Category Archives: Agriculture

It was better before.

I was all fired up to write a series of posts about this article in the Hanford Sentinel, mostly about this part:

That’s why the Kings County Water Commission spent a good chunk of a Monday night meeting talking about a Westside landowner who plans to sell 14,000 acre-feet of water a year to the Mojave Water Agency in San Bernardino County for $5,500 per acre-foot.

That’s $77 million of the wet stuff headed out of the county for likely urban development (an acre-foot is enough water to supply a typical home for a year, according to Wikipedia).

$5,500 per acrefoot is an outrageous price, so I figured there was an outrageous story behind it.  I figured it was money laundering, and then my friend speculated it was probably connected to intended solar projects in the Mojave.  This was plausible because the sellers are masters of milking the public subsidy.  I figured that like any good corporation, they’d created a shadow entity to be the purchasers, Mojave Water Agency was a pass-through, and Sandridge Partners would now be farming subsidized solar energy (which requires cooling water) instead of subsidized cotton.

It was a good conspiracy fantasy, which is why I’m still telling you, even though the thing that caught my eye was wrong.  Mojave Water Agency isn’t paying $5,500 per af-year (twice the cost of desal).  I couldn’t find a citation for that, so I called the reporter.  MWA is paying a lump sum up front for the water right.  They’ll own all the future flows that water right can command for $77M, which might well be a decent price for water.  I suppose it might actually be water for the stated purpose (subdivisions).

I only have a couple points to make, instead of the scandalous series of muckraking posts I’d hoped to do.

1.  This tells me that farming corporations are pulling out of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.  Assuming corporations are making cold, hard business decisions and not emotional decisions about “being a farmer”, they think the era is over.  They are cashing out.  I don’t know what factors they weight (Subsidy reform? Climate change predictions about less precip? Maybe they don’t think Obama will build them the West Side Drain? ) but they’ll trade their future on the west side for $77M.   Can’t come a day too soon, says I, except for the cashing out part.

2.  I enjoyed reading the Negative Declaration quite a bit, for a rare look at a shy water district.  Dudley Ridge Water District covers 37,000 acres completely owned by eight farming corporations.  There are no towns, and the district has no staff.  There is no public for this water district.  Perhaps the district directors fly in  for the annual meeting on the several private airstrips the Neg Dec mentions.  Or maybe they just meet at home in San Jose.  The article says:

Dudley Ridge Water District, where Sandridge’s land is located, has adopted a policy divvying its water among member property owners. That gives each the right to sell their share.

No representatives from Sandridge Partners or Dudley Ridge Water District spoke at Monday’s meeting.

Yeah, I bet they didn’t. They aren’t answerable to the likes of some county water commission.

3.  I despise the injustice behind permanently vesting water rights in whomever filed for them two generations ago, and making those rights marketable.  Mojave Water Agency serves a relatively poor community.  It infuriates me that they had to give some of the richest people in the world $77M for unreliable water.  They made the trade, so maybe they think it was worth it.  But it is incredibly unjust and as a society, we could choose fairer ways to make sure towns get the water they need.

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Of course, that would require a functional state government.

The Pacific Institute has released another report on conserving ag water (or perhaps a final draft of the report I critiqued for ages in December) which I haven’t yet read. Some of the reported themes are maddening (furrow irrigation is not of itself inefficient, nor drip irrigation necessarily efficient; management is everything), but I can’t yet source that directly to the report. I want to highlight a different point:

“If we want to have a healthy agriculture economy, the only real option is to figure out how to produce more food with less water,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and co-author of “Sustaining California Agriculture in an Uncertain Future.”

Naw. Dr. Gleick’s quote is only accurate if you assume a market-based or capitalist model of the farming economy. We could have a healthy agricultural economy that produced sufficient food for California by capping farming production to something scaled to sustainable practices, buying that food, plus subsidizing farmers for farming the way we want them to. It would make food more expensive, partly because that would internalize some of costs that farmworkers and the environment are paying now. It would be a subsidy, which isn’t itself a sin. I don’t want to extend indirect subsidies like cheap water, but I’m game to pay some piece of taxes to make the towns along Highway 99 be pleasant places full of stable farmers and farmworkers, and also to make farms be all eco-like. I’d be even more game to pay my share of those subsidies if I thought they were designed well to achieve goals I want.

I no longer want to export California’s environmental quality, its water, sun and salmon, bundled into almonds and apricots.  I don’t want to do that even if a market supports it, even if people on the East Coast would like to eat what we grow*.  I don’t want to depend on a growth economy when I think we’re approaching the physical limits of our stocks and flows.  I’m fine with mining inefficiencies while we make a transition to a different type of economy, but those will run out and unless bioengineering pulls out miracles I don’t expect, I don’t see big increases, or even constant small yield increases  for decades to come.  I think we’re going to see step disconuities like this drought racheting us down for a while (yields, in the short term, standard of living in the long term, as much as standard of living is captured by eating meat, for example).  Which means I want us to think about getting to an attractive end point for Californians.  I don’t think the growth-economy model is going to get us there, so it makes me sad to see our well-known progressive thinkers internalizing it.  I would like us to make the harder case for paying, as consumers and citizens, for the farming sector we want to have**.

[Edited and second footnote added the next day.]

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Newspapers talk about stuff I’ve heard!

I quite liked this editorial in the Fresno Bee, saying that the problems in the San Joaquin Valley aren’t from a lack of water, but are instead from farm overproduction. The guy specifically questions almonds; I was glad to hear someone else bucking the Almond Orthodoxy.  He suggests idling half the production in the San Joaquin Valley, which is close to my prediction that two-thirds of irrigated ag in California will remain in the new climate.

Shubin mentions another issue I’ve heard raised in public comments in meetings, that farmland is being leased to distant farming corporations.  The grower who mentioned it at the meeting I went to contrasted the stewardship of farmers who live on and work their land against the bottom line of an international company.  I have to doubt that all local farmers are very motivated by stewardship, but the grower who raised this issue was convinced that distant corporations are much worse.  He said that this turnover is accelerating as Californian farmers age out.  All of this is plausible and now I’ve read another reasonable voice raising the issue.

The other issue I’ve heard in public comments is the clash between food safety and farming for habitat and the environment, so I was glad to see it get attention in the Chron.

To me, this all points back to my usual thesis, that our agricultural system should be designed to do something, and the design goals protected by law and subsidy, if need be.  I personally think the design goals should be something like: grain and truck crop production for California and some of the US; a complex and stable ag community supporting middle class lives for farmers and farmworkers (but not more); farming practices that don’t mine resources like water, oil, minerals or dilution capacity, and support habitat for wildlife.  I suppose there may be other design goals, but this haphazard shit is bad news for the agricultural community itself.  The stereotype is that the ag community clings to western conservative tropes of market-based ag and self-determination on an underpinning of large public works projects.  I’m sure it is more complex than that, but as much as that philosophy is running the show, it isn’t working for them.

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They may as well dance to the rain gods.

Yes! This quote:

Long story short, the super-simple proposal you’ve developed for ending piracy has probably already been thought of, and probably has a host of problems that you haven’t considered.

This is especially true if the super simple proposal for fixing California water is END WATER SUBSIDIES TO AGRICULTURE. I actually support ending water subsidies for agriculture and instead providing direct subsidies designed to buy the form of agriculture I want. But it is really rare to hear discussions of that. Instead you get blog commentors shouting that water subsidies must end, with no discussion of what that would look like. The problem with an abrupt end to water-based subsidies is that those subsidies are old now. They’ve been going on for fifty or more years, and their existence means that some noticeable piece of the agricultural sector has come to depend on them.

Losing water-based subsidies abruptly would set off the ‘host of problems’ that would matter to real people. Grower’s land would be suddenly worth much less. Some growers would find the costs of water tip the balance, so that farming is no longer possible for them. I keep saying that subsidized water grows field crops that are the basis of cheap meat. I don’t care if cheap meat vanishes, but I think there are a whole bunch of people who think eating meat frequently contributes to their quality of life. Those are attenuated problems, and maybe you aren’t very sympathetic to growers who are all MULTINATIONAL BILLIONAIRE CORPORATIONS anyway. But the first people who are going to hurt, as I’ve been saying all along, are farmworkers.

We’re seeing that now, that when water leaves the ag sector farmworkers hurt first and worst. But, even as farmworkers have all my concern, I have to say that their march this week just kills me. Farmworkers are marching from their dying town to a reservoir as a way to lobby for “state money for dams and canals and the lifting of pumping restrictions at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that were imposed to comply with environmental laws”. They’re deliberately evoking Cesar Chavez. I find that march to be a horrible perversion and wish they weren’t doing it.

I have to assume that to the marchers it feels like a meaningful protest that will draw attention and aid, but I can’t see how it will work. The primary problem is that they are asking for the wrong remedy. Specifically what they want is to lift the ESA restrictions on the pumps that protect salmon and smelt. I don’t really have much claim on Chavez’s legacy, but I have to say that it breaks my heart a little to have farmworkers using his tactics to shift the drought burden to the only entities in our water system that are suffering worse (farmworkers have it bad, but they are not physically ground to pieces by the pumps) and have less voice or capacity to escape the consequences of drought (fish, however, must be in drying rivers and cannot move to another).

That aside, this march doesn’t pressure anyone who can respond. In Chavez’s original marches, farmworkers and boycotts could pressure growers for better wages and working conditions. Those improvements were something that growers could give, or legislators could legally require. But knowingly breaking the ESA as a result of this march? Who could do that? Pres. Obama could call a God Squad, which I hope he doesn’t do. A judge or the state legislature could try, but the resulting litigation would last longer than this growing season. The Department of Fish and Game could reverse all their findings that this pumping regime kills fish that are already nearly extinct, but that would require some pretty surprising new scientific studies. So long as the ESA holds, we can’t do what farmworkers are marching for, which is to send more water to the farms that would employ those farmworkers.

The farmworkers have a different remedy, but to my regret, they aren’t asking for it. They don’t need water to go to those specific farms to get those specific jobs. They need some jobs, or failing that, they need money to live on and to transition out of a farming-dependent life. That’s something the state could do. They aren’t asking for it, though. I don’t know if it is politically impossible (because how would you take care of the farmworker victims of the drought without attending to the other victims of the recession) or if they haven’t thought of it (because the idea of the state taking care of its citizens has become a joke) or if they are too self-identified with the some bullshit rugged individualism made even worse by a western farming mythos.

I’ll say this, too. I don’t know this to be the case, but I get a yucky feeling that this march was cynically engineered by politically savvy water districts. I hate that feeling. It would mean that sophisticated large water users manipulated the hurt and restless energy of farmworkers and their desperate families and used the legacy of Cesar Chavez as cover to attack the Endangered Species Act. If that happened (and of course I’ll never know) it was a shitty thing to do.   Making this march about dams, canals and running the pumps more won’t get farmworkers the help they need.  All  the desperation and hope they put into the march will be disappointed.  That’s another disappointment they don’t need.

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Worried

I’m reading a lot about Australia’s drought these past couple days.  Two things.  First, it looks exactly like an accelerated version of my dystopic version of how California agriculture will respond to climate change.  I’m always relieved at validation, because I thought through that post from first principles, not from copying a drought scenario.

But, one real bad thing is that one of the sidenotes in my old post is pretty prominent in these articles about Australian drought.  Farmers kill themselves a lot.  I guess the identification with their land and way of life is overwhelming.  Maybe people at the Department of Public Health know more about that, but I don’t think many water managers think of responding to that as part of their job.  Also, the first and worst victims of California’s water scarcity are and will be farm workers, but I don’t see mention of suicide in any of the newspaper stories about them.  Why do farmers kill themselves but the more destitute farmworkers not?  (Catholicism?  Different sort of self-identification?  Sampling and reporting error?)   What’s going on here and how does it become part of drought response?

Later: Relevant. And another article mentioning drought and suicide.

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Policies for a pleasant future for California ag.

This piece on the future of CA is kicking my ass. I’ve been trying to make it good, but perhaps I’ll give up on that and just try to make it direct and short not short.

Basically, I see two things we should actively pursue. The labor-intensive farming of the future should be as equitable and pleasant for growers and workers as it can be. The contrast here is vassal feudalism or sharecropping; the San Joaquin Valley has seen this structure within living memory, so that isn’t an impossible alarmist threat. The other is that I think we’re going to need vigorous investment in high and low-tech biology and agronomy. That’s the science with the most promise for a unicorn-style rescue.

Given that farming will involve a lot more labor as fossil fuels and chemical pesticides become prohibitively expensive, here are the economic policies that I think can influence where we land on the spectrum ranging from feudalism to the Jeffersonian ideal of small farms populated by hippies.

Removing barriers to entry for people who want to farm.

The first of these is straight-up pathetic. Farmers need affordable health care; since they are self-employed in a hazardous business, it is expensive for them and their workers. Solving health care for Americans in general would also make non-industrial farming more viable.

Provide a retirement package to farmers. Farmers deal with large fluxes of money, and have an erratic yearly income. Further, some farmers tend to turn their money into very illiquid forms, like additional land or large machinery. A predictable retirement might ease some of the pressure to mine their soil or groundwater for short-term returns. More importantly, it would ease some of the necessity to sell land to urban development at the end of a farming career. The common quote is “my land IS my retirement”. That may be a realistic evaluation for a grower now, but not a good way to keep a stable community of small and mid-size farms around cities. We already have conservation easements, legislation and ag land trusts to address this now. I don’t know how effective they are or which measures work. Perhaps those do a better job keeping land in agriculture. But if cashing out for retirement is a reason reluctant farmers sell land for development, then I’d be happy to pay their retirement instead.

Give them money.

Food will have to be more expensive. I don’t see a way around it. Supporting more people making decent lives farming means internalizing the costs that farm workers bear for us now. Farm workers now pay for mismanagement and rent extraction with their lives, bodies and health. Paying for good management and additional hard but not crippling labor at the cash register will cost food purchasers more. I don’t know what state level economic policy enforces this. As long as race-to-the-bottom agriculture from other countries or states is readily available to compete on price, farms will go out of business before they internalize their environmental and humanitarian costs. That points directly to protectionism. (I don’t personally object to that, and the prospect of economic inefficiency!!! doesn’t offend me either.) I suppose the collapse of international trade from peak oil, or a sudden mass conversion to purchasing sustainably grown produce could also have the same effect. But those are hard tools to manipulate.

I’d also like the collective to confront and make a decision about imposing climate risks on farmers. Agriculture acts as a buffer for climate events. We assume it will be a source of water in drought, and it will inevitably be the place we put floods. This is actually a very nice function, and one the state should value and develop. Further, when we ask farmers to convert from low-input reliable field crops to higher management, locked in capital, and agronomically riskier row crops, we are asking them to live closer to possible failure. Since extreme weather perturbations will happen and hit agriculture harder than the rest, we should plan for a type of farming that can recover from them. The work on resilience favors interconnected, very diverse, distributed and redundant systems. Like, lots of farms growing lots of things. We should also think about bridging farmers through years they can’t farm, perhaps with money.

In conclusion.

Besides those things, there is the pablum of the Ag Vision action items, most of which are fine measures. But fundamentally, for California agriculture, I’d like to see lots of people farming the good soils on mid-sized farms they mostly own, paying laborers decent wages. I like this vision for lots of reasons. It sounds nice for the people involved and I want a good quality of life for our citizens. I believe it is the sturdiest of the options, with the most promise for renewing its population, recovering from shocks, responding to different types of scarcity, and protecting agrarian and environmental resources. The concept of food security is dismissed by economists, but I worry about it enough to prioritize it. We have very good farmland here, which should be gently farmed for a long time.

This will cost the public money, both to implement policies and to buy Californian food. I think farming is important enough to subsidize, although I don’t want to subsidize farming by indirect means, like water projects or crop payments. Frankly, if we want farmers to produce food and be agrarian and environmental stewards, we should pay them to do precisely that. I’m struck by the fact that a hundred years later, I am circling back to the original purposes of the 1902 Reclamation Act. It created the Bureau of Reclamation to build water projects to populate the West with homesteaded agriculture. The goal is a good one: resilient agricultural communities, weathering a lot of change, producing a lot of good food, using our extraordinary natural resources without damaging them, giving agricultural Californians a nice life. It can be done, with decisions and wealth.

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The big gains for ag are in the biological sciences.

The most promise for science intervening to boost agriculture is going to come from the biology side of science. Engineering has had a fine day, but I think the promise of water projects and irrigation is largely delivered, with some moderate implementation left. Chemistry was a fucking disaster. The increased yields from fertilizers and pesticides were nice, but coming to depend on them is a dangerous way to live in a finite world. The pollution costs have been very high. I always hated chemistry.

I don’t especially love biology, but I think that’s the place to look for big gains in the next few decades. Using fancy-sounding biology to explain and verify agricultural craft is a good way to resurrect it. Even more than that, I am resentfully seeing the need for altered plants. There’s talk of turning annual plants into perennials and getting a crop off for multiple years. We could use plants modified to take up salts. We could use crops better able to withstand dry conditions. That may mean GMO’s, which makes me sulky and resistant. But perhaps they’re too useful a tool to refuse.

In any case, I think it is going to mean a lot of very close biological and agronomic study. How much can you deficit irrigate your crops and what happens to yields next year? What is going to happen to nitrogen uptake in a high carbon atmosphere? Why does good tilth increase water retention in soils? What plants and practices increase soil carbon sequestration? I think the biological sciences hold some answers that will give us an edge, and I’ll take every advantage we can get.

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