Delivering the week’s top organic food news
8.4.2021
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With California Responsible for 40% of U.S. Organic Production, Its Drought is a Major Problem for All of Us

(Map courtesy of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln)


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For every organic stakeholder, what is taking place in California should be of grave concern.

The state is responsible for 40% of U.S. organic production, and the drought that California is enduring will have massive implications for our country’s organic food supply, not to mention the environment and the livelihood of farmers.

While food shortages and disruptions may not be readily apparent in our local supermarkets just yet, many of California’s organic farmers are already feeling its effects.

For Paul Muller at Full Belly Farm, a 500-acre certified organic farm located in the Capay Valley of Northern California, north of Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area, it has meant making some hard choices.

“Normally, we grow cover crops to put carbon in the ground, which increases organic matter, makes the soil more resilient and provides better water holding. This spring and summer, we have not been growing cover crops because we’ve been unsure about having adequate water. This has disrupted our soil fertility program and is directly tied to insect ecology. Also, we had to reduce our production and are growing about 80% of what we normally do. We had to choose the crops that were the most profitable to grow. Another dry year will have a huge impact on food supply around the country,” he said.

Steve Beck, a certified organic farmer at Kings River Produce, located in the San Joaquin Valley, is facing more severe challenges.

“We are battling for water, but our water district has given us a zero percent allocation,” he acknowledged. “75% of our land is fallow. We can’t do anything with it. We don’t have the water to do a cover or cash crop. And on that remaining 25% of our land where we are growing, we are seeing decreased yields and quality, in addition to an increase in input costs for more organic fertilizer and organic chemistry to kill the huge influx of pests. We can’t keep up with them, and these pests are taking away nutrients in the plants from the fruits. So, the fruit sizes are smaller. Last year, we were at 9 employees, and now we are at 3. This drought is putting the country’s food supply in jeopardy.”

“I am super-concerned,” echoed Paul Dolan, founder and partner of Truett Hurst in Sonoma County and someone who has been growing organic and Biodynamic wine in California for decades. “Everybody is scrambling to have enough water, and we had one-third of the crop as normal because of the lack of rain this year and previous years. The sizing of the fruit is much smaller, with fewer clusters. Historically, we had been getting one and a half clusters per chute, now it is one cluster or less. In the past, I‘ve had hardly any pest issues. This year, we had six to seven different pest issues. I don’t know what happens in the long-term.”

CONFLUENCE OF WATER AND HEAT ISSUES

Governor Gavin Newsom just expanded his regional drought state of emergency to apply to 50 of 58 California counties, or roughly 42% of the state’s population. This leaves Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco and Ventura as the only counties not under a regional drought state of emergency at this time.

Many people believe placing those counties under a state of emergency would be a politically detrimental move for the governor, particularly since he is facing a recall election next month, and that these wealthy counties need to be sacrificing more for the sake of the state’s agricultural regions.

Some policy experts have a slightly different take on the situation.

“Agriculture is allocated 80% of the water in California. What is left goes to cities and ecosystems, and urban water use per capita has been declining over the past 10 years,” said Stephanie Pincetl, PhD, a Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Founding Director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

“This does not take away from the fact that the structure of agriculture in California is broken, and the state has not done its job reassessing the water right regime. There is a heterogeneous landscape with senior water rights and junior water rights, with large-scale corporate agriculture squeezing out small-scale growers, largely on the basis of capturing water. If we really want to have healthy soil, healthy food and healthy communities, corporate agriculture has to be broken up, and if the organic farming community does not organize, it won’t get a seat at the table.”

In the case that water rights were to be revisited and reconfigured in a more equitable way — and more rainfall does appear in the future — the other looming factor is rising temperatures.

“Even if the drought lessens, the heat will make it such that your plants will need more water, and there has been no variance in the heat,” put forth Scott Park of Park Farming Organics, a certified organic operation in Sutter County, north of Sacramento. “The intake of water is great, and there is no margin of error in our water supply. But nothing is being done about it. Organic consumers, employees, landowners and pollinators all depend on the system running properly, which means taking care of the soil, planting cover crops and doing crop rotation. Everything collapses with no water.”

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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