No Farms, No Food: Idling Farmland in California
Extended severe drought, scorching temperatures, and supply chain setbacks are causing record amounts of farmland in California to be fallowed. Lee Allen investigates the impacts this could have on the rest of the country.
Climate change is serious business and getting more serious as temperatures rise and water wanes, bringing warnings of a global food crisis approaching while dire domestic signs appear in the form of fallowed fields and untended croplands.
Famine — an extreme scarcity of food — is an entrenched part of life in some areas of the world, but not typically First World countries. Climate change is putting that to the test.
Within our own borders, California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson became a prophet of despair when he addressed agricultural agencies in Washington recently on drought issues, zero water allocations, and supply chain setbacks, noting: “There’s a perfect storm brewing that could pretty traumatically affect our food supply.”
In a policy brief on how the state’s $50-billion agricultural industry annual revenue could be impacted, the report emphasized “the megadrought and climate change are making California’s variable climate more volatile” with those water shortages leading to idled land.
“Farmers are fallowing farmlands and leaving them unplanted. Total land idled to date because of the drought represents 400,000 acres — over and above land already fallowed for other reasons.”
For the crops that remain on the acreage still being tended, farmers are stretching supplies to reduce costs and instituting deficit irrigation, lowering watering below crop needs which, in turn, lowers crop yield and results in the ominous omen, as drought continues and water cutbacks increase, these impacts will likely intensify and spread.
Existing reports now anticipate the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014, implemented earlier this year to bring groundwater basins back into balance, means that more water can’t be pumped out of aquifers than goes back in. It’s anticipated that SGMA will force up to one million acres of farmland out of production. And its anticipation may have already caused that action to begin.
“There’s going to be hundreds of thousands of acres in the Sacramento Valley that have never been fallowed before that will be fallowed this year,” says Ernest Conant, Bureau of Reclamation regional director for California-Great Basin.
“SGMA will have devastating impacts on agriculture, farming, and the state as a whole,” says Roger Isom, CEO of Western Agricultural Processors Association, who predicts a million acres of farmland in San Joaquin Valley may end up fallowed. That represents one-fifth of all acreage currently under cultivation in the Valley.
In discussing the drought/water/food conundrum, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Growers are taking part in a multi-million-dollar program in which they are paid (approximately $900 an acre) to leave a portion of their lands dry and unplanted with that intended agricultural water going to help resupply Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.”
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Even though it only has four percent of the country’s farms (about 75,000), California is America’s largest food producer with 450 different crops, supplying the rest of the country with 40 percent of its food. Slate magazine once asked, “If we didn’t have California, what would we eat? No other state, or combination of states, can match California’s output per acre.”
But if the major producers’ supplies are shrinking and that basket of store-bought edibles is getting smaller, consideration has to be given to growing your own food. While seasonality (and triple-digit temperatures) limit summertime gardens in the arid western U.S. and winter snow, ice, and sub-zero temps are prohibitive in the east, some items can be homegrown to augment the larder.
During the time of World Wars I and II, they were called Victory Gardens. “Sow the seeds of victory” read the advertising as a food crisis emerged in Europe when farms were transformed into battlefields and the burden of feeding millions fell on the U.S.
Americans were urged to utilize idle land and turn it into agricultural production. Millions of new garden plots appeared as commercial crops were diverted to the military, and domestic food rationing was introduced. Families were encouraged to can their own vegetables to save commercial goods for the military. By 1944, an estimated 20 million Victory Gardens were producing 8-10 million tons of food, then representing some 40 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S.
Even today, when that campaign is no longer being promoted, you can still buy enough non-GMO heirloom seeds in a Victory Garden Seed Vault to yield between 7,500 and 10,000 pounds of veggies.
Today’s growers plant what might now be called Survival Gardens, be it in patio container gardens, in-the-bag gardening, raised bed gardening, or actual in-ground plots.
During the early stages of the COVID-19 global pandemic, millions of people planted gardens for the first time, fearing disruptions in the food supply chain. While the pandemic may be waning, direct impacts from climate change on farming are becoming tangible. We may not want to turn away from those personal food-producing garden beds just yet.