Drought commentators inevitably mention, with portentously straight faces, the likely failure of California’s agricultural industry. Though we generally associate the word “agriculture” with wheat-growing states like Nebraska, or cattle-ranching states like Colorado, California is actually America’s most lucrative agricultural state. This includes valuable, and water-intensive, crops, including America’s largest output of water-intensive crops like avocados, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Water management systems dating clear back to California’s legendary water wizard William Mulholland, if not earlier, have previously allocated justifiable quantities to urban, suburban, and rural uses. These systems have previously absorbed changing uses, like unanticipated population growth, suburban sprawl, and irrigated lawns. But these uses have required reliable snowpack on the Sierra Nevada mountains, snowpack now at unprecedentedly low levels.
I suggest: this isn’t an entirely bad proposition. Not only has overabundant water encouraged Sunshine State development that jeopardizes irreplaceable natural habitat, it’s also encouraged overproduction of food. Simply put, America’s industrialized agricultural system produces more food than Americans can possibly eat. This, in turn, hastens Cold War-style global food economics, as well as slovenly, wasteful attitudes toward the produce on our own tables.
Farmers today maintain the illusion of “rugged individualism,” of fierce independent operators husbanding the land separately, letting Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand of the Market guide reasonable, informed decisions. But critics from Wendell Berry, a farmer himself, to agriculture journalist George Pyle, have called that stereotype ridiculous. Farming today is guided by federal subsidies, corporate contracts, and debt instruments which virtually require wasteful overproduction.
American farmers today literally produce twenty times as much corn (maize) as we could possibly eat. We don’t consume enough corn-on-the-cob, corn chips, cornbread, and Tennessee whiskey to justify current corn outputs. American corn farmers desperately scramble to find markets to unload excess produce. This explains why ag-state legislators, like former two-term Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) encourage ethanol fuel production, although scientists consider ethanol prohibitively inefficient. When corporate food distributors and industrial operators can’t find markets for American produce, America ships that food overseas, calling it “food aid.” We justify ourselves by sending it to nations where crop shortfalls have created pinched food access among the poor, especially in chronically impoverished African and Asian nations. However, as Pyle notes, this undercuts the market value of native agriculture, often driving native farmers off their land.
This hits Americans close to home, too. When NAFTA lowered trade barriers between Mexico and America, Ross Perot predicted a “giant sucking sound” of industrial jobs heading south. Instead, when subsidized American agriculture hit Mexican markets at below the cost of growing, rural Mexican poverty hit seventy percent, bankrupting poor peasant farmers. Many thus affected headed north following work, creating America’s current undocumented immigrant problem.
Observant critics might read my complaints about agricultural overproduction, and observe they don’t describe California’s situation. The USDA only directly subsidizes five crops: corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton, crops whose long shelf life requires aggressive market stabilization to offset commodity price swings. California’s favored water-intensive crops, including strawberries, almonds, and grapes, aren’t subsidized, because of their short field-to-table horizon.
water. From Kansas wheat to Vermont apples to California pistachios, farmers profit from federal subsidies making water so cheap, it appears free. But as with cheap beef, this apparent lack of cost is an expensive illusion.
Subsidized water encourages farming in California regions naturally semi-arid and marginal. Particularly involving water pumped off the Colorado and other rivers, or drilling underground aquifers, cheap water has permitted farming in previously dry, sandy regions with limited soil fertility. Not in California alone, either. Nebraska, where I live, has benefited from subsidized water, center-pivot irrigation, and federal price supports—and our state aquifer is now jeopardized.
California’s ongoing drought is disastrous, undoubtedly. It threatens many people’s livelihood, and will jack food prices nationwide, possibly worldwide. But it also provides farmers, and their federal supervisors, opportunities to revise and update America’s wasteful agricultural system. We can patch the crisis temporarily, or revise the underlying problem permanently. Our choice.