local food and the california drought

Have you seen the recent NASA photo of the Sierra Nevada mountain range? Here you can see the current snowpack compared to what it was at this time last year. That snow provides much of the water used to irrigate the land for the entire year, and right now it’s looking barren.

California is currently in its worst drought in maybe over 500 years, if estimates are correct. It’s made me think a lot, and even though I’m no expert on agriculture, drought, or even the state of California, I thought I’d write a bit about what’s been on my mind. (All the photos here are from gardens I’ve been part of; the first two are raised beds I planted for a cooking class last year in Massachusetts, and the last one is the DC Truck Farm.)
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To me, this reality of drought and climate change drives home the importance of cultivating strong, local agricultural systems. California-grown fruits and vegetables account for half of our country’s output, and for some products – such as broccoli, lettuce, garlic, spinach, artichokes, carrots, etc – the percentage grown in California is closer to 100.

It seems a bit foolhardy that the entire country is dependent on a region that requires intensive irrigation and technology to produce. Irrigation keeps the deserts in bloom all year long, but it also erodes and strips the soil, uses a lot of oil energy, and may be sucking the groundwater dry. What makes it maddening is that many of the crops grown using these techniques can be grown very well in all sorts of climates. Plus without the long trip in a semi, they will taste better.

Of course, we will be a bit more limited as to when we can eat broccoli. It’s a cool weather crop that bolts easily in a heat wave, which makes it well suited to the stable temps and cooler atmosphere in the central coast. I remember driving through Monterey and Santa Cruz as a child and seeing fields of green broccoli growing – I had never seen fields that big for anything other than corn before! Now I’ve seen broccoli growing up close, and even harvested it at the farm in Massachusetts. The growing season was much shorter, but the tender stalks and florets had more flavor than any broccoli I’d eaten before.
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Imagine if California’s crisis hit the tipping point. Farmers are already clamoring for water access, letting their fields lay fallow to get more water for other crops. What if California’s halted crop production started to make an impact at our grocery stores? Would we have systems in place supporting our local farmers, or would they be shut out in favor of imported goods from South Africa, Guatemala, Australia? The farther away our crops come from, the more energy and oil we use to get them to us. Sure, if we supported our own farmers, we wouldn’t be able to eat fresh broccoli whenever we want to (though there’s always frozen, if we take some extra steps). But we’d be able to eat – and maybe the rural poor in Mexico, Chile and around the world would get to grow more crops for themselves to afford to eat as well.

Now, I’m not completely naive. Expanding our local food systems might take away some of the power from the multinational agribusinesses that own us, and I don’t think they’ll let that happen without a lot of fight. I also know that local farms aren’t usually vegetable farms, nor are they generally run fairly or organically. But the idea of eating seasonally is one that we need to start accepting, especially if conditions in California keep getting worse. Climate change isn’t going to happen over night… but it’s happening, and soon we’ll be feeling it more and more. Supporting local small vegetable farmers will let those at the top know that we are serious in our support of the environment, and that we’d be able to forgo broccoli in July if need be.
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Some resources to learn more:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/30/california-drought-effects-500-years_n_4647529.html
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/07/california_grows_all_of_our_fruits_and_vegetables_what_would_we_eat_without.html
http://californiaagtoday.blogspot.com/

Books to read for more information:
Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel
The Way America Eats, Tracy Macmillan
Ecofeminism (and anything else) by Vandana Shiva
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
so so many more

Note again, all the photos here are from gardens I’ve been part of; the first two are raised beds I planted for a cooking class last year in Massachusetts, and the last one is the DC Truck Farm.

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