Western farmers are going to have to shrink their footprint.
They’re going to have to find ways to use to less water, and they’re going to have to farm fewer acres.
It’s unavoidable, given the water challenges we are now facing.
But how much can we shrink the size of agriculture – particularly in Arizona and California, which produce nearly two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and vegetables – without wreaking havoc at the supermarket?
That’s a harder question to answer.
Thousands of acres have already been fallowed
Multiple factors are contributing to the higher prices and intermittent product shortages we see in stores now, including the war in Ukraine and higher transportation and fertilizer costs. It’s hard to isolate the impact of water scarcity, given the static in market.
But it’s likely playing a role, given how many fields have already come out of production and how many more could soon join them.
An estimated 690,000 acres – at least 7% of statewide production – have been fallowed this year in California. That’s up from roughly 395,000 acres fallowed in 2021, mostly in the Central Valley, where a prolonged drought has dried up in-state surface water supplies, leaving farmers with little to none of the water on which they typically rely.
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Consequently, low-dollar crops like alfalfa and corn got the ax, but so did higher-value crops like rice and canning tomatoes, to protect high-dollar crops like nuts that require year-round irrigation to survive.
Mike Wade, who heads the California Farm Water Coalition, expects the dearth of canning tomatoes to be more noticeable in stores this fall, since California produces more than any other state and they are used in everything from pizzas to ketchup.
Colorado River cuts could fallow even more land
Meanwhile in Arizona, farmers in two of Pinal County’s major irrigation districts have already fallowed about 57,000 acres this year – an estimated 30% to 40% of their acreage – and are bracing to leave about half of their fields empty next year as Colorado River cuts play out, according to Paul Orme, an attorney for the districts.
The area grows mostly cotton and alfalfa for nearby dairies, a key source of milk for Arizona. Farmers say the lack of affordable, local feed will strain many of these dairies, which could lead to intermittent shortages and further increase prices statewide on milk, cheese and the products that rely on them.
It’s unclear how much additional land could be fallowed – either temporarily or permanently – to pencil out 2 to 4 million acre-feet of cuts in 2023 along the Colorado River.
Some farmers have said that instead of fallowing, they’d like to be paid to continue farming on less water. They have floated a proposal to use an acre-foot less water on 925,000 acres – about 20% of farmland in production basinwide – but so far, no states have signed onto the plan.
There’s a reason production is centered here
Whether they are paid to farm or fallow, or their water supplies simply cut, many experts expect Yuma farmers will move away from alfalfa, much like those in California’s Central Valley have done, to protect the higher-value winter vegetables they grow.
But that could further strain Pinal County dairies, which would have to look even farther afield for the feed they need.
Granted, some say this is exactly what should be happening. They argue that farming has no place in areas where water is under stress, and that we all should pay more for foods that tax the environment.
But it’s not as simple as asking farmers elsewhere to grow more fruits and vegetables. Few other places have the climate that Arizona or California does to support farming in the winter, much less year-round. And even if we could grow some crops in other areas, farm groups say it likely would require putting more acres in production there to match the yields we get on fewer acres here.
Then again, farmers across the Colorado River basin could become more efficient and still use more water as it gets hotter and drier, because plants will require more of it to survive.
The West must rethink farming to save it
That means we’re going to have to rethink how we farm if we want to maintain even a scaled-back presence in the West. And, no, there will be no silver bullet for how we do that.
Part of the answer might lie in canal lining and converting more acres to drip irrigation. Or in planting some crops under solar panels, which early University of Arizona tests suggest may improve panel performance and, thanks to the shade, require less water for plants.
Maybe we can grow more with less by investing in robotic, indoor farming, or by experimenting with water-saving crops, like guayule, and new varieties of crops like alfalfa and cotton that are engineered to use markedly less water.
At least there are now millions of dollars in conservation funds available from the state and billions from the federal government to prove and scale up efforts like these – though it remains to be seen how quickly this cash could help change things.
Beyond incentives, solving this problem hinges on the “try anything” spirit of farmers like Arnott Duncan, who grows organic baby greens in Arizona and Oregon. He uses technology to irrigate. He has reached out to researchers. Yet he acknowledges how much there is to learn.
“We have to be better,” he told me, “or otherwise we’re not going to be.”
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: rethink farming to save it as massive water cuts loom” class=”link “>Arizona must rethink farming to save it as massive water cuts loom
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