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California Drought is Bad News for Crops


BroccoliDo you realize that 80% of the water used in California is by farms? For decades, when the state actually got a good amount of rainfall annually, this wasn’t a big deal. However, now we are in the driest 30-month stretch in California’s recorded history, and that means big problems for the price of your veggies.

Climatologists believe the 20th century was abnormally wet for California, and now that we are approaching a time of less rainfall, farmers should probably expect 15% less precipitation in the coming decades, and climate change might raise that number.

Over the years, California farmers have turned toward crops of nuts, grapes, and stone fruit, called orchard crops, because they bring more return for the water invested than lower-value row crops like vegetables, cotton, and rice. But orchard crops are less flexible. A broccoli farmer can let land lie fallow during a drought year, but an almond farmer has to keep those trees watered or will lose a long-term investment.

So California keeps getting nuttier. Believe it or not, it’s actually large finance firms like Prudential, TIAA-CREF, and Hancock Agricultural Investment Group that are intentionally cashing in on the demand for nuts among China’s growing middle class. So, these powerful corporations are buying California farmland and starting nut orchards. Demands for water keep going higher and higher.

Oh, the vicious circle. California is so dug in on nut crops that the agriculture sector keeps using water it doesn’t have.

But the US probably won’t start planting vegetable crops tomorrow, since we get nearly 50% of our fruit and 25% of our veggies from Chile, Mexico, Canada, and China.

In order for the US to switch to fruit and vegetable crops, we would need to put in a very different agricultural infrastructure – a very costly proposition. So that broccoli we get so cheaply from Mexico will probably double if it comes from Iowa.

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  1. Chimel’s comment below is right on the money. . . .speaking of which “Water In the West” is the motto of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation.  Which means that, 1) water is essential to life; and thereby 2) the Govt “owns” all the water.  California is an irrigated desert, with “wet” years and “dry” years.  The movie “ChinaTown” gives a glimpse of a “submarine race” that’s always going on, beneath the surface.  In the movie, a water shortage was “created”, in order to build a dam.  Subsequently, a new water source (dam) would allow “orange grove” land, to be converted to “residential” land. . . .game, set, match (to the tune of millions (1930’s millions).

    The Growers, the State, Reclamation and the Corps of Engineers do an exceptional job in dry years.  But it’s ultimately up to the Grower (within reason) to protect their livelihood.  When Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World” imports more garlic than it crows, that’s a business decision that involves their water rights, “taking” or storing their water and/or converting some of their water to “residential”.  Either way, it’s above my pay grade.

    So, the other side of the argument is always, what’s best from a particular perspective.  I remember seeing miles and miles abandoned fig orchards, and I’m sure there was a reason for the abandonment. . . . residential, maybe.  But big corporations must, have or buy the water rights, so it’s not just about “nuts” and exports – that’s what I call a “submarine race” beneath the surface.

  2. So what’s wrong exactly with supporting local jobs to provide local fresh produce?
    And since when has U.S. agriculture been less efficient than the rest of the world? Sure, not everybody has half a million dollars to invest in the latest combine, but that also makes American corn the cheapest in the world. 80% of all American carrots come from only 2 farms in California, I don’t remember anybody saying they’re expensive. Dry and tasteless, yes, but that’s a different matter…
    There is no reason to think that produce cannot benefit from the same technological advances as row crops. They are testing robotic strawberry harvesters in California right now, this is the kind of automation that will keep costs down, remove the most back-breaking jobs and the problem finding employees at the right time because the crops can’t wait.

    The biggest issue with produce is that it is intensive farming. You don’t just saddle a tool to a tractor half a dozen times a year and plant or spray 100 or 200 acres a day for 2 paychecks a year. Farming and food are like energy, we should have a nationwide long term strategy on how to handle them. I personally find it very sad that all the produce that could be grown on U.S. soil is not. If it costs more, which is not even proven, then so be it. Food here is pretty cheap compared to most other developed countries, maybe it’s time to pay producers the real cost of our food. It could even be hidden via subsidies, which should go to real food producers rather than animal feed producers in my opinion. Of course, that can’t easily happen because of the WTO agreements, but these antiquated trade agreements benefit only commodity traders, not the people. The costs of production are different across countries, I still don’t get what keeping them identical artificially is good for, compared to the many disputes and other problems it seems to cause, but that’s just me.


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