangulation,” it thinks that is VERY VERY IMPORTANT and SOMETHING TO FIGHT. Mr. Simmon’s calm and measured mind understands metaphor, and that we are talking about the sequential retiring of fields as state water supplies dwindle. But people’s bodies are acutely concerned with things like “death by strangulation”, and after hearing things like that, bodies will stay activated and on-guard. It will feel the echo of that death-threat, and the next time retiring Westlands comes up, the body will remember that we are in a FIGHT TO THE DEATH! The body is not that bright, but it knows what it knows, and it knows that “death by strangulation” is VERY BAD. Identifying the well-being of Westlands with one’s own fight for life will make Westlands farmers fight sooner, longer and harder, more frantically than a business decision about resource use deserves.

2. The second reason that I don’t like “death by strangulation”, even as metaphor, is related to the first. Frankly, it spooks the horses scares the authoritarians. They’re already fearful; they see the end of the world at every turn. They’ve been permanently triggered; their shows shout at them, telling them about constant dangers and the chaos to come. I read the comments on Hannity’s show, and people are talking about black helicopters and jackboots cracking down on salt-of-the-earth farmers (I am just this second thinking about parallels between the fall of the Garden of Eden and pictures of bulldozers taking out trees). Now water scarcity may be having an inexorable effect on marginal farming operations in California, but the mechanism is not strangulation, nor killing farmers by any means. Rather, pump operators a hundred miles away are intermittently slowing down 13 huge pumps. No one is in any physical danger. But when fearful people see words like “death by strangulation”, even if they know it isn’t literal and discount it some, their permanently terrified perception is going to be closer to ‘DANGER DANGER DANGER’ than it is to ‘making hard planning decisions about crops, fields and water availability.’

3. Mr. Simmons, and every other farmer on the west side, your life is not at stake. Here are some things you can do when the climate changes and these drought shortages become permanent. You can farm in the Sacramento Valley. You can farm on the east side of the San Joaquin. If you aren’t bankrupt, you could (try to) cash out and retire somewhere. You can try to turn your land into solar energy farm. You can go to college and start a new career. You could be a foreman on someone else’s farm. Your existence is not at stake. Your lifestyle is at stake. Your emotional investment in your land is at stake. (Actually, those are both already gone, but I’m trying to be kind.) What you are used to is at stake. But you, as a thinking and self-determining person, will live past the end of Westlands Water District. You can move and adjust, because you are an intelligent human. The sooner you get working on that, the easier the transition will be.

You might also think about who you want to be as you face the end of what you have known. To keep farming the west side for a few extra years, what are you willing to destroy? Would you destroy salmon for everyone else in the state, so that you can keep driving around in a white truck on the land you are used to? Would you end a species of small fish, so that you can keep going to the diner in Three Rocks? Would you drown Sites Valley, just so you can look at the same horizon you’re attached to? Is that how you want your last few years in Westlands to be? Thrashing around, destroying beautiful places, killing small pieces of the creation, so that you can keep farming where you’re used to? Remember, you aren’t doing all those things to preserve your life, even if you’ve unconsciously linked those in your head. You aren’t even doing those to preserve your identity as a farmer. You, a fully functional person with a lifetime of skill, could move and farm elsewhere. You, if you keep up with your losing lawsuits and futile battle against climate change and salt, would be breaking all those things just to stay in place a few years longer. People will judge you for that.

4. There are participants in all this who do face death as a result of our collective decisions. They aren’t strangled. They are sucked into giant pumps and pulped. This is not a metaphor for the end of a way of life, or very hard decisions, or bankruptcy. They are physically drawn into pumps, crushed and mangled. We gather their broken bodies and try to guess whether we’ve killed so many the species will end, or if we can kill a few thousand more. You will outlive the end of Westlands, Mr. Simmons. Death by strangulation is not a threat to you or any farmer in Westlands. But a horrible death to smelt and salmon is a certainty; happened by the hundreds just this week. They wish death were a metaphor.

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Couple more thoughts.

I have a couple more thoughts on the “death by strangulation” metaphor for Westlands, because I always have a couple more thoughts.

1. There actually is a possibility for death by strangulation for Westlands farmers, and that is if they hang themselves. Farmers commit suicide at disproportionate rates; it is terrible. There’s a lot of research on this, and help is available. Please, please do not kill yourself. Growers on the west side, please also keep an eye out for your neighbors. If they look depressed or hopeless, please ask them how they are. In many farmer suicides, western cowboy culture keeps people from volunteering how bleak they feel. But they might answer if asked, and it could prevent a suicide.

2. My other thought is that I keep telling growers on the west side to get out. The water situation isn’t going to get any better for them. Did you see the 2009 State Water Project draft reliability report? But it occurs to me that growers in Westlands may have no exit opportunity. What, they’re going to sell their land? To whom? Without water, that land has almost no value.

At the water law symposium a couple weekends back, Jason Peltier (a manager at Westlands) said something interesting. He said (recalling, so I can’t swear by the wording), ‘Shoot, most of them are already in bankruptcy, but the banks don’t want to foreclose.’ Which was very interesting.

Who holds those mortgages? What bank in their right mind would want to own those lands? What would a bank do with them? Who knows if liability will change, and one day they’ll be billed for their selenium drainage? A bank can’t sell those lands without water any better than the current owners could. A bank could maybe bundle them, and sell them to someone trying to start a solar energy empire. It’d be nice if the Nature Conservancy would take them; managed would be better than empty. But I think the Nature Conservancy has higher priorities, with more biodiversity left in them.

Anyway, the idea that without water, those lands have negative value to the holder would make it hard for farmers to get out, even if they could walk away. Man, I don’t know how to handle that. Land swaps somehow? But good farmland with secure water is being farmed now. Transitions are hard. Too bad we changed the climate away from the one we were optimized for.

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Fish, farms, feedback loops.

With the House Congressional hearings and Judge Wanger’s decision to allow pumping for a couple weeks right now (on the grounds that the pumps are allowed to kill about 23,000 juvenile salmon and so far have only killed about 1,200, so, you know, might as well pump a little), there’s been a whole lot of the now-familiar talking points.  Regulatory drought will be the end of California farmers!  Fish and ecosystems are collapsing!  I’m also seeing the new “Communist carrots!”, which I greatly enjoy.  I can only assume these are Maoist carrots, partly because they’re from China, but mostly because of course carrots would favor agrarian socialism.  Their role in the Cultural Revolution has never been fully explored.

I want to talk about the way “farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are hurting!” has become “farmers are hurting!”.  This is interesting because 1. it is entirely unsupported, and 2. that gets the mechanism backwards, and 3. leads to interesting politics.

1.  So far as I know (and I watch this stuff as closely as I can from behind a desk) growers on the west side have fallowed acres from water delivery cutbacks, and avocado growers in San Diego county stumped their trees.  Besides those, I never hear of specific other growers fallowing acres.  There might be some.  If you look at the USDA ‘s California Vegetable Review for 2009, most crop acreage is down a percent or two; it comes out to 6,500 fewer acres of vegetable crops in CA last year, out of 760,000 acres of vegetable crops.  The Field Crop Report is the same (tiny drop in acreage, mostly cotton; rice is booming), and so is the Fruit and Nut Review.  None of those drops in acreage add up to the couple hundred thousand acres that Westlands is claiming they fallowed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about different accounting methods between the crop reports and a district assessment.  My point is, I’m not hearing or seeing evidence that farmers in the Sac Valley, or Salinas, or Imperial, or the even the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are fallowing acreage from the drought.  There’s a lot more to California ag than Westlands.

(Also worth noting that ag acreage and ag profits aren’t the same.  Those crop reports show that 2009 yields and total values were up in 2009.)

2.  But, say the strawmen in my head, Westlands is the tip of the Drought Iceberg!  The thin end of the wedge!  The start of the slippery slope!  After Westlands is gone, the drought will come after the rest of California ag!!!  I want to point out that this is not true.  There is a direct causal relationship between reduced water deliveries and fallowed acres.  Very roughly, one acre of land has to be fallowed for every three feet of water that aren’t delivered (moderated by efficiency improvements and groundwater substitution).  And then, that’s all.  The drought doesn’t spread past that one-to-three relationship.  There aren’t synergistic effects.  It isn’t like a network, where taking out one link weakens the rest.  In fact, it is the opposite.  Farmers are in competition with each other.  Every lost acre of almonds in Westlands makes an almond grower in the Sac Valley just a little bit more secure.  Fallowing will track water run-off and water deliveries, but it isn’t contagious.  It isn’t a slippery slope; it does whatever annual run-off and water deliveries do.  It doesn’t spread to more senior rights holders or even across the San Joaquin Valley.

Contrast that with the fisheries, salmon or smelt.  Those truly are feedback loops, or a downward spiral.  A lost juvenile salmon now is also lost salmon descendants and lost food from the foodchain.  Taking pieces out of that network weakens the whole system, unlike fallowing, which strengthens the remaining farmers.

3.  I’ve been wondering how Westlands has convinced so many Congressmen and some of the public that they’re the symbol of all California ag.  I keep wondering whether farmers will hang together, and how long they’ll consider Westlands’ interests their own.  Farmers in the Delta (530,000 acres) and Westlands (600,000 acres) are on opposite sides of the Peripheral Canal debate.  Sac Valley farmers are a little suspicious of Westlands’ (and L.A.’s) intentions.  The coastal ag valleys and the southern ag valleys are entirely different systems.  So why is the rest of California ag willing to let the Farm Bureau and the California Ag Board and the California House ag Representatives act like what is good for Westlands is good for everyone?  All the other contractors are going to end up paying for infrastructure to keep some of their biggest competitors in business just a little longer before they transfer their water rights to L.A.  How does that help the Friant?  How does that help the Sac Valley?  Their representatives have been hijacked, and I wonder how long before it starts to bother the rest of CA ag that representing Westlands doesn’t represent them.

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It is called industrial ag for a reason.

This is a nice piece, pointing out that farmworkers in California are always desperately poor and saying what cannot be said too often:  using farmworkers as cover for political bargaining after exploiting them for decades is fucking shameful, both in the sense that it is a  terrible shame, and in the sense that the assholes who implemented it have earned their place in hell.  If someone who organized the Latino Water Coalition happens by, I hope you know that decent people are disgusted by you.  If someone from United Farmworkers or California Rural Legal Assistance happens by, all my respect for your good and solid work.

I do want to say something else, a side comment on this:

Food aid is rolling in to the breadbasket of California. In Fresno County, the state’s most productive agricultural area, a hunger crisis has been unfolding for the better part of a year.

Yeah, Fresno is one of the nation’s breadbaskets, but in the best of times, with every acre planted and watered, it isn’t like farmworkers would eat food from their surroundings.  Sure, the county produces a lot, but if you’re picking in the middle of 600 acres of tomatoes, it isn’t like you would get your next meal from the agriculture around you.  These aren’t picturesque Amish farms with bulging gardens.  They’re monocultures all the way to the field on the horizon, where the lines change angles.  Farmworkers in Mendota get their food from stores even when the district bursts with almonds and melons.  The difference in this drought and recession is that farmworkers don’t have jobs to buy food; not that their former garden of Eden is parched by drought.  Mendota is living the tragedy of a factory shut-down, not failed food production.

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They should start by reading Ostrom.

I was reading this article, about how there is stimulus package money for drilling wells for ag relief even though groundwater levels are falling and the well water they can pump is salty.  It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, so I wasn’t that excited about it.  I was going along, thinking stray thoughts.  Heh.  They got a quote from Errotabere.  He gets quoted for the grower’s perspective all the time.  Wonder how he got to be the quote guy.  Is his last name Basque?  I could look that up, but it would take seconds of effort and that’s hard.  I was pretty interested in his quote:

“We don’t need any more straws going down there ’cause we’re already doing a pretty good job of sucking it dry,” said farmer Dan Errotabere, who has dug three wells as deep as 1,200 feet to irrigate his tomatoes, almonds and garlic in recent years. “We’re using this water as a last resort, but pretty soon we’re going to need a policy to protect ourselves from ourselves.”

That sounds almost like a plug for groundwater regulation. He is on the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Is he possibly setting the thin edge of a policy wedge here? Huh.

Then I was kinda interested in Salazar’s comments:

Salazar, a former rancher and environmental lawyer, told California farmers the wells and other taxpayer-funded projects would help their businesses stay alive.

“I’ve watched acres of our land dry up. I’ve gone to the bank with my brothers and not been able to get financing myself,” he said. “You’re all wondering what is your future in 30 years, and I know there’s a lot of pain right now.”

I think he hit the most vital part of this whole discussion, on bank financing. I think the banks that extend ag credit and mortgages will be the ones to determine how far and fast the ag sector in California contracts. They’re the ones who have to bet on fuel and fertilizer prices, and availability of water, and yields in other parts of the world. I have no idea how they calculate that. Wish I did. (As a public service, I will repeat my predictions here. If you are wondering what your future in 30 years will look like, you should ask yourself. Is my acreage in the top 6 million acres of irrigated ag in California? Am I in the bottom third of irrigated ag in the state? If you think the answer is no (or then yes), you should move your operations to the east side or the Sac Valley before everyone else finds my blog and tries to do that too. You’re welcome.) So that was kindof interesting.

But then I saw a mention to a guy who says that his canal is cracking, because the ground is subsiding under it as the aquifer gets drained. I was all, huh. What district, I wonder? I want to see pictures of cracking canals. Is it, like, a lateral or something? So I searched for the guy’s name, and found a picture.

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I’m going to hold hearings too. With my friends. We’re gonna get drunk and find some findings.

This is fucking nuts. Republican Representative McClintock is announcing that he and his buddies are holding their own party in Fresno, because the rest of the House of Representatives have told them a bunch of times that they aren’t going to waive the Endangered Species Act, so stop asking already.  Fine.  I don’t know what their own hearings will accomplish besides political theater, but there’s nothing to stop them.  But Rep. McClintock is quoting some one who says that the feds need to lift Endangered Species protections because California is importing food from China to feed our starving workers.

Full Committee Ranking Member Doc Hastings (WA-04) [said] “There are serious problem with our Nation’s environmental laws that prioritize fish over people. This is evident when one of the most fertile agricultural areas is importing food from China to feed the needy. If it can happen in California, it can happen anywhere and that’s why it’s important for Congress to travel to the Valley.”

That is straight up gibberish. Believe you me, California is still a huge net exporter of food.  Actually, don’t believe you me.  Believe the California Dept of Food and Ag, who says that as of two years ago, California exported 28% of its agricultural production.   True, that was before the DROUGHT and THE JUDGE SHUT DOWN THE PUMPS!!!  But, the amount of land fallowed because the drought and ESA combined was roughly 300,000 acres, or about 3% of California’s ag land.  Meanwhile, the most recent California Crop Report shows no signs of a greater than 28% drop in agricultural production.  I think I’d have read something about that, if it had happened.  I follow the Hanford Sentinel and the Fresno Bee, you know.

Representative Hastings, whose constituents should be embarrassed that he represents them, seems to be relying on this picture for evidence that California’s needs food from China to feed itself.  He can reassure himself with actual data about carrots; looks like California grew 16,700 acres worth of carrots this fall alone.  Never fear, Rep. Hastings!  Protecting the Delta Smelt does not threaten the nation’s carrot supply!

More seriously, I actually do think the food security is a legitimate issue.  Some environmentalists think it is an absurd excuse to give more money to agribusiness.  They think agribusiness is plenty secure already.  Some economists think that our best food security is having big dollars, so that we can go buy food on the world market if we stop producing it.  But I worry a little.  Not in the short term, but I  think a combination of levee failures in the Delta that shut down the California aquaduct altogether and groundwater overdraft in the SJV could mean a very sharp and abrupt decrease in the amount of water available to farming in the San Joaquin Valley.  I don’t think that is a particularly far-fetched scenario.  If that happened during a worldwide drought (also no longer farfetched), there may not be all that much food for us to buy, and the rest of the world will also want it.  I’d feel a lot better with food in my (extended) backyard than cash in the bank.  I think that since we are so rich, we should pay to maintain that kind of security and assurance here at home.  But at current levels of production, we are a huge exporter and we have so much extra that we can grow a million acres of grains to feed to animals.  That’s a million acres of production that could provide about ten times more food for humans, should we need it.

The other reason Rep. Hasting (and Rep. McClintock by extension) have that fear completely backwards is that you know who faces a huge food security problem?  China.  They sold someone a box of carrots, true.  But China is so worried about feeding itself that they’re buying up Africa as a breadbasket.  I love that kind of longterm vision.  Respect to China.  But basically, every aspect of that justification for the pretend-Congressional hearing is backwards.  California produces more than plenty of food for itself.  China is never going to be an important food source for Californians; they’re rightfully worried about feeding themselves.  And these representatives don’t give a fuck about food security anyway.  They want to get rid of the Endangered Species Act and make not-even-specious arguments about its harms.  Whatever, dudes.  Enjoy your fake hearings.  The rest of  Congress will never care about them.

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People don’t choose to spend their lives in factories.

This makes me sad. From the exchange of letters between CalPoly and Harris Ranch, Harris Ranch closes its letter with this:

Dr. Baker we still harbor significant concerns about the direction of the College of Agriculture at Cal Poly. And while we appreciate the last minute changes to the upcoming Pollan event, we believe this matter to be indicative of the disconnect that in our opinion currently exists between College of Agriculture at Cal Poly and the agriculture community. We challenge you to convince us otherwise. Finally, we hope you – and especially Dean Wehner – understand this Pollan issue is bigger than the executives at Harris ranch… it’s bigger than Cal Poly alumni involved in the animal production industry. This whole mess is having a profound impact not just on Cal Poly, but rather, on Ag schools across this great nation. We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia.  [my emphasis]

I went to CalPoly SLO. Took ag classes while I was there. Perhaps it has changed in the years since, but I tell you what. There is no disconnect between CalPoly academia and the agriculture community. There were two types of people in my classes, the sons of growers who were going back to the farm to become foremen and the sons of pickers. (No, not many daughters.) We went on multi-day field trips to my classmates’ farms. One of my classmates had never eaten store-bought meat until he got to college. (He thought it tasted awful.) Another one of my classmates was designing an industrial-sized carrot peeler for his dad’s farm, to better salvage and market carrots. Four years later I saw my first bag of “baby carrots” in a store. My classmates wore Wranglers with no ironic calculation. I once walked behind a pair of them who were strolling and talking; one was casually lassoing and releasing the other’s foot, in stride and in pace. The ag colleges at CalPoly are teaching ag kids.

The distance between CalPoly ag academia and the larger ag community is one personal phone call. That’s on the peer-to-peer professional level that the CalPoly dean describes in his letter. But it is also on the parent-child level. The ag community is as close to CalPoly ag academia as they are to their children; reports on lectures and teachings come out of classrooms and local knowledge about what is happening in the Valleys flow back in.

Which is why that last paragraph made me sad. He is right about the disconnect, but that gap isn’t between ag academia and the ag community. The disconnect he’s feeling is of conventional agriculture community losing their children. The next generation doesn’t want to farm like them anymore. I’ve eavesdropped on several conversations of growers and other ag professionals wondering who will replace them. They say that their kids laugh at the idea.

I can’t help but feel for the old generation. They achieved a lot! They made agriculture SO EFFICIENT. They lived better through chemistry. They seized the promise of the Green Revolution. They turned production into a science. They ran on the crappy  efficiency/land consolidation/overproduction treadmill, and if they’re still standing, they were the best and hardest working. They built the system they live in everyday, understanding its reasons and being reassured by its familiarity. The good people, the hardworking people like them, live around them and accept the life. Why wouldn’t their children want it? Why would their children want to go to a talk by the man who is undermining the ag life they all know?

This poor guy. He probably does want CalPoly to go back to Before All This Sustainability Crap. But the urgency for him and his friends isn’t whether their beloved college hosts a lecturer. That is a symptom of the problem, which is that the kids would listen to Pollan in the first place. He’s right. It is infecting ag colleges everywhere. The real cause of the emotion and urgency is that their kids are leaving their way of life, which coincides with going to college. Even if their kids do (against very hard start-up barriers) find a way to farm, they may well farm like dirty hippies, which is Not The Same. I want the end of big ag in the Valleys as much as anyone does. But I still see why that ending is painful for the people who thought they were doing right when spent their lives turning farms into factories.

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