top-crops

California is a land of rich, fertile soil and a warm, dry climate. Its 20,000-square mile agricultural hub Central Valley, comprised of the Sacramento Valley in the North and the San Joaquin Valley in the South, grows 75% of the agriculture in the state and 17% in the whole nation, according to the Department of the Interior. The 2017 Crop Year Report from the California Department of Food and Agriculture found that the state produces about two-thirds of the country’s fruit and nuts. Their 250+ crops amount to an approximately $20 billion value and provide 25% of Americans’ food supply, including the majority of the grapes, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, walnuts, and almonds in the United States.

From the outside looking in, California overflows with beauty and growth; on the inside, California agriculture is struggling against a three-headed opponent: drought, contamination, and lack of workers.

Drought

In March of 2019 Alejandra Reyes-Velarde in the Los Angeles Times reported that “[f]or the first time since 2011, the state shows no areas suffering from prolonged drought.” Californians reached this conclusion based on the Drought Monitor, a project by several weather agencies and on which scientists, hydrologists, meteorologists, and other experts collaborated. At the beginning of 2019, the monitor showed improving conditions through most of the state, and near complete absence of drought conditions in March.

California drought
Animation credit Shaffer Grubb/Los Angeles Times

Despite the change in climate, officials caution against complacency. NOAA climatologist Jessica Blunden warns, quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle, “That’s not to say drought can’t come back. Droughts can come back very quickly.”

The necessity of water in agriculture is obvious. For a state that produces a bulk of the nation’s produce, this need is even greater. Despite the drought, in those dry years California still grew billions of acres of crops that taxed on the abnormally-low water reserves. In 2014 and 2015, when Governor Jerry Brown declared an emergency drought situation and campaigned for drivers to “go dirty for the drought”, the Almond Board of California calculated that the state shipped over 1.81 billion pounds of almonds, a nut which had a water footprint of 3.25 gallons per piece in 2018. This water footprint included 1.7 gallons per almond of “blue water”, i.e., water from managed resources like irrigation.

Contamination

The Environment Protection Agency regulates public water system safety by setting a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), which determines the maximum amount of some identified contaminant that water can contain without adversely affecting healthy adults, then strive to achieve that goal through the best treatment techniques (TT) that the technology and economy allow. In 2019, the State Water Resources Board discovered that over 300 communities had water that did not comply to the MCL standards. The majority were in poorer agricultural areas of California, where chemical fertilizers and livestock manure cause nitrate contamination in the soil and groundwater pumping can increase arsenic levels.

contaminated water
From a video by Lezlie Sterling and Ryan Sabalow

The danger of contamination in agriculture is at the forefront of the American consumer’s thoughts particularly in the wake of the FDA recalls of California romaine lettuce in the fall of 2018. The probable cause: E.coli pathogens that found their ways to the lettuce through irrigation water that animal feces had tainted.

Lack of workers

The Labor Market Information Division of the California Employment Development Department records that in December of 1990 the state employed 11,200 workers in vegetable, melon, fruit, and tree nuts farming. In December of 2010, that number was 10,800. Improved technology and efficiency are part of the reason for the decreased agricultural workforce; paucity of available and willing hands, another.

After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, labor supply fell, forcing farmers to pay higher wages to keep workers, documented or undocumented. In results from an agricultural labor availability survey from 2017, 55% of California farmers who responded admitted to struggling with employee shortages, even with increased wages, benefits, and other incentives.

farm shortages
Photo credit Stuart Palley/Wall Street Journal

Historically, American agriculture has relied on immigrant work. A 2005-2007 survey found that 72% of California’s workforce hailed from Mexico. According to a 2014 report created by the World Agricultural Economic and Environmental Sciences and commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation, farms rely on a workforce in which undocumented immigrants are the majority. Necessity has forced farmers to mechanize some operations, but others, namely hand-harvesting, require physical workers who just aren’t there.

Immigration policy reforms with President Barack Obama and now President Donald Trump have made it increasingly harder for southern immigrants, who would typically work in agriculture, to enter the country and, for those already in the country, fear of deportation chases them back home. One farmer in San Diego Country explained, “I have been using DACA students but many are leaving due to fear of being deported. In the past, I have used local farm labor, but they have left or are not willing to travel for fear of being arrested.”

In addition to stricter immigration enforcement in America, brighter prospects under the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, coax Mexican immigrants back to their home country. Speaking with Eating Well magazine, farmworker Oswaldo Cisneros Martinez said, “Especially with the new president in Mexico, people are more hopeful that conditions will improve there.”

farming in California
Photo credit Vincent Laforet/New York Times

Where does that leave California agriculture? Currently, to offset the losses that the industry has suffered due to drought, contamination, and lack of workers, the country has been importing produce from places like Mexico. Giving responsibility for agriculture back to the state will require a balance of better technology and techniques for water conservation, stricter enforcement and inspection of waste disposal and water management, and more accessible immigration optionsmore accessible immigration options – all easier said than done.