Why Farmers in California Are Avoiding Water Cuts

cropped-groovepaper.pngExtended drought has left Californians in a hard to win situation that has the largest crop production in the US competing with the needs of the nation’s largest population group for one resource – water. Both groups face large mandated cuts if action isn’t taken soon, and farmers across the state are stepping up.

In an effort to avoid mandated cuts, farmers are looking at ways of conserving water that will help them meet voluntary conservation targets, with many submitting plans as part of a deal that would spare future deep cuts in water resources, and in turn keep the thirsty industry viable in the parched state.

Planting Less Thirsty Crops

Under the May 2015 voluntary agreement with the state, these Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta farmers are asked to turn in plans for using 25 percent less water, fallowing 25 percent of their land, or coming up with a mixed strategy that would lower the overall water usage of farms in the area.

The first means to meet the proposed targets is to reduce overall water use by planting crops that require less water, such as silage corn, which grows faster and is used for livestock feed. These faster growing crops mean that, over the course of a season, less water will be spent on them because they will be harvested earlier.

Additionally, farmers are working on plans to substitute crops that don’t require as much water overall, opting to plant those that can be irrigated once a month, instead of twice.

By substituting in water saving crops in favor of thirstier plants such as alfalfa, these farmers are addressing a growing immediate concern in their industry – how to conserve a necessary resource without abandoning profit.

Planting crops with lower water requirements means that farmers have the chance to recoup value from their fields while working to reduce overall water consumption.

Fallowing The Fields

The second tier of the proposed strategy has farmers fallowing a portion of their fields in order cut overall water consumption by the farms.

Fallowing, or the act of leaving land unseeded for a season or more, would reduce overall water consumption by taking a portion of the producing fields out of rotation for a planting season, and leaving them without the need to irrigate for that time.

Fallowing the fields allows farmers to hang onto their more thirsty crops by simply planting fewer of them. In return for this 25% water reduction, these farmers want a guarantee that the remaining 75 percent of the resource is theirs to use, even if the drought deepens. With matters expected to get worse before they get any better, this mutual deal helps farmers assure that they’ll have protection in what could become some very difficult times for the California agricultural community.

A Small Group Setting A Big Example

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta farmers targeted in this deal work only about 10% of the commercial farming land in California, but they’re situated in a key area that Governor Jerry Brown is hoping to use as a model for the whole state.

The area’s river delta represents about 25 percent of California’s overall river water, and despite serious drought in the state’s past, farmers have never had their water resources restricted. That means that, in good times and bad, farmers in this region have always had access to plentiful water for plentiful yields.

Working with these farmers to seek voluntary reduction, Governor Brown is looking to develop a collaborative model that will carry across not only other farms, but the state as a whole.

Cities and businesses in California have also been ordered to cut water use by 25 percent, and the hope is that by working on voluntary programs, cuts can be made in areas that can afford the losses without disrupting business and residential life in the state to any large degree.

Looking Ahead

As plans get underway on the farms, state officials will perform routine site inspections to ensure that farmers are following their proposed plans. Regular satellite images will also be taken to compare crop patterns with the plans, and at the end of the season, farmers will provide reports verifying their plans were followed.

Even if these drought plans succeed, though, farmers and other Californians aren’t free from hardship. While consumers have only seen the slightest price variations for California grown foods, reducing their main cash crops and leaving fields bare is likely to start eating into the bottom line of the farmers, many of whom already suffer financially.

On the consumer end, prices are likely to stay consistent as farmers have a vested interest in protecting the markets in which they’ve invested, but the proposed cuts won’t come without sacrifice. The hope is simply that the sacrifice will come where the farmers can most afford it.

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