Making Every Drop Count

April 15, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Last week, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order requiring urban centers to reduce their water consumption by 25%. With the driest winter on record and only a one-year supply of water stored in the state’s reservoirs, many are questioning whether the burden of conservation should fall so heavily on cities, when no restrictions have been placed on agriculture, which uses 80% of the state’s water but generates only 2% of its economic activity.

Despite these criticisms, the Governor has defended his position: “The farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres of land…They’re not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”

It’s true. California produces over half of the country’s fruits and vegetables: roughly 71% of the country’s spinach, 90% of its broccoli, 97% of its plums, and 99% of its walnuts—and that’s just the tip of the fruit (and vegetable) bowl. It’s also true that those crops require billions of gallons of water. But are all farms at fault in this water crisis?

Practices, Practices, Practices

In the drought blame game, almonds have become a “poster crop” for the excesses of agricultural water use. Articles have pointed to how water-intensive almonds are to grow and have told dark tales of greedy investors buying up land and draining California’s water to grow almond monocrops for export.

Before you run off and boycott almonds, it’s important to note that not all almond farms follow this model. Take Greg Massa of Massa Organics, a diversified family farm in the Sacramento Valley. A fourth-generation farmer, Massa and his wife, Raquel Krach, grow organic almonds and rice, along with raising pork and lamb. They sell mostly at farmers markets in northern California.

As trained ecologists, water conservation has always been a part of the farming model for Massa and Krach. “We began to make our farm more drought-tolerant years ago when we started rotating crops,” says Massa. “We don’t grow rice on the whole ranch anymore, like my dad used to do. We reduced our water consumption by half. At this point, we use our water allocation as effectively as we can.” In response to the worsening drought, Massa and Krach are fallowing some of their rice fields and irrigating their almond orchards less, for a second year in a row, which will bring down yields.

Furthermore, Massa’s almond orchards retain water better than conventional orchards, and the orchards support multiple crops without additional irrigation. While conventional farms spray their orchard floors with herbicides, Massa lets weeds, clover, and other plants grow wild. This ground cover serves as forage and habitat for bees and beneficial insects (which pollinate the orchards), as well as feed for his lambs, who graze in the orchards. They keep the weeds down while adding their natural fertilizer, and they are eventually processed into meat, another of the farm’s crops.

“The conventional farms around us are sprayed flat and clean,” says Massa. “At our farm, because there’s all this plant growth, it’s easier for water to seep down into the ground. The water we put on the field doesn’t run off. I feel like we’re making efficient use of the water. We’re doing our best.”

End of the Drip Line

The Thomases at Thomas Farm, a diversified organic farm in Corralitos, have also been water conscious for years, relying on well water to irrigate their sandy soil. Having curbed their water use as much as they can by using only drip irrigation, they are currently reevaluating what crops they dedicate their land and precious water to.

“The lion’s share of what we grow is cut flowers,” says Thomas. “Honestly, I don’t know if in this dire situation it is the smartest thing to be doing. People need to eat.”

This year they’re taking a two-pronged look at the farm’s crops with an eye for water use and profitability. They’re cutting back on flower production, eliminating some of the more water-intensive varieties like sweet peas. In turn, they’re planting perennial flowers that, once established, will live for years with little irrigation, and doubling their dry-farmed tomato production. “Water-wise, tomatoes are our thriftiest crop by far,” says Thomas. “Even if there’s no water, they will live and their roots will keep going deeper.”

As farmers are forced to make tough decisions about what crops to grow with dwindling water resources, shoppers may see a shift in what’s available at the farmers market. “Water conservation has been on the mind of California for a long time,” Thomas says. “At this point, we should be asking, ‘Should we be growing thirsty crops?’”

Tough Conversations

Thomas thinks it’s time for policymakers to have that hard conversation with farmers about water use. “As a homeowner, I’m seeing more drought-related leaflets than I am as a farmer, even though I use much more water as a farmer,” he observes. “Agriculture is the sacred cow no one wants to touch.”

Brown has signed legislation to curtail unlimited groundwater pumping, but the effects won’t be felt until 2040. Until then, profit will guide water use. Corporate growers with deep pockets will continue to plant water-intensive crops in arid areas, dig deeper wells that drain vital resources, and grow crops for export.

“I see new orchards going in all the time,” says Massa. “Nuts are lucrative right now. There’s a lot of investment from nontraditional ag sources coming into the Valley and buying land. It’s more corporate than it used to be.”

“I think it’s a valid question about whether we should be planting more permanent crops [like fruit and nut trees] in the middle of a historic drought and tying up that water indefinitely,” he says.

In the meantime, while the burden of the drought should not fall solely on cities, urban dwellers can go beyond taking short showers and not watering our lawns to do our part in the drought. We can choose to support local farmers that are use sustainable, water-saving practices and sell the food they grow locally. After all, keeping locally grown food in California also keeps our water in California.

Find Massa Organics at the Ferry Plaza Farmer Market on Saturdays, and Thomas Farm at the market on Saturdays and Thursdays.

Photo above from Massa Organics. Follow Massa Organics on Instagram.

Tags: building resilient food systems, California drought