Mark Hertsgaard, BOHEMIAN.COM
Almonds are one of California’s most water-intensive crops. Why haven’t officials cracked down on farmers?
‘I’ve been smiling all the way to the bank,” said pistachio farmer John Dean at a conference hosted earlier this month by Paramount Farms, the operation owned by Stewart Resnick.
Resnick is the Beverly Hills billionaire known for his sprawling agricultural holdings, controversial water dealings and millions of dollars in campaign contributions to California politicians including Gov. Jerry Brown, former governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The record drought has alarmed the public, left some rural communities without drinking water and led Brown last week to impose the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history. But the governor’s executive order required cutbacks only from the urban sector that uses roughly 20 percent of California’s developed water; the agricultural sector, which uses 80 percent, was required only to formulate “plans” for coping with future drought.
Responding to criticism about letting agriculture off easy, Brown and his aides pointed out that farmers have already been cut back. In February, U.S. officials announced that agriculture’s allocation of federal water supplies in California would be cut to zero in 2015. State water allocation to agriculture will be only 20 percent in 2015. And these reductions come on top of earlier cutbacks in 2014.
Yet despite such cutbacks, large-scale farmers are enjoying record profits—and increasing the acreage planted in almonds and other water-intensive crops—thanks in part to infusions of what experts call dangerously underpriced water.
Agriculture is at the heart of California’s worsening water crisis, and the stakes extend far beyond the state’s borders. Not only is California the world’s eighth largest economy, it is an agricultural superpower. It produces roughly half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables consumed in the United States—and more than 90 percent of the almonds, tomatoes, strawberries, and other specialty crops—while exporting vast amounts to China.
Agriculture consumes a staggering 80 percent of California’s developed water, even as it accounts for only 2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Most crops are produced in the Central Valley, which is, geologically speaking, a desert. The soil is very fertile, but can only thrive if massive irrigation water is applied.
Read more at: Crop Priority | News | North Bay Bohemian
Justin Fox, BLOOMBERG VIEW
The nut boom was a rational and reasonable response to economic and hydrological reality. But now, with the state hit by a drought far worse than the one that jump-started it, it’s proving to be problematic.
It takes a gallon of water to produce an almond. That’s one remarkable fact. Here’s another: 82 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, almost all of them in its agricultural heartland, the Central Valley. Here’s another: Almond growers use about 10 percent of the state’s water supply every year. And here’s yet another: California’s mountain snowpack, the main source of the Central Valley’s water, is at 5 percent of its historical average for this time of year.
Couple those remarkable facts with the spectacular rise of the almond and in particular almond milk as a dietary staple for the affluent and health-conscious — a rise driven in part by the marketing efforts of the Almond Board of California — and you have the makings of a collision, or a backlash, or something. My Bloomberg colleague Joe Weisenthal tried to get #almondshaming going as a Twitter hashtag Monday, and didn’t quite succeed. But there is definitely some almond shaming going on.
Read more via Amid a Drought, Cue the Almond Shaming – Bloomberg View.
Diane Peterson, SONOMA MAGAZINE
Meet the new generation of chicken ranchers raising heritage birds such as Delawares and Rhode Island Reds for both meat and eggs, often as a side business to a dairy or cattle ranch or as a second job. Like their grandparents and parents, these young farmers are finding there’s a niche for producing a food that provides a high-quality and affordable source of protein.
In the first half of the 20th century, the explosion of chicken farms amid the sunny, fog-kissed hills of Petaluma lined residents’ pockets with a feathery fortune and gilded its reputation as the richest little city in America. Dubbed “Chickaluma” and the “Egg Basket of the World,” Petaluma produced 612 million eggs in 1945, from an estimated 6 million hens.
The region had the rich, alluvial soil, cooling fog and sunny hillsides required for chickens to thrive. On Petaluma’s southern end, a series of sloughs allowed the eggs to enjoy smooth sailing on boats heading south to the Bay Area market, where they arrived unbroken and unspoiled. The area developed into a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly with the invention of the world’s first incubator.
Read more via Eggs & Farmers | Sonoma Magazine.
Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County officials are scaling back their ambitious plan to expand agricultural production on thousands of acres of county-owned land and public open space after the initial effort largely fell apart, with much of the acreage deemed too pricey or environmentally sensitive to be used for farming.
The initiative, launched four years ago, originally called for opening up as much as 1,900 acres on vacant county-owned lots, county park and open space land to budding farmers for crop production and livestock grazing.
But government officials charged with advancing the effort said they ultimately found only one of 17 identified sites suitable for developing as farmland at this point. Most of the vacant parcels lack sufficient water supplies, and many of the park properties contain sensitive wetlands or other wildlife habitat, including land covered by protections for the endangered California tiger salamander, according to Stephanie Larson, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension for Sonoma County.
Still, officials said they did find one grassy 45-acre plot on the eastern edge of Rohnert Park that could serve as a good proving ground for farmers just getting into the business. The idea, unveiled at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, is to lease plots to budding farmers and ranchers who are interested in growing produce or raising livestock, akin to the business incubators that help entrepreneurs with funding and expertise to advance their ideas.
Supervisors this week endorsed the concept, pointing out that the county will benefit threefold — by supporting agriculture, encouraging a new generation of farmers and boosting the amount of food grown locally.
Read more via Sonoma County envisions small start in effort to | The Press Democrat.
Kristin Ohlson, CRAFTSMANSHIP MAGAZINE
Mark Sturges doesn’t advertise and clients have to find him by word of mouth, but find him they do. He’s become a master of an agricultural art as old as agriculture itself: basic compost.
Mark Sturges handed me a pair of green plastic gloves to handle his compost, but had no qualms about plunging his own bare hands deep into one of his aluminum bins. He emerged with a dripping fistful of organic matter that would discomfit a squeamish person – say, the woman who owned the Air BnB home in Bandon, Oregon, where I stayed that night and who shrieked and shivered when I described the scene.
“Does your compost look like this?” the 67-year old Sturges asked me. No, I’ve never seen any compost that looked quite like his.
His compost reminded me of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the 16th Century Flemish artist who loved scenes teeming with humans and other creatures—eating, working, slaying, fornicating, sleeping, gossiping, squiggling their id all over the canvas. In Sturges’s cupped hands, there was the backdrop of what most of us think of when we think about compost—a crumbling, black mass resembling dark-roast coffee grounds—plus shreds of the materials that had gone into making it: eggshells, the paper-bag-like skin of a nearly dissolved pumpkin, carrot tops, and a pouf of potato salad from the town’s organic deli. More to the point, Sturges’s entire workforce was well represented in the handful. The dark mush was visibly alive with rove beetles, spiders, daddy longlegs, tiny white worms called enchytraedae that looked like lively fingernail parings, and the gray blemish of a fungus called beauvaria bassiani, which feeds on the beetles.
“These are the best workers in the world,” Sturges said with satisfaction. “They don’t have drug problems, they don’t beat their wives—although they might eat them, of course—and they work 24 hours a day. You just have to make sure you keep them alive.”
Read more at: The Bug Whisperer – Craftsmanship Magazine
Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The end of the oyster farm upholds a promise put forward decades ago in law to fully protect Drakes Estero, but it also severs ties to a cherished history of shellfish farming in the waterway.
By New Year’s Day, there should be no more oysters in Drakes Estero, a placid estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore that has been, for the better part of eight years, the setting for a tempest of epic proportions.
Ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, food lovers and famous chefs, members of Congress and a bevy of lawyers have been embroiled in the conflict over a family-owned farm that planted millions of tiny oysters in the estero’s cold, clear waters and harvested $1.5 million worth of table-ready bivalves a year, continuing an aquaculture operation dating back to the 1930s.
Questions over the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s impact, good or bad, on the 2,500-acre Pacific Ocean estuary, and how the company was treated by the federal government, fairly or unfairly, raised passions that likely will persist for years in west Marin County and beyond.
Read more via Facing closure deadline, Drakes Bay oyster farm harvests | The Press Democrat.
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A surge of interest in natural foods, local sourcing and environmental sustainability is bringing new life to the Civil War-era Grange movement, driving participation and restoring its relevance among modern folks yearning for connection to one another and to the food they consume.
The Sebastopol Grange — part of the nationwide farmers alliance that spans 147 years of agricultural development, economic expansion and vast social change — is among the groups that are thriving, its membership surpassing 200 people just a few years after its existence was threatened.
“It’s a process of revitalizing community,” President Jerry Allen said. “It’s going on all over, and it’s sure going on here.”
Granges in Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Petaluma, Windsor, Bodega Bay and Hessel also are gathering strength, building community and blending a long-held commitment to the land with more contemporary views about how best to sustain it in a changing world.
Read more via New life at Sonoma County’s historic Granges | The Press Democrat.
Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Meat processor Marin Sun Farms is moving its “cut-and-wrap” butcher operation from San Francisco to the once-shuttered Petaluma slaughterhouse that it purchased and reopened last spring.
The San Francisco-based company, owned by fourth-generation rancher David Evans, on Friday announced that at year’s end it would consolidate “all harvesting, processing and distribution operations” at its plant on Petaluma Boulevard North.
“It’s going to bring about 35 jobs to Petaluma,” Evans said Friday.
He acknowledged the consolidation would save the company some money, but said the larger benefit would be to have his operations less spread out and closer to the North Bay ranchers who raise pasture-fed beef and other animals.
“And,” he said, “it fits better with the culture of Petaluma and the North Bay than it does in downtown San Francisco.”
A Sonoma County farm official and a local rancher applauded the news for bringing jobs and production that will add to the area’s specialty food sector.
Read more via Marin Sun Farms moving 35 jobs to Petaluma | The Press Democrat.
Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Opponents of genetically modified organisms are sounding the alarm statewide over a new California law they contend could derail local efforts to regulate or ban not just GMOs, but all plants, seeds or crops grown in the state.
The controversy has drawn in the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who are divided over whether to seek immediate action, and put North Coast lawmakers on the defensive over why they voted for the bill.
That includes state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who has long sought to label products in California that contain GMOs. The senator last week expressed dismay over the notion she may have unwittingly supported legislation that is now anathema to GMO opponents.
“Nobody raised any concerns about this bill,” which made changes to the innocuous-sounding California Seed Law, Evans said.
While GMO activists fear the new law could undercut local governments’ ability to restrict GMOs, they say it also could affect local officials’ power to regulate any type of seed or plant, ranging from wine grapes to marijuana.
Whether the changes actually accomplish what critics fear — granting the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture authority over all ordinances enacted by local jurisdictions pertaining to seeds and crops grown in the state — is now the focus of intense review, including by county and state lawyers.
The ongoing controversy centers on a single paragraph inserted late into an Assembly bill to reportedly deal with a narrow conflict — over a proposed invasive plant policy in the city of Encinitas, in San Diego County. But the final legislation, AB 2470, has had a much wider fallout, leading GMO opponents statewide to wonder how the bill managed to fly so far off the radar prior to Gov. Jerry Brown signing it Aug. 25.
Read more at Opponents of genetically modified crops alarmed at state | The Press Democrat.
Justin Gillisnov, NEW YORK TIMES
The gathering risks of climate change are so profound that they could stall or even reverse generations of progress against poverty and hunger if greenhouse emissions continue at a runaway pace, according to a major new United Nations report.
Despite growing efforts in many countries to tackle the problem, the global situation is becoming more acute as developing countries join the West in burning huge amounts of fossil fuels, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said here on Sunday.
Failure to reduce emissions, the group of scientists and other experts found, could threaten society with food shortages, refugee crises, the flooding of major cities and entire island nations, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a climate so drastically altered it might become dangerous for people to work or play outside during the hottest times of the year.
“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report found.
In the starkest language it has ever used, the expert panel made clear how far society remains from having any serious policy to limit global warming.
Read more via U.N. Panel Issues Its Starkest Warning Yet on Global Warming – NYTimes.com.