The Drought Is Bigger Than California: New Relief Money Will Go to 8 Dry States

The $21 million will help farmers with conservation efforts.

Bales of hay sit on a family farm near Logan, Kansas. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

May 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

California isn't the only state grappling with dry weather and a farming sector thirsty for more water.

The United States Department of Agriculture announced $21 million to support sustainable farming practices on Tuesday to help mitigate the impacts of the dry spell. In addition to California, which has been hogging the water-scarcity headlines ever since Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory water-use reductions, seven states are experiencing exceptional or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

USDA is making the funds available to farmers in those states: California, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Utah. Funded through the 2014 farm bill, the new cash will go toward helping farmers invest in various water-conservation measures, including irrigation upgrades, watering facilities for livestock, changes in grazing systems, and more. In most cases, USDA will cover half of the required costs, with the farm's owner making up the difference.

From a sustainability standpoint, two farming systems covered by the relief funding are most interesting: the introduction of cover crops and conversion to no-till practices, both of which help increase soil fertility and water retention.

Planting seeds in fields littered with the dead, decomposing remnants of last year’s crops—organic material that would otherwise be tilled under, hence “no-till”—has been on the rise over the past 15 years. In 2009, according to a USDA Economic Research Service report, 35.5 percent of farmland planted in the top eight crops grown in the U.S. were no-till operations. As the old plant material breaks down, it feeds the soil; the dry material covering what would otherwise be bare dirt keeps erosion down and, like mulch, helps the soil retain water.

Cover crops, however, are far less common: Farmers use the practice, in which a crop that’s grown solely for the benefit of the soil is planted after harvest, on just 1 percent of farmland.

This isn’t the first government money, federal or state, going to drought relief, and it won’t be the last. (On Tuesday California’s State Water Resources Control Board announced $19 million for emergency drinking water projects.) Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a call with reporters Tuesday that California has already received $27 million from the Natural Resources Conservation Services in this fiscal year. Overall, the NRCS spent $1.5 billion on drought relief between 2012 and 2014, according to a USDA press release.

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But with this year's commodity crops already planted and growing in the Midwest, and the hope of rain on the West Coast all but past, transitioning to no-till or taking advantage of cover crops, which are often planted in the late fall or winter, will do little to relieve the immediate stresses the drought is putting on farmers. Rather, they will help farmland retain its productivity in the coming years. In USDA-speak, the idea is to "build long-term agricultural resilience" for when the rains come back—and into the next drought.

In California alone, as many as 1 million acres of farmland could be fallowed in the coming year—that’s equal to all of the almond farms in the state. As was learned during the dust bowl, leaving massive amounts of land bare during a historic dry spell—prime conditions for the topsoil, which makes the land arable, to blow away—can have devastating consequences.