Commentary: Drought offers chance to explain farms’ importance


Issue Date: May 6, 2015
By Karen Ross
Oranges harvest in the Central Valley of California.
Tomato harvest in the Central Valley of California.
About one-quarter of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States are produced in eight counties within the Central Valley of California.
Karen Ross

A recent survey by the California Farm Water Coalition indicated that 41 percent of California’s irrigated farmland will lose 80 percent of its surface water in 2015 due to cutbacks because of the drought. Add that to a reduction of more than 30 percent last year and it’s obvious that farmers and ranchers have suffered the brunt of drought-related losses, so far.

That’s why the reactions to Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement of urban water cutbacks last month were eye-opening, with the farming community now finding itself under the spotlight in an entirely new way. While there are moments of discomfort with the some of the assumptions that have emerged, I see this new attention as an opportunity to explain the significance of California food production—especially in the Central Valley.

I tell people all the time about the uniqueness of California—that we have one of the few Mediterranean climates necessary to produce a truly astounding array of nutritious, healthy foods sought by people around the world. You might have heard the statement that roughly half the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California—it’s also true that 25 percent of that comes from just eight counties in the Central Valley.

It is clear that the water our farmers and ranchers use is actually consumed by the people they feed. In my mind, that’s the most critical point to consider through the avalanche of information and positioning that’s developed over the last several weeks.

Critics point to the Central Valley as a desert made artificially fertile by irrigation. Allow me to explain why that’s not true.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee wrote in his book Annals of the Former World that there are 10 types of soil on Earth, and that nine are in the Central Valley. Each soil is suited to different crops, so we have plums, kiwifruit, apricots, oranges, olives, nectarines, beets, peaches, grapes, walnuts, almonds, cantaloupe, prunes, tomatoes and much, much more. McPhee called the valley the "North American fruit forest," and pointed out the only places on this planet possibly similar to it are in Chile and Pakistan.

That is definitely a definition of unique.

So as the court of public opinion outside of farming considers fundamental shifts like California growing less food or different food, let’s all remember why it’s not that simple. Additionally, the Central Valley has a well-established infrastructure to support its farm production, through manufacturing, food processing and other essential services along the supply chain.

Having said all that, it’s also very clear that farmers and ranchers must continue working with other state water interests to use every precious drop as carefully as possible. Agriculture has an impressive track record in that regard—using 5 percent less water with 96 percent more economic efficiency and a substantial increase in yield over the last 50 years.

However, agriculture will be asked to do more, and there is room for improvement. More than half of farmers and ranchers in California have moved to modern, more efficient irrigation techniques. That still leaves a little more than 40 percent that haven’t, and it should be apparent that the time for change is now.

Gov. Brown, the state Legislature and the California Department of Food and Agriculture are helping to facilitate that with the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, $20 million in greenhouse gas-reduction funds provided through emergency drought legislation for on-farm projects that save water and reduce harmful gases.

As we move further into these unprecedented times, it’s critical that California farmers and ranchers tell their stories of water efficiency and conservation, and continue with their unparalleled record of innovation to find new and better ways to manage this precious, ever-more-scarce resource.

(Karen Ross is secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Reprinted with permission from the Modesto Bee.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.