Friday, July 18, 2014

Farm-to-Fork - Why the Sacramento Bee Just Doesn't Get It

The Sacramento Bee seems to have embraced the Sacramento region's growing "farm-to-fork" movement, but recent editorials, guest editorials and news coverage suggest a lack of understanding of what it takes to actually put food on our forks.  At best, the Bee's recent coverage indicates a lack of understanding about the connections between farming and food.  At worst, the Bee seems increasingly hostile to the concerns of the rural communities surrounding the Sacramento metropolitan area - the very rural communities that provide the agricultural foundation for farm-to-fork.  For example, on June 14, 2014, the paper published a guest opinion from the Center for Biological Diversity supporting the state listing of the wolf as an endangered species.  To my knowledge, the Bee has yet to publish an alternative perspective about the impact that the listing is likely to have on ranchers (and I know that at least one differing viewpoint was submitted).  During the following week, the capture of a mountain lion in a Sacramento neighborhood made the front page of the Bee.  The lion was relocated to a rural area of El Dorado County.  The article described at length the fear that neighborhood residents had for their safety and the safety of their pets; it failed to mention any impacts to the rural landowners where the lion was relocated.  And just yesterday, the paper published an editorial blasting the state's farmers for wasting water during the drought (to view the editorial, click here).  As a rancher whose business has been profoundly impacted by the drought - and who is investing time and money to conserve water - the Bee's simplistic view of agricultural water use is especially frustrating.

In the 1990's, policy experts and, I suspect, the Sacramento Bee's editorial board, encouraged farmers to transition from "thirsty" annual or perennial crops, like canning tomatoes and alfalfa, to more water efficient permanent crops - like almonds and pistachios.  According to the "experts," these permanent crops made more efficient use of water because they could be irrigated with drip or micro-sprinkler technology.  What the experts failed to realize, however, is that this crop conversion made water demand more inelastic.  In other words, a tomato grower faced with zero water deliveries from his or her irrigation district could decide not to grow tomatoes that year - a short term loss, but not catastrophic.  An almond grower faced with a similar dilemma isn't likely to fallow his or her orchard - the significant investment in trees and infrastructure requires the farmer to irrigate at least enough to keep the trees alive.  During the drought, we're seeing many of these growers turn to groundwater as their only alternative.

According to the Bee, "agriculture has been let off the hook" when it comes to conserving water during this drought.  Let's examine the facts.  Many cattle and sheep ranchers have sold animals to make sure that they have enough grass - both irrigated and non-irrigated - to support the animals they've kept.  Personally, we've sold nearly 40 percent of our sheep.  I know other ranchers who have sold much higher percentages of their herds.  To put this in terms that a non-rancher might understand, imagine that your retirement investments lost 40-60 percent of their value in a 12 month period - you'd be devastated, right?

Farmers are facing similar impacts.  In February, I started a Facebook page called Farmer and Rancher Voices from the Drought.  I also started a group page just for farmers and ranchers to share information.  Some of the photos and stories posted on both pages are heartbreaking - photos of dying citrus trees in the southern San Joaquin Valley, stories of crops planted and then left to die when the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed the water diversions of junior water rights holders, posts about the impacts to farmworkers and their families.  I read last week that California farmers have fallowed 800,000 acres of land this year - an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. A recent study by UC Davis indicates that 17,100 seasonal, part-time and full time jobs have been lost because of the drought (and each one of these lost jobs effects a family). At least to me, it hardly seems that agriculture has been let off the hook during this drought.

In our operation, we've changed the way we're managing our irrigation water.  We've installed matrix blocks to monitor soil moisture in some of our pastures.  This helps us match the timing of our irrigation to the needs of our plants - and we've discovered that we don't need to water as much!  In some of our pastures, we delayed the start of our irrigation season by about 2 months - we're irrigating now to grow forage for our sheep this fall (instead of starting to irrigate in mid-April).  And we are making do with less irrigated pasture overall - which means we are not selling any grass-fed lamb at our local farmers' market this year.

Like many conservation-minded folks in the city of Sacramento (and elsewhere), I'm sure that at least some of the people on the Bee's editorial board have let their lawns die this year to conserve water.  I'm willing to be that they are still collecting a paycheck.  The farmers and ranchers who have sold animals or let trees die because of the drought, on the other hand, are taking a substantial economic hit.  I just wish the Bee's editorial board would realize that without our farms, there wouldn't be much to put on our forks.

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