Excellent article by Natasha Geiling, “California’s Drought Could Upend America’s Entire Food System“:
In 2014, some 500,000 acres of farmland lay fallow in California, costing the state’s agriculture industry $1.5 billion in revenue and 17,000 seasonal and part time jobs. Experts believe the total acreage of fallowed farmland could double in 2015 — and that news has people across the country thinking about food security.
“When you look at the California drought maps, it’s a scary thing,” Craig Chase, who leads the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Marketing and Food Systems Initiative at Iowa State University, told ThinkProgress. “We’re all wondering where the food that we want to eat is going to come from. Is it going to come from another state inside the U.S.? Is it going to come from abroad? Or are we going to grow it ourselves? That’s the question that we need to start asking ourselves.”…
From 2002 to 2012, the amount of land dedicated to growing the nation’s top 25 vegetables fell from 1.9 million acres to 1.8 million. In the same amount of time, corn production grew from 79 million acres to 97 million. “The deeper people look at it, they’ll see it’s a deeper part of the whole,” [John Ikerd, professor emeritus of Agricultural & Applied Economics University of Missouri Columbia] says. “It’s not just a California drought problem, it’s a problem with our whole food system.”…
In 2010, the Leopold Center at Iowa State University ran some numbers to figure out what would happen if a small stretch of Midwestern farmland — just 270,000 acres — was used to grow vegetables instead of corn or soybeans. They found that diversifying even that small amount of land — basically the amount of cropland in an average Iowa county — across six Midwestern states would yield almost enough produce to supply all the residents of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota for the entire year….
Why do we grow so much of our produce in one place? And why California?
“There’s plenty of good soil elsewhere,” Richard Walker, professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, told ThinkProgress. “But it’s the ability to put water on [that soil] over a long, dry summer that allows you to get very quick results.”
When it comes to irrigation, California is a powerhouse. Some 9 million acres of farmland are irrigated each year…
“[The] water existed. It flowed out of the Sierra up and down the Central Valley. It only needed to be captured, stored, and directed,” [Steven Stoll, associate professor of history at Fordham University] says…
“Human societies for the last 10,000 years have arisen on that same assumption — climatic stability, the continuation of certain trends indefinitely,” Stoll says….
As Walker sees it, California agribusiness, for a long time, has dealt with problems through engineering. But now — after a century of diverting rivers — there’s simply less surface water to work with.
“It turns out that you can’t overcome all the problems with engineering,” Walker says. “You don’t even need climate change to know that this system was a fantasy.”…
In an average year, water from underground aquifers supplies California with 30 to 40 percent of the state’s water supply — in drought years, that number jumps to 60 percent. This year, that number could be as high as 75 percent.
But groundwater takes thousands of years to fill up, and California farmers are being forced to drill deeper and deeper — sometimes thousands of feet into the Earth — to find groundwater for their farms…. “There’s no more water in the system,” Walker says. “That’s what they have to realize. Where’s the water you’re going to pump this year? It’s not there.”
Mike Hamm, director of the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, hopes that .. projections… of more frequent and longer-lasting droughts … don’t come true. He hopes that California can still produce as many fruits and vegetables in 30 years as it does now — but he also thinks that, to safeguard our food system, we need to move toward a more regionalized system of production.
“We need California production as long as and as much as it can be contained, and we need to regionalize production of fruit and vegetables as much as we can, in part to take water pressure off of California and in part to take pressure off of developing countries where we get fruits and vegetables from,” Hamm told ThinkProgress. Michigan, Hamm says, is already fairly well-situated for regional, diverse produce. Places like Iowa, that have seen their land consumed by large commodity farms, would face a more difficult transition….
To switch from a single crop to a diverse portfolio might seem daunting, but it’s change that has already begun to happen elsewhere….three decades ago, western North Carolina had some 7,000 tobacco farms — according to the 2012 census, that number is down to 94.
But farming didn’t disappear in western North Carolina — instead, it transitioned, diversifying to produce fruits and vegetables for local markets…. From 2002 to 2012, the number of farms in the area fell from 12,212 to 10,912, but the number of farms selling produce directly to the local community increased from 740 farms to 1,190. Instead of sales dropping with the decline of the tobacco industry, sales to consumers actually grew over $5,000 during that time… by switching from tobacco to produce, farmers in the southern Appalachia’s could provide local communities with almost 40 percent of their yearly fruit and vegetable needs.
If the tobacco quotas had remained in place… the switch to regional produce farming might have been slower… “It’s really an interesting thing, where something that could have been disastrous ends up being transformative,” Jackson said.
So will the California drought be disastrous, or transformative? Ask John Ikerd what he thinks, and he leans toward transformation.
“I’m not really pessimistic. If we decide we want to change agriculture, I think it’s quite conceivable that we can recreate this whole food system,” he said. “We just need to wake up to the fact that we’ve got a problem and start working on it. Once we do that, the solutions are there.”
See also Jonathan Foley, The other inconvenient truth. The subject is agriculture for the 21st century.