Californian Ag

is unforgettable, deep top soil and water on tap. Sun drenched nuts so hot they melt your taste buds. Woah ah oh aha oh a

With apologies to Katy Perry.

Irrigated Tomatoes.

Irrigated Tomatoes.

I had no idea before last week that California is essentially a desert. With most of the state averaging less than 10 inches or 250mm of rain per year. Only the very North of the state gets a bit more rainfall and is closer to what we get at home with 15 inches per year.

Lack of rain and amazing climate make it a pretty popular place to live with between 36-38 million Americans making it the countries most populous state. But it turns out that deserts can actually be pretty amazing places to farm. If you’ve got water. Lack of rainfall and mild damp winters mean that with irrigation you can create any kind of soil environment you want. California grows 300 different crops by some counts and that is why.

Californian Agriculture was head spinning in more than just its variety. The scale is impressive. Mind blowing. 9 million acres under irrigation in the San Joaqin valley.  That’s 3.6 million Ha for you metric types. These guys have farms and fields that are similar in size to those in our area. 4000 acres. 8000 acres. But they have fields of almonds, pistachios, grapevines, tomatos and asparagus. We met one farmer that grows over 20 crops.

Drought

You may or may not have heard that California is suffering what is by some measures its worst drought in history. But the Californians don’t do drought very well. Yet. They may be forced to improve. There were only a couple of half flush toilets I saw in our whole time there and plenty of green front lawns and gardens. The issue with the drought isn’t the rainfall on the ground as such. It doesn’t matter particularly if your annual rainfall is 125mm and it drops below 100. What matters is the lack of rainfall, snowfall and warm winters in the Sierra-Nevada mountains. It is that lack of runoff which is starting to leave the water storages empty. The solution to this is as Sarah Palin famously said is to ‘drill, baby, drill.’ For the time being anyone is allowed to sink a bore on their land and start pumping. A complete lack of groundwater management is seeing this resource beiüng dwindled too. Some places are pumping water from 1000ft. 300m. Some of these aquifers will never properly refill even if the rains do return because the land is sinking to fill in the gaps.

Water is going to be a huge issue for California going forward. But despite all the complaints we heard about how dry it was, we came away feeling that the doom and gloom in US media is probably overstated. Land use is changing. Almond and nut production generally is booming because it is a higher value use of water. The dairy industry is losing because flood irrigating wheat to grow silage for cattle is an inefficient use of water.

Summary

It’s hard to narrow down the key take away points but I’ll try.

  • There are a few things that farmers everywhere complain about. Labour costs, rainfall, bureaucracy. Sometimes these problems are more perceived than real.
  • In a battle between resources for farming and resources for expanding cities or urban consumers the latter will always win. It’s called democracy and while the masses are well fed it won’t change.
  • Money is made by changing land use. Sticking your neck out and doing somthing that people around you aren’t doing.
  • Attention to detail is key. The very large operators had become large by doing the little things right.

    Yosemite Valley

Jonathan

Web developer turned farmer. Interests include: my faith, my wife, technology, cricket, farming, ice cream & world events.

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