The sun is coming up over the Lamp Lighter Inn in the sleepy Central Valley town of Visalia, Calif. The fetid smell of nearby feedlots and dairies is frightfully easy to get used to. Kali Wnuck sits on the edge of her hotel bed and mentally checks off everything she wants to cover at the farm she's visiting today. "I'm trying to remember the names of his children," she sleepily says while munching on homemade breakfast.
When we drove up from Los Angeles last week, the Central Valley had just clocked 60 days without rain. Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a drought state of emergency for California, but urban areas of the state haven't felt the impact of the dry weather the way farmers have in agricultural regions like the Central Valley.
But Los Angeles resident Wnuck wants to get a firsthand look at what the drought means, and she has good reason to care. She is the founder-director of SavRaw, an organic produce delivery service that works with area farmers to get customers stuff that’s as fresh and seasonal as possible. It’s kind of like a CSA, except CSA subscriptions come from just one farm, whereas Wnuck coordinates with a few different growers.
Because she doesn’t grow the food she sells, Wnuck’s livelihood depends on knowing and understanding what’s going on with the farmers she works with. When SavRaw’s growers run into a cold snap, or a drought, the effect on her small business is immediately palpable.
A shift in weather can mean soggy green onions or citrus that's dry and unflavorful. But if she can understand potential hardships farmers face, she’s better able to explain any subpar produce to her customers, who are then more likely to stay. That’s why we're here to see Eugene Etheridge. Etheridge Organics is where Wnuck gets her oranges, plums, persimmons, and other fruit. And although she's done business with Etheridge for years, she's never toured his farm.
Etheridge's orchards are rigged with irrigation, and like many farmers in California, he usually reserves groundwater for watering his land in the dry months. In the winter, however, a farmer is supposed to be able to turn off the tap and rely on the rain—but if everyone keeps dipping into the wells and stubborn weather doesn’t offer any relief, down it goes.
Despite all the talk of drought, when we step outside the Lamp Lighter to load up the car that morning, the ground is wet. For the first time since December, there's rain. And for a moment, it feels like we drove four hours for nothing.
When we arrive at Etheridge's naked plum orchards, raindrops fall on the spray jets that he hasn't turned off just yet. “It’s like going to a bar and getting flirted with,” he says of the rain. “It feels good, but it doesn't do very much.”
Etheridge has been farming in the area since the '70s, and since then he's witnessed a gradual but nonetheless dramatic lowering of the water table. "I got this land with a water well that was dug in the '20s. That well went down 100 feet. You could pump water as close to nine feet from the surface. Now you have to go down at least 80 feet, but we're lucky." He’s referring to the plight of his counterparts farming on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. On the opposite side of the valley from Etheridge, farmers have to go down as far as 1,500 feet to get water.
He remembers when his family ran out of water. “It was in the '70s. We had three young children at the time, and one day, the well just ran out.” For four months, Etheridge had to borrow water from his neighbor’s water well. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a recent transplant to Los Angeles who innocently asked me if the drought meant one day the water would stop coming out of the tap.
Too sure of myself, I snipped, "No, that wouldn't ever happen." And yet it does, and it did. I wondered if my concept of the drought back in L.A. would be different if our water could be measured not by a statistic on the radio but by the rising and falling of something as tangible as a well. Would it change the way I wash dishes? Take showers? Water my plants?
Chickens and roosters weave between the farmer's collection of vintage cars in various states of repair. As we get into our car to drive to another one of his groves, he points to a neighboring farm, whose large side yard looks like it’s one big puddle. "They're using flood irrigation for those almond trees," he said, shaking his head. "There's no reason for it." His recommendation for wise water use in home gardens? Get your drip irrigation system at an agricultural store and not a typical hardware store. “You’ll save money, and they won’t give you the cheapy stuff.”
Still, Etheridge’s neighbor isn’t the norm. He says a majority of farmers he knows use drip irrigation as much as they can. "Most people around here are pretty efficient because it costs less when you use less." His big point is that the valley needs to be trapping the water it does get—from rainfall, from snowmelt flowing down from the Sierra—more efficiently. "A lot of it goes out to the ocean.”
What Wnuck took away from the experience was that, all in all, the drought, as well as other effects of climate change, brings a whole lot of uncertainty to agriculture. “This could mean less variety next year or higher prices for produce. Either way, it’s hard to tell customers why it’s happening,” she said.
It's a business concern that Etheridge highlighted when he showed us a grove of nectarine trees, their pink buds blooming unseasonably early. "If we get another frost, it may kill off these nectarines, and then that's it for the season."
Several times we passed a large orchard, and Etheridge explained the land had recently been taken over by what he called a “mega farm.”
“The medium farmers buy out the small guys,” he explained. “And then the large guys buy out the middle guys, and then the mega guys buy out everyone.” With all of that uncertainty, it can be tough for a grower with just 200 or so acres to recover from myriad climate problems. Still, small farmers are often able to maintain their livelihood with niche markets, like the organic business Wnuck runs. After all, a mega farm can't take a small farm out of business when there are small businesses—restaurants and grocery stores and outfits like SavRaw—that choose to deal with operations like Etheridge Organics exclusively. It's baffling in the best way to imagine the extent of the climate crisis being ameliorated through the power of basic human connection.
It's funny. We’re driving up all that way to get a firsthand look at the effects of the drought, and it's raining and a neighboring farm is flooding its groves instead of using more water-wise irrigation. In a way, the water problem felt almost as abstract at Etheridge Organics as it did in L.A. What did I expect to see? A cow skull on a sand dune? Dusty peasants begging for a sip of Dasani? I keep trying to figure out how to quantify the drought for myself, and for everyone else in a big city, and I keep coming up short.
Just then, Etheridge paused the interview to take a phone call. He told the person on the other end that after nearly 50 years, it was finally time to dig a deeper well. A short conversation, a polite conversation. But wells don't go down forever.