Parched winter months this year have put California agriculture into a tailspin. With a third dry year in a row, the state has been forced to deeply examine its strategies for coping with dry times. Many worry this drought is a harbinger of the long-term impacts of climate change, a concern echoed recently in a warning by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu that climate change-induced water shortages could lead to the demise of food production in the state. But California’s hardy and innovative growers aren’t going down without a fight.
Eaters across the country who depend on California’s bountiful produce will be pleased to know that farmers are starting to implement a new generation of water management practices that hold promise for helping California stay in agriculture. The California Institute for Rural Studies’ recent report, California Water Stewards: Innovative On-farm Water Management Practices [PDF], showcases ten California growers implementing a range of water-saving practices on their farms. The featured agricultural water stewardship approaches help buffer farm operations against insecure water supplies while enhancing the environment, reducing costs, and conserving increasingly scarce water resources.
For example, one of the farms highlighted, Limoneira Company, teamed up with the green waste company, Agromin, to achieve water savings. Limoneira, which produces citrus, avocados, and nuts on several thousand acres in Southern California, leases five acres of land to Agromin, on which the company produces organic mulch and compost. In return, Agromin provides the farm with soil amendments that build soil structure and enhance water retention and infiltration. The amount of water lost to evaporation, through flow, and runoff is significantly lowered and careful soil moisture monitoring, efficient irrigation techniques, and other measures help significantly reduce the amount of applied water needed. Many other benefits are achieved, including higher nutrient levels in the soil, less need for chemical fertilizers, improved water quality, and less waste ending up in landfills.
Other water-wise practices covered in the report include soil management for improved water retention, dry farming, keyline design, water recycling, and irrigation management approaches, among others. The case studies cover small- and large-scale growers producing a wide variety of products in diverse regions of the state.
The report’s lead author, Lisa Kresge, says that “Agricultural water stewardship practices will not solve the water crisis, but they are a critical piece of the puzzle. Many of the growers were concerned about future water availability and adopted these practices as a risk management strategy.” She notes that there has been insufficient support for practices like those covered in the report, adding that “policy makers must take action to ensure adequate financial and technical support for growers who are ready to implement such practices on their farms.”
David Zoldoske, Director of the Water Resources and Policy Initiative at Cal State Fresno, says that the report “provides an excellent example of innovative farmers dealing with some of today’s complex issues. I would encourage growers to read this publication and look for ideas that may be relevant to their own farming operations.”
Photo: A Mad Farmer