News From the Farm | April 20, 2015

We have had a number of inquiries about the water situation and it seems time for a Beet article on water and California’s ongoing drought. There have also been questions about whether one can eat almonds without guilt, when many are pointing fingers at new plantings of permanent crops like almonds as a clear example of what seems to be wrong with the investments being made in farming and the water needed to support that farming.

There is little that is easy or clear when it comes to the debate about water in California. The issue is complex, affects all of us and requires that we begin to plan for both times of abundance and cycles of scarcity. Indeed it will be our response to the common issue of scarcity that will require wisdom, restraint and clear thinking as to how the over-promised resource gets divided and allocated among divergent interests. It is not easy to look at water without entering into the complexities of weather patterns, climate changes, year to year fluctuations, indigenous water resources, cropping patterns and historical use. This drought brings focus to patterns of resource use and our expectations about extraction and appropriation. Water is moved, piped, channelized and delivered. Historically in California, it has been an incredibly abundant resource. Yet it does not fall evenly on the lands of the state. Some areas are incredibly blessed with water resources, while others rely entirely on the systems that store and deliver water, matching the patterns of land and water use with soil and climate, and forming the fabric of farming in the state.

Things found in abundance tend to be undervalued.  Water is a common resource, though it is sometimes treated as a private property.  Land values are determined by the availability of water and the value of land changes markedly without water. There has been huge public investment in California’s system to store, move and distribute water to both urban and agricultural regions. That investment has made food cheap and abundant. Water projects drove the bargain that turned desert into productive fields.  Those fields without water will again turn to desert.

It takes water to grow food. Though much of the world’s agricultural production is watered with rain, the diversity of amazing foods that are enjoyed from California farms are fed with water that has been either harvested from wells or moved there through investments made over time.  California’s rainfall is neither dependable enough nor even enough in its distribution to drive a dependable, diverse agriculture. Full Belly Farm depends upon a combination of surface water, well water and rainfall.  Our underground water appears to replenish itself rather quickly depending upon rainfall events. This year’s wet December helped to fill side streams and small seasonal creeks in our area, these directly recharge aquifers and influence well water levels. The contrast between this year and last is remarkable. The timing of rain established grasses in the hillsides that helped with infiltration of the rain into the soil and percolation deep into underground reservoirs. The 20-inches of rain that came from three rain events has improved our farm’s water picture for this year as compared to last.

Our goal is to be efficient with each drop of water, but also to operate with a year-round water use strategy. We see the wintertime focus on rain fed crops that cover our ground and provide for water infiltration and soil carbon buildup that will better hold water in the soil. We are doing far more mulching than in the past – of trees, vines, and row crops – helping to slow the loss of water through evaporation out of the soil. We are using far more plastic mulch over the vegetable beds to retain the water that we do apply, and we are using drip and micro sprinklers to increase water use efficiency by 50% or more. We are strategizing to reduce tillage because we know that tillage results in a loss of soil moisture and releases CO2. We are figuring out how to change our patterns of production.

In terms of the question about almonds, we have 30 acres, an older orchard that we are turning into a more productive block. Our almonds fit into our plan to have crop to market regionally year round. When compared to other proteins it may be a reasonable use of water, especially when rainfall is factored into our total water budget for the orchard.

Yes, almonds, walnuts and pistachios use plenty of water and farmers are planting them up because of the worldwide demand for the healthy proteins in nuts. Farmers make decisions based on their best guess of profitability in the short and long run. Unfortunately, agriculture that is making a profit attracts a lot of investor capital and non-farm entities that bid up farmland prices sink deep wells and exacerbate water scarcity by seeing permanent crops as an investment.  Pension funds, hedge funds, insurance companies, and investor groups are all involved in the gold rush to nuts and they have the capital to put many new acres of historically un-irrigated land into production, with wells that tap into deep levels of water. This may be a fast race to the bottom and completely unsustainable.  In my opinion, many of their farming practices focus solely on the crop yield and very little on integrating regenerative practices.

All farmers are trying to adjust to a new water reality. For some, this drought has been an absolute tragedy. Others are drilling and praying. Farmers do need help to adapt. Part of adapting is to recognize that the way we treat our soil is tied to the outcomes around water. It is a challenging opportunity to move toward more sustainable resource use and all of us are involved in meeting that challenge.

–Paul Muller