Reed Hamilton: Changing things: why it matters when making my grocery run
The purpose of this ongoing series of articles on Climate Connections is to move beyond the arguments around our climate chaos and to find area we can agree on. You may not believe in the climate issues of today … but you may be concerned about the use of plastics and the oceans. You may also be concerned about air and water quality. Whatever you want to call it, the planet needs our stewardship. The writers here will share their perspectives from many angles. Perhaps some or all will resonate with you, and bring to our awareness the necessary actions we can take. We will leave the arguments and differing beliefs to others. — Marilyn Nyborg
The pandemic has clearly made a lot of people conscious of food and the systems that get it to us. Many are worried that we’ll run short or at least not be able to get what we particularly want. Everybody seems to be planting a garden. Grocery store shelves get emptied and people overbuy, fearing the worst.
This is a new thing for most Americans, but fortunately, we’re in no danger of running out.
A large part of food production has gone to food services that deliver to restaurants, colleges, corporate campuses, schools. With those mostly closed, farmers cannot instantly sell their products to grocery stores instead. Vegetable growers are abandoning perishable crops they can’t sell quickly and dairies are dumping milk.
Meat processing is done by a handful of large companies in huge plants. When workers become ill with COVID-19 entire packing plants shut down, as happened in several cases in the past weeks.
We have enough food, but disruptions such as this virus are hard to address instantly. Clearly, there will need to be reorganization and diversification in the wake of this. This is a great opportunity to examine how we get fed.
But there is a bigger threat about which we all should be worried.
Here in California, where 80% of the water supply goes to agriculture and the top U.S. producers of 74 different crops reside, we know that snowpack is critical. Six years of drought, followed by a winter with excessive rainfall, followed by a year with below average snowfall illustrate the increasingly unpredictable water supply. An April 2020 study from Columbia University stated that nine western states including California are in a mega drought that could last decades and affect a wider area than in even droughts of the distant past.
During the most recent drought in California, farmers had to idle some land or pump already strained groundwater supplies, leading to a permanent crisis of water availability if snowpack declines. Some estimates are that half a million acres of California farmland will be permanently idled due to groundwater depletion. This year, parts of the San Joaquin Valley experienced the second driest February on record and irrigation water supplies for the federal Central Valley Project will likely be 15% of requested amounts.
But there is something that can be done to make farms more resilient. Soils with high organic matter are healthier and hold more water. The USDA says that every 1% extra organic matter stores an extra 27,000 gallons of water. Especially here in the arid west, that water storage is critical. One percent organic matter added to an 38 million acres (California Cattleman’s Association) of California pasture and range would store 1,026,000,000,000 gallons of water that would slowly release during our dry season. Crop lands can do the same, reducing irrigation needed. And with more frequent extreme rain events, organic matter absorbs more in the soil rather than running off in floods.
Research suggests there are ways farmers can increase organic matter in soil while maintaining farm economic viability. Cover crops, crop rotations, composting, reduced tilling, reforestation, and rangeland forage plantings all offer great promise of increasing soil health. Healthy soils produce more and are resilient in the face of changing weather. They also keep more carbon dioxide in the soil instead of the atmosphere, helping reduce future warming. The experience of farmers who have already made these changes is that, after a transition period, their balance sheets improve. Farming is already risky and we can’t expect farmers and ranchers to shoulder the whole cost of this transition, though.
There are federal and state government programs that pay for undertaking measures to improve soil health. Farmers and ranchers want to sustain the soil and they apply for these programs beyond what the funding supports. There are also emerging market-based solutions like companies that pay for farm conservation measures that sequester carbon and reduce chemical use and then sell the carbon offsets or products to individuals and companies.
Why does this matter? First is that widespread weather disruptions could lead to real shortages. The second is that our diets may become restricted and expensive. The third is that we need farmers to stay afloat financially and grow enough food for a rapidly expanding world population. This is another opportunity—to shift agriculture in more sustainable directions. It will probably take some combination of market-based soil health compensation and government programs, but it’s critical that we move on this issue since it won’t happen overnight. As consumers and voters we need to ensure that we protect soils, farmers, vulnerable populations, and our own health.
ACTION: Read about the Agricultural Resilence Act (See this story at TheUnion.com for a direct link) at the website of Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
Reed Hamilton has lived in Grass Valley for 37 years and growing grain, sometimes successfully, in Wheatland for 12 years.
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