California's New, Official Drought Emergency Is Old News for Farmers

Gov. Jerry Brown only declared a state of emergency last week, but the state hasn't received enough rainfall for the past three years.

A boat paddle is shown on the bottom of the nearly dry Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, Calif.,  on Jan. 21. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

Jan 23, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

What at first appeared to be a late—or even hallucinatory—sunrise became suddenly less beautiful after I started driving to work one day last week. As I watched the colors reflecting through the low bank of “clouds” to the east I heard on the radio that there was a brushfire in the hills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just 15 miles from where I live in northeast Los Angeles. By that afternoon, the plume of smoke responsible for the faux sunrise I had briefly so enjoyed had stretched out over the Pacific, the fire’s gray tail visible from space.

The Colby fire, which burned for six days, scorched some 2,000 acres. Last month, a fire near Big Sur in Central California, usually thoroughly dampened in the winter, burned more than 1,000 acres. And as the lack of winter rainfall is turning much of lowland California into a tinderbox months ahead of the annual fire season, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, source of much of the state's water, stands at a dismal 17 percent of normal—the driest winter on record.

The day after the unseasonable burn began in Los Angeles, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. “We are in an unprecedented, very serious situation, and people should pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, on nature, and one another," he said in his announcement.

We’re hearing it from all corners: California is in a drought. A historic drought.

On Wednesday, Brown was talking about it again in his annual State of the State address, while Speaker of the House John Boehner swung through California, America’s leading agricultural state, trumpeting a Republican plan to grapple with a drier future at stops throughout the Central Valley.

While the governor talked about his Interagency Drought Task Force and the Speaker met with local members of Congress, things looked more or less normal at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

Kale-and-citrus season—also known as winter—is winding down, and early spring vegetables such as asparagus are appearing here and there. Market goers were wandering around with thick bundles of peach boughs tucked awkwardly under an arm, the thin branches speckled with purple flowers. If you’re looking for signs of the lack of rainfall in California, you aren’t going to find them here.

That’s because for the people behind the many stands at the market, the historic drought is already becoming history—it’s been going on for three years after all. Brown's announcement came because now reservoirs are getting low, but if you're a farmer who relies on rainfall rather than irrigation from faraway sources, you've been dealing with drought conditions for many planting seasons in a row, and will continue to deal with it until the rains come back. So for the small, diversified operations that stock markets like Santa Monica, the declaration of a drought emergency—and the relief assistance it promises—mean little.

“It’s no different today than it was three years ago,” Peter Schaner said from the back of the Schaner Family Farm truck, where he sits every Wednesday selling crates of eggs, fruits, and vegetables to restaurant customers.

When I asked him if any of the disaster relief measures offered through Brown’s declaration and the USDA’s designation of California as a primary natural disaster area, which makes low-interest-rate loans available to farmers, would be helpful to him, Schaner responded, "No," "No," and "No." Farms like his, and most every other you’d find at a farmers market, aren't eligible for subsidized federal crop insurance either; the program favors mono-crop farms growing commodity grains such as corn, wheat, and rice.

Instead, Schaner is trying to cut the amount of water he uses at home—which he buys at the same rate as his irrigation water from the San Diego Metropolitan Water District.

“We went out and bought expensive washing machines that use less water, changed all of our toilets, all of our shower heads—anything that we can do to save water other ways,” he said. “Plants need water to grow, and they aren’t going to grow with less water. But they might grow with more efficient water.”

The Schaners’ lawn is all brown now.

Lawns are on the mind of Laura Avery, who has managed the Santa Monica market since 1982. She says the impact of the drought isn’t showing up on farmers’ stands yet, but consumers shouldn't let that lead them to believe the lack of rain isn’t a problem for Los Angeles residents too.

“People in L.A. need to realize that our food is coming from all around the state” and that our water does too. More than two-thirds of it, in fact. And because as much as half of Los Angeles water is used out of doors (for swimming pools and thirsty landscaping suited for other climates), urban dwellers play a role in the rural problem of limited access to irrigation water.

“What I think we can do to help the farmers is to demand that everyone use less water,” she said. “The fact that people are still watering their lawns is unconscionable. Don’t put your damn water on your grass.”

For veteran lettuce farmer Andrea Crawford, the drought years have coincided with an expansion of her business that, for last year’s crop at least, didn’t involve paying for extra water.

Crawford and her husband, Robert Dedlow, have been growing greens and herbs, water-hungry crops in varying degrees, since the 1980s, but last year they started a new venture, Roan Mills, to grow and mill heirloom wheat. Many of their varieties, such as Sonora wheat—widely grown in Southern California in the 1800s, back when the Golden State, not Kansas, was America’s breadbasket—are famously drought tolerant. The array of dark brown loaves and burnished baguettes she and her son were selling at the market alongside wheat berries and bags of whole-grain flour all came from dry-farmed wheat.

Her 2014 wheat, planted around Thanksgiving, is a slightly different story. “This year, because of the predictions, we set it up with some irrigation, and we gave it a good long soak. And it’s a good thing we did, because we haven’t had any rain,” she says.

It's likely all the irrigation that the crop, planted in the Central Coast region near Hollister, will need.

Still, Crawford's luck with dry farming hasn’t blinded her to the broader implications of the drought. “It’s going to have a huge effect, in the end, because the price of food will go up," she said. “The prediction I’ve heard from farmers around the state for grain is the [yield] will be about half” of normal.

Robin Smith, who has farmed a 60-acre orchard of fruit trees with her family since 1985, isn’t worried about losing any of her crops yet. But when I asked her, standing beside the diverse selection of citrus that filled her Mud Creek Ranch stand, how the drought has affected operations, she said, “It’s been…bad. Because we’re paying for water, and it’s January.”

In a normal year, the trees she harvests to fill her small baskets of limequats and mandarinquats, and bags of more pedestrian navel oranges and mandarins, only drink rainwater in the wet winter months. “Normal,” however, seems far-off these days.

“Usually we start irrigating in May," Smith said. Every drop is water she has to pay for. She said Mud Creek Ranch has been irrigating continuously "since, I don’t know—it seems like maybe two years ago.”

Ask any of the growers at the market about the drought, and you're bound to get at least some of that storied (clichéd) steely reserve for which those who make a living farming are known. This drought may be permanently attached to the modifier “historic” now, and reporters like me are showing up to talk with farmers about it, years after the dry weather started. But it's not as though this is the first time they’ve endured disastrous conditions.

“This is farming—there’s always something. It's either a bug; oftentimes it’s the weather; sometimes it's political,” said Smith, who still remembers the panic over the California drought of 1961, the worst of the 20th century, from when she was a girl.

I asked Peter Schaner if it was weird for everyone to suddenly be talking about what’s become a familiar crisis for him, and he answered, “I’m just excited that now you’re concerned about the same thing that I’m concerned about.”