Talking California Water Shortage Farming Blues

Photo by DNY59/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by DNY59/iStock / Getty Images

What follows is a festival of links about California, agriculture, and our water supply. 

It's all over the news: almonds, cattle farms, cities, and water bottling companies are sucking California's aquifers dry. 

Agriculture isn't alone in sharing the blame for the exacerbated drought California is experiencing, but this is a food and farming blog, so we'll focus on that aspect. 

New York Times' Room for Debate blog did what it does last week, bringing together a group of smart or activated people, usually a combination of the two, to hash out just what should be done about the problem via short 300-500 word posts. 

The post that sounded most reasonable, if not wildly revolutionary (unfortunately), came from Mother Jones' Tom Philpott: De-Californify the Nation’s Produce Supply, he argued. Move all that fertile and vast Midwestern farm land away from commodity crops like corn and soy, which are used for meat production and industry, and towards rotating vegetables. California is the nation's salad bowl, and the rest of the county can give the land a break, if only we just change how large-scale meat agriculture works. !!!

A small group of farmers are already leading the way in the switch from commodity to specialty crops (which is how vegetables are referred to in agri-business), according to this Michael Moss piece from last year. Way ahead of the matter, The Land Institute in Kansas has long been at work on ways to make farming in the region more in line with its natural ecology. It's possible. For a backgrounder, read this speech coverage of Land's founder Wes Jackson I wrote up last year. 

One problem a comment on Philpott's post brought up was the massive crop insurance and other subsidies that commodity farmers in the Midwest receive. Specialty crop farmers in California get a fraction of what farmers working corn, soy, cotton, etc., get. According to Environmental Working Group's scouring of federal data, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota and more are ranked above California in terms of subsidy payouts (California is ranked 10th; there's a decent-sized cotton business there).

Moving farming to the Midwest also means disrupting meat production, the mention of which makes for disgruntled hamburger lovers everywhere. But focusing our diets less on meat is more than just a health trend: various government entities are beginning to ask us to eat less red meatEU nutritionists say we can eat meat three or four times a week to consume the required nutrients. But as Obama administration nutrition experts begin to make such recommendations, the meat industry is pushing back. 

Big ideas, huge questions, and they all seem to be coming to a head this year. There is, of course, much more to unpack. Stay tuned.