Record-breaking drought is reordering American agriculture.
Third-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer Gary Beene will plant only half his 1,200 acres this year. He doesn’t have enough water for the other half.
“We’re working on survival more than anything else and getting through this year,” said Beene, who farms tomato, almond, cotton and garlic with his sons and grandson on the land his grandfather settled in California in the 1930s after sharecropping in Oklahoma. “It’s pretty discouraging. I’m hoping to steer my grandchildren away from agriculture. It’s sad.”
California is having its driest year ever. In West Texas, no one alive has seen this little rain. The vast underground lake that feeds the Great Plains, which helps produce one-sixth of the world’s grain, is shrinking.
Drought — historic drought, not just a year or two or three of dry weather, but a famine of rain so severe that some say you have to go back to the 1500s to find a rival — extends from the Pacific coast as far east as Mississippi, Wisconsin and Illinois.
It couldn’t come at a worse time. Food prices are already stratospheric. Wheat prices, worsened by a shortage due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, have spiked. Soybeans are the highest in 10 years. Avocados haven’t been this expensive since the 1990s. Corn prices are flirting with an all-time record. America’s drought will push them and others higher.
“Consumers will see higher prices and fewer choices, or imported replacements,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the pro-agriculture California Farm Water Coalition. Despite elevated prices, farmers from tomato growers to dairy operators have been persuaded by drought to get out of the business. “The first decision point is whether or not they have water,” Wade said. “Many farmers are getting a zero allocation this year. They’re making decisions on whether they can find water to pump.”
Wade’s organization estimates that farmers will continue a trend of taking more California farmland out of production this year, and the drought will cause more than $3 billion in negative economic impact this year.
Water-hungry nuts like almonds and pistachios often bear the brunt of criticism, but Wade said California’s fresh fruit and vegetable industry will take an even bigger hit because nuts are higher valued crops.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the West’s current multi-year drought is “the most extensive and intense” in the 22-year history of the database. “Right now I can’t give anyone any good news,” said Rich Tinker, meteorologist and drought expert with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who helps maintain the monitor. “Anything West of the middle of the country that’s in drought is probably going to stay there for at least a few more months. There will be an economic effect.”
Access to water has become an issue in whether farmers are eligible for loans, according to Curt Covington, senior director of institutional credit and commodities expert at AgAmerica, one of the largest non-bank agricultural lenders in the U.S.
“It’s turning into a have-and-have-not situation,” Covington said. “Farming is the ultimate risk-management business. We’re trying to stay away from transactions where we believe a farmer doesn’t have a sustainable water plan.”
Covington said products that will be most affected include peaches, plums, nectarines, grown in areas of high drought in California, as well as almonds and pistachios. “Out West, you’ll have hopscotch farming where you may own a swath of land,” he said. “Some of those acres will be taken out of production. The water from those properties allocated for the crops that were there will be used to irrigate the higher valued crops.”
A study from the University of California-Merced found that last year the drought cost the California agriculture industry more than $1.1 billion and 14,000 jobs. California’s water system has been over-drafted for many decades, said the study’s lead author, Josue Medellin-Azuara, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the university.
“We’re managing water for extremes now,” Medellin-Azuara said. “Climate extremes have become the new normal. Agriculture has to either idle land or switch crops.”
One of the bedeviling aspects of the drought is how having access to water doesn’t necessarily mean it can be used. Some California communities, particularly lower-income and neighborhoods of color, are without clean water. An estimated 12,000 residents of the state’s Central Valley ran dry during the drought of 2012 to 2016. Thousands ran out of water last year.
“There are communities throughout the Central Valley that have to truck water in because they can’t use the water beneath their feet,” said Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “But there’s not a coordinated response from the state that could also be incentivizing ag in terms of how it utilizes irrigation water for the communities that actually do the heavy-lifting of agricultural production.”
Peer-reviewed analysis published in Nature Climate Change has confirmed a worst-case scenario: Climate change is responsible for deepening drought. “This drought will very likely persist through 2022, matching the duration of the late-1500s megadrought,” the study found.
California, which produces 400 kinds of commodities with more than $49 billion in sales annually, gets most of the focus. But hotter temperatures and prolonged drought are drying up regions across the world.
The Ogallala aquifer, which nourishes the Great Plains from South Dakota to Texas, is getting pumped too much. Others are in California, the North China Plain, the Arabian Peninsula, northern India, Central Australia and Chile.
Drought is a key risk to the food supply for Central and South America, Africa and Asia, according to a report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2022. There are instances in Africa and Central and South America where drought has already increased food insecurity and malnutrition, the report said. Drought will also be a key driver of climate-related migration.
Beene, the San Joaquin Valley farmer, had a “disastrous” 2021. He said he burned some of his crops that didn’t have enough water to grow. Then the farm’s two wells stopped working. The bill to drill a new one and build the surrounding infrastructure would’ve been roughly $1 million, Beene said.
The farm’s bottom line can’t take even higher prices for expenses like fuel, which is used to pump water to the surface for irrigation. Most of his neighbors have sold off their land and farming operations to bigger corporations, Beene said.
“If things don’t change, it will come to a point where we have to make a decision,” he said. He lives five miles from where he grew up. “Where do we go?” he said. “What do we do?”
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