Growing Uncertainty in the Central Valley

One weekend in late June, I drove with friends to Yolo County, California, a rural area in the Sacramento Valley. It was the second day of a multiday heat wave, and temperatures approached the triple digits. The road shimmered. In the passenger seat, a friend, seven months pregnant, wondered aloud whether it was safe for her to be outside. As we neared our destination, winding through fruit and nut farms, we passed a walnut orchard. Its trees had been cut down to the roots—the trunks neatly dominoed, flat and brittle against the earth.

That night, I asked a farmer friend, also in walnuts, what had happened at the orchard. A confluence of things, he explained. Walnuts are a billion-dollar industry, but during the pandemic things got complicated. In California, there was an ongoing labor crisis; also, owing to global supply-chain upsets, the costs of machinery and mechanical parts had gone up. My friend guessed that the orchard I had seen would still have been productive for another decade, but it no longer made financial sense to farm and harvest it.

Across the state, he said, many produce farmers were weighing the market prices of their crops against the rising cost of water. To meet their contracts, some had overplanted, and now they found it was more cost-effective to kill certain crops than to proceed with the harvest. Others had already scaled back and planted less. Farmers were throttling production, razing fields, and disposing of surplus. If these adjustments seemed crude, even unfathomable, they were in response to complex, intertwined issues: immigration policies, trade wars, a housing shortage, agribusiness monopolies, resource mismanagement, climate change, globalization, supply-chain disruption, accelerating financialization.

“It’s like something out of a Jonathan Franzen novel,” I said. My friend misheard. “Really?” he replied. “I’d love to read that.”

California is going through an extreme drought this year, after a decade marked by record-breaking dry spells. Rivers and reservoirs are low and strained. Aquifers are draining; wells are going dry. Some households don’t have access to clean water, whereas others are rationing and have been for months. This has led to a great many uses of the word “emergency”: a drought state of emergency has been declared for forty-two per cent of the state’s residents; an emergency curtailment order has prohibited further depletion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed; in an emergency procedure, nearly seventeen million juvenile Chinook salmon, spawned in Central Valley hatcheries, have been displaced, by truck, to deeper, cooler bodies of water. In May, farmers with ties to Ammon Bundy camped along the border with Oregon to protest water shutoffs. In August, the federal government declared a water shortage for the Colorado River, which, among other crucial functions, feeds Lake Mead, the reservoir propelling the Hoover Dam—a significant source of power for Nevada, Arizona, and Southern California. Lake Oroville can no longer support its underground hydroelectric plant. Illegal cannabis growers are thought to be conducting overnight water heists.

Governor Gavin Newsom, who on Tuesday won a recall election that threatened to remove him from office, has asked Californians to reduce their personal water usage by fifteen per cent. This isn’t the first such request, and people know what to do: they neglect the lawn, skip the car wash, watch the tap, and line the bathtub with buckets for gray water. Before I lived in California, I used to find Joan Didion’s rhapsodic appreciation of municipal waterworks, from 1977—“The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is”—a little unconvincing. It seemed like poetic license. Now I see that it is the sentiment of someone for whom basic infrastructure has proved unreliable.

Life-style adjustments help, but eighty per cent of water usage in California is agricultural. Almonds are famously water-intensive, and so is alfalfa, a top agricultural commodity for California and a preferred feed among livestock handlers. In an arrangement of synchronicity known as the dairy-forage continuum, alfalfa, “the queen of forages,” is one of the state’s highest-acreage crops, and California is the leading dairy producer in the United States: nearly two million dairy cows loiter about, chewing. California exports about fifteen per cent of its alfalfa, to markets in China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates—areas where demand for dairy products is rising. In the twenty-tens, the cultivation of animal-feed grasses was banned in Saudi Arabia, owing to unsustainable water consumption, and Almarai, a multinational dairy company based there, purchased thousands of acres of farmland in California and Arizona, and used them to grow alfalfa. Foreign investment in California farmland is not new—international firms, many British, own more than a million acres—but the cultivation of a water-intensive crop in a drought-addled state has proved controversial: “We’re not getting oil for free, so why are we giving our water away for free?” an Arizona county politician once asked.

I first read about alfalfa after seeing the razed walnut orchard. I wanted to know how the place where I live was changing. Over the past few years, various crises have emerged or accelerated in California, and on trips across the state, particularly in the summer months, I have felt an acute sense of foreboding. An ongoing experience of ambient instability was not useful; getting into specifics offered some structure. There was plenty to read—about the globalization of farmland, the connections between milk and alfalfa, cows and oil. It reminded me of a joke. Two cows are in a field. One cow says to the other, “Hey, are you worried about that mad-cow disease?” The other cow shakes her head. “Mad-cow disease?” she asks. “I’m a helicopter.”

Most investigations into California agriculture begin with the Central Valley: a depression, largely bounded by mountain ranges, that spans much of the state and is responsible for more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The region’s growers provide almost all of the celery, garlic, artichokes, figs, olives, raisins, kiwis, and canning tomatoes in the United States, and also the varieties of tree nuts that one might purchase at a gas station: pistachios, almonds, pecans, walnuts.

The plenitude of the Central Valley is a point of pride for many Californians, but it is a frightening one to encounter for the first time in the summer of 2021, following the world’s hottest month on record and the I.P.C.C.’s latest report. (“Two-thirds?” a friend in New York gasped recently, after generously indulging a monologue on alfalfa. “That’s a terrible idea!”) For years, academics and others have pointed out that California’s current agricultural industry is unsustainable and long overdue for either a reckoning or a restructuring. Some argue that the solution lies in sustainable farming, practiced by small and midsize farms growing a diversity of crops—but for now federal farm policy tends to favor larger, industrial operations, many of them in the business of monocropping. In “Perilous Bounty,” published last year and written before the pandemic, Tom Philpott, a journalist for Mother Jones, suggests that produce farming should be decentralized, and that California agriculture should be scaled back to adapt to its water resources. The future of the Central Valley, Philpott argues, is increasingly imperilled, and it is untenable to rely on the region for such a significant portion of the country’s food.

Most consumers only ever experience the end points of supply chains, but the pandemic has offered a glimpse of the contingencies and vulnerabilities of California’s food systems. The phrase “supply chain” is something of a misnomer. The reality is something closer to a network or web than an assembly line or a Rube Goldberg machine. Supply and demand are enmeshed with manufacturing, shipping, logistics, storage, warehousing, and distribution, and with retail trends, economic policy, international relations, immigration, digital marketplaces, climate change, and public health. The pandemic was a shock to the network; it snarled the web.

In May, 2020, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with the headline “Skip the Steak, Buy the Brisket: Consumers Need to Be Flexible Amid Beef Bottlenecks.” Beef production—the slaughtering of cattle and the packaging of beef—had dropped by nearly forty per cent nationally since the start of the pandemic. Producers, who purchase cattle from ranchers, had stopped buying; some ranchers put their animals up for auction; retail prices rose, and a backlog of live animals meant tanking prices for cattle. The bottleneck was that workers in some slaughterhouses and packing plants were contracting COVID-19 and dying. Although farm and factory workers were deemed essential, their employers often failed to provide adequate P.P.E., barriers, or information about outbreaks; some workers were in the U.S. on short-term agricultural visas and lived in tightly packed, employer-provided dormitories. A few months into the pandemic, agricultural counties in California had developed some of the highest per-capita COVID rates in the state. That July, T: The New York Times Style Magazine published an article on Americans’ embrace of comfort food, headlined “What We Eat During a Plague.” It ran with a highly stylized photograph of an antique plaster bust, wreathed in greens and raw brisket.

Other supply-chain problems were rooted in the pre-pandemic world. California is one of the world’s largest producers of so-called processing tomatoes—fruits that are thick-skinned and durable, harvested mechanically, and sold for downstream use. Historically, the export market for them has been robust, but in recent years the strength of the dollar has made many American products too expensive for international consumers, and so demand for American tomato products began to wane. Tomato processors started putting in smaller orders, and some growers responded by shifting away from tomatoes and toward higher-value crops, such as pistachios, almonds, and olives. Meanwhile, steel tariffs imposed by the U.S. in 2018 led to a shortage of steel sheets, which are used to make food cans, and production costs soared; processing plants across California closed. All this meant that, even before the pandemic, there were already fewer processed-tomato products than usual. When COVID arrived and consumers hoarded shelf-stable, processed tomatoes—salsa, ketchup, sauce; cubed, diced, peeled—tomato processors scrambled to divert their food-service supply chains (gallon jugs meant for restaurants and institutional kitchens) to retail manufacturing (tiny bottles meant for pantries). Prices, which had already been rising, continued to climb. This year’s drought is expected to cause shortages, and escalating prices, in 2022.

In other cases, the pandemic dovetailed with climate change. The rise of COVID coincided with the 2020 Dungeness crab season; early that year, China, a major export market for Dungeness crabs, banned live-animal imports. Then, as the virus spread in the U.S., restaurants closed, and demand for fresh crab plummeted. Wholesalers, to which most fishermen sell their catch, froze the surplus; some launched direct-to-consumer e-commerce sites. Later that year, when another season rolled around, rising ocean temperatures pushed anchovies into California’s coastal waters, and about three hundred and fifty whales followed in pursuit. Large fishing nets threatened to entangle the whales, and so the fishing season for crab was delayed until they dispersed. When the whales finally left, in late December, Pacific Seafood, a major West Coast wholesaler, announced that it would be offering an unusually low price for Dungeness crab, because the company still had plenty frozen from the previous year’s catch; this resulted in a sort of unilateral strike among fishermen, though they have no formal union.

For some farms, of course, the pandemic created new and occasionally lucrative opportunities. Smaller farms, such as those specializing in organic or heirloom produce, could be nimble. Some created farm-box and C.S.A. programs; others launched e-commerce sites or worked with regional grocery-delivery companies. Early on in the pandemic, I began picking up farm boxes offered by an organic farmer with land in the Salinas Valley who had sold directly to Bay Area restaurants for the past thirty years. Some weeks, the cardboard box contained items that I had never seen before: sudachi, cardoons, flowering coriander. It seemed vaguely immoral, or at least absurd, that my household was eating better than ever before.

What’s the upshot of all this turbulence? Oddly, 2020 was a decent year for California agriculture. In certain cases, federal subsidies padded the fallout; government purchases for food banks and assistance programs helped sustain struggling industries. In 2021, the industry has already seen record demand for beef and almonds. Gradually, restaurants have reopened, Dungeness crabs have repopulated fishmongers’ tanks, and tomatoes have returned to the shelves. Disruptions can have long half-lives: price changes for consumers represent material changes for the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on California’s agricultural economy. Still, California’s food systems are adaptable. The industry’s economic strength can be difficult to reconcile with the social, political, and ecological challenges up ahead.

The Central Valley’s abundance has long been attributed to its Mediterranean climate—a comparison which belies the reality that the climate of the actual Mediterranean is changing. The past year’s drought has been so severe that to offset it would require a string of wet years in a row. But rain is only part of the equation. Rising temperatures dry out the soil; wildfires, per a recent Sierra Club report, alter “the land’s ability to self-regulate.” In a 2018 paper published in the journal Agronomy, researchers in the University of California system concluded that the state’s climate had changed so significantly that urgent adaptation was needed in the agricultural sector to address a number of accelerating negative trends, including “crop yield declines, increased pest and disease pressure, increased crop water demands . . . and uncertain future sustainability of some highly vulnerable crops.” In his book, Tom Philpott, of Mother Jones, details the Great Flood of 1861-62, which blanketed the Central Valley in more than ten feet of water; the United States Geological Survey, he notes, has conducted research on the likelihood of another, similarly devastating megastorm in this century, which would decimate—and drown—the region. (Reading this, I thought of my friend’s exclamation: “Two-thirds?”)


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