Drought, farms, and climate change

On the morning news, I heard the staggering statistics that California, which is in extreme drought, uses 80% of its water for agriculture, growing a third of the US supply of fruits and vegetables. It has already taken some farmland out of production or substituted crops that use less water. Meanwhile, it is in its fourth year of drought with snowpack under 5% of normal. As in over 95% of normally expected runoff water will not be there this year.

This should be setting off all kinds of alarm bells across the country. We need to shift our food production to more local areas and sustainable practices. Now, not in some distant future. We need to change our expectation of what foods we eat in which season of the year. When I was growing up, we ate fresh sweet corn in mid- to late-summer, when nearby farms were harvesting. We would prepare extra corn, cut it off the cob, and freeze it to eat at other times of year. We need to get back to this sense of eating fresh foods locally and preserving the extra produce to eat later rather than expecting California to send us strawberries in February. Certainly some crops, like citrus fruits, will not grow throughout the country, but others, like salad greens, can be grown close to where they are consumed, even in northern urban centers in winter where they can be grown indoors.

During the long slog fighting against shale gas development in New York State, I used many arguments against various aspects of this industrialization of our state. One of them was that, in this time of shifting climate, we needed to preserve our New York farms and forests for food production. Much of the farmland in the US is projected to have major droughts and heat waves as atmospheric carbon increases, including California and the Great Plains/Midwest farm belt. The Northeast, while expected to warm, is not expected to have severe issues with water supply. New York must assiduously protect its soils, water, and air from pollution in order to feed itself and other states as climate stressors increase.