Small Farmers in California Face Tough Choices Amidst Drought | Civil Eats

Small Farmers in California Face Tough Choices Amidst Drought

A California farmer facing drought holds dried out soil in his hand

Scott Chang-Fleeman has had a challenging couple of years. Even before the pandemic, his solo farming venture, Shao Shan Farm in Bolinas, California, had to contend with broken equipment and flash floods. Then, when the pandemic hit, Chang-Fleeman had to quickly pivot from supplying restaurants with his produce to selling it directly to consumers at farmers’ markets and through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

It seemed like things were finally looking up for Chang-Fleeman—until this spring, when rainfall he has come to expect this time of year didn’t arrive, leaving the reservoirs on his property empty.

“It’s really disheartening,” he said. “I’m going into my third year of business, and every single year, there’s been not just a different crop, but a different business plan.”

Chang-Fleeman is far from alone. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Castañeda family in nearby Sonoma County planted vegetables on only 17 of the 180 acres they typically farm. Evan Wiig, director of communications for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), who recently held a meeting with small-scale farmers during record-breaking heat says that some are scaling back, shutting down parts of their operations, including their CSAs, and focusing on different crops. Several opted not to go on the record when asked about the uncertainty of their farms’ futures.

It’s likely to be a rough summer for farmers state-wide. This week, thousands of Central California farmers were warned that their water could be cut off. Farmers have regularly weathered droughts in California, but this year’s water scarcity is proving particularly hard to cope with, in part because drilling more wells is no longer an option. During the two previous historic droughts in 2007–09 and 2012–16, unlimited pumping pulled up too much groundwater, causing land to sink and pesticide and fertilizer runoff to leach into private wells. This year, drastically reduced water allotments and increasing pressure to cut back on groundwater may force farmers across California to take nearly 1 million acres out of production.

In April, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where stored water had reached a record low, and he extended the proclamation to 39 other counties in May. Farmers in California’s Central Valley, including Fresno and Tulare counties, hoped an official drought declaration would relax environmental regulations and water restrictions. But declaring a drought emergency is a deeply political move, and some don’t think it will be good for the state in the long run.

CAFF’s Wiig worries that simply handing over more water to California’s largest commercial farmers could end up disincentivizing water-saving practices.

“We are farming in the most productive, managed, irrigated desert in the world,” he said. “[Farming without groundwater regulations] isn’t farming with what you’ve got; it’s not pulling yourself up by your bootstraps as an individual farmer. It’s farming with politics—farming with the will and resources of massive investment technology and government support.”

Newsom has proposed a $5.1 billion drought relief package, which would include short- and long-term drought assistance, including helping rural communities secure more reliable water supplies and funding for increased environmental monitoring. The proposal is still awaiting approval from the state’s legislature. But Wiig noted that there’s scant relief resources for small-scale vegetable farmers.

“It’s the complaint CAFF has made of many large scale agriculture relief programs—they’re designed for commodity farmers. We need targeted relief,” he said. CAFF is about to release an emergency fund with at least $400,000 in small grants, but Wiig said it won’t be enough to make up for a lost season for a farmer. “We want to see the state step up and help us save small farmers from disappearing.”

Farmers in the state run the gamut when it comes to acknowledging climate change, but many understand that this year’s drought isn’t a one-year fluke, but reflective of longer-term warming patterns. Many small operators in Northern California are urgently exploring creative solutions for short- and long-term water shortage, from farming less land to switching to dry-farmed crops and trucking in water. And some are questioning whether to continue farming in the state at all.

Dry Conditions Forcing Change

Chang-Fleeman got his start in 2019 growing specialty Asian heritage crops that San Francisco chefs have a hard time finding. In the past, he has grown baby bok choy and winter melon, which are suited to the cool, foggy environment in Bolinas. When Chang-Fleeman chose the location, he was fairly confident that he wouldn’t run into water problems. The previous tenant farmed five acres of irrigated greens and survived previous droughts. But he believes this drought is different due to irregular rainfall patterns, which prevented the reservoirs from filling up.

“The pattern was especially problematic; it rained a quarter inch and then three days dry, again a quarter inch and three days dry, so it never gave the ground time to saturate,” Chang-Fleeman said.

Chang-Fleeman has decided to take the summer season off to look for other plots to rent and plant again in the fall. Ideally, his next plot will also be along the coast and within driving distance to the San Francisco restaurants he supplies. He hopes to find land with diverse water sources: access to groundwater, a creek, and reservoirs.

Front Porch Farm in Healdsburg has always had access to water from the Russian River, which runs along the edge of the farm. Now, the operation is having its riparian water rights curtailed by the California State Water Resources Control Board for the first time. While there is still water in the river, Tommy Otey, the farm’s general manager, was recently informed that it isn’t the creek’s natural flow but water that has been released from Lake Mendocino in order to keep the region’s fish and wildlife populations alive, and preserve drinking water that serves multiple communities, and it’s off limits to the farm.

In addition to halting their CSA, Otey and the rest of the Front Porch staff don’t know when they’ll be able to get the farm’s winter crops in the ground—including the bulbs it typically plants for winter and spring flower sales in the fall. Otey says he has begun plans to build a pond on the property hoping to get it finished in time for the winter rains so that the farm can pump and save its own water in dry years. “The goal with water storage is to pump it while the river is flush, and cease pumping in the summer when the river ecosystem needs every drop it can get.”

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“It’s a wake-up call that probably needed to happen at some point” says Otey. “Farming on the banks of the river, water never felt like a limited resource, but now we clearly need to re-think what we’re doing and how we continue using this precious resource. For example, maybe we shift our production more toward the winter and spring so that we don’t rely so heavily on revenue earned in the dry season. We need to adapt.” And, he adds, “The real question is: What happens next year?”

For Moira and Jesse Kuhn of Marin Root Farms in the Nicasio Valley, a few miles northeast of Bolinas, moving out of state has been an alluring prospect recently. They’ve watched other farmers in their community move north to Oregon and Washington where water is typically more secure and land is cheaper. But their connection to restaurants in the Bay Area tethers them to Marin.

“Anywhere you move is going to have challenges, whether it’s more remote, climate-related, or water,” said Moira. “We just have to keep moving forward. Failing isn’t really an option.”

The Kuhns farm on two different plots totaling close to 10 acres. This summer, the Kuhns plan to consolidate operations to one field and grow on just a couple of acres. They will also switch from leafy greens to dry-farmed tomatoes and use their well water to irrigate greenhouses growing herbs and flowers.

“It does feel like if it’s not the drought, it’s fires; if it’s not fires, it’s a pandemic; if it’s not the pandemic, it’s large corporations buying real estate as it forecloses . . . and the list continues,” said Moira Kuhn.

She hopes that this year they may be able to find a long-term solution for their water security. One of their plots backs up onto a dairy farm, and the little water on site has to be used for the cattle. Together with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), the Kuhns are exploring what it would take to build a wastewater treatment facility that could turn water from the washout pond into potable water that could irrigate leafy greens.

“It’s interesting that desperate times are potentially going to have something really inspiring, innovative come out of it,” Kuhn said. She hopes the plant could serve as a model for other farms in the region.

In Sonoma County, further east, dairy is the second largest agricultural commodity and the lack of water can mean life or death for dairy cattle. One cow requires 30 to 40 gallons of water per day, and some dairy producers in and around the town of Petaluma have started reducing the size of their herds and hauling water, an expensive interim solution. Some haul close to 50,000 gallons of water a day, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Organic dairy farmers are petitioning for an exception to the national organic requirements, noting that the 180 required days of grazing to maintain organic certification will be hard to fill this year, Tesconi added. To make matters worse, dairy farmers are also worried about the rising cost of organic hay and grain, most of which comes from the Klamath Valley to the north, which is also experiencing a drought.

Rather than the three to four cuttings of hay the farmers in the region typically make, this year they are restricted to one or two cuttings because they don’t have the water to continue irrigating the fields, Tesconi said.

“There’s no end in sight, at least for this year,” Tesconi said. “This is a wake-up call for everybody about the need to conserve water.”

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Tesconi is working to secure grants from the USDA and the state for improvements to surface water storage infrastructure, including helping farmers line their ponds and build new reservoirs. The California Senate Budget Committee recently passed a $3 billion drought relief plan, but Tesconi worries that farmers won’t take full advantage of available grants due to their cumbersome applications. The Farm Bureau plans to host several workshops to help farmers apply for the grants in the coming months.

“Ideally we’ll find a way to secure and hold that water—versus [using] groundwater—or create a recharge system where we’re putting it into our groundwater,” says Tesconi.

Advocates like Wiig hope that more farmers will begin to build another overlooked form of water storage infrastructure: healthy soil.

“We are providing crop insurance and government support to farms that have over-tilled the land, that have created this desolate substrate of dirt which you can’t even call soil anymore because the only way you can grow things is with synthetic fertilizers. Water does not stay in that,” said Wiig.

Many of the small farmers Wiig works with through CAFF practice regenerative farming practices—such as applying compost or avoiding tilling—which can increase soil health and boost its ability to store water. Instead of investing in dams and other concrete infrastructure, Wiig wants to see more incentives for farmers to amend their soils—such as the state’s Healthy Soils Incentives Program. “You build up this living, breathing sponge of a topsoil that is insurance in and of itself,” he says.

Wiig would like to see the program expanded both within California and nationally so that the potential for soil to help farms cope with climate change, droughts, and flash floods can be fully realized. “Healthy soil won’t stop the drought,” he said, “but it will make us more resilient.”

Hannah Ricker is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about sustainable agriculture, international development, and gender politics. She currently attends the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Read more >

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