html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: For you, Cryptic Ned.

Friday, November 02, 2007

For you, Cryptic Ned.

Right after people say “Rice! In California!”, they say “alfalfa! With subsidized water! And cotton!” Why would you ever grow a low value crop like alfalfa in California! We shouldn’t be growing any crop that can’t support itself in the market! My response to that is threefold.

First, I wonder, what is so wrong about growing things in the desert? I mean, the desert we’re talking about is the Great Valley of California, by which I mean to say, hundreds of miles of prime farmland, some of the best soils in the world. It has a long growing season, gets tons of sunshine, rarely frosts. What better use could we put that land to? Putting houses on it? Yes, water doesn’t fall during the summer, but we can move water. Compared to developing good soil or providing sunshine, moving water is easy. Compared to leaving some of the best farmland in the world fallow, I’d rather store and move the water. It should be farmed.*

Right, you say, but not alfalfa, which is a low value, thirsty crop. Now, I’m down with that, but I don’t think most people understand the rest of what they're saying. Subsidized water growing cheap alfalfa and silage is the underpinning of cheap meat. I wouldn’t care one whit if cheap meat vanished tomorrow, but if you aren’t already buying grassfed beef and you like meat more than once a week, then I don’t think you really mean it. Alfalfa in the desert! goes in straight line to a conventional meat diet; you can’t end the outrage of subsidizing water to grow a thirsty, low-value crop in the desert without eating much less meat than you do. But if that’s what you really meant, well, cool.

But the most of all, I wonder what it would actually mean, to end growing low-value crops with subsidized water. Like, what? Imagine all of y’all who read Cadillac Desert clapped really really hard and believed, and when you were done, there were no more subsidies for water or for cotton and rice. What then? Would that happen fast? ‘Cause there are people on the other end of those subsidies. There are growers, their laborers and the local economies they support.

Some of those are outrageously wealthy corporations. A lot of the wealth of subsidies gets concentrated in a few ag corporations; if they lost all governmental support instantaneously, I’d celebrate. Not all growers translate subsidies into money in the bank. In California, the large majority (by number) only get subsidies in the form of cheaper water than hypothetical market value. Alfalfa doesn’t get crop subsidies from the Farm Bill. Whatever you think of subsidized water, after two generations, that value has permeated all of California ag. Those subsidies aren't money anymore. They're vast diffused improvements, shaped like tractors or sprinkler systems. Land values now reflect their access to cheap water; that subsidy has been capitalized. Yanking the subsidies would radically de-value land; lots of growers hold most of their wealth as land. So what will farmers do, faced with the full costs of water? Switch crops? If you believe that growers choose a crop to maximize profit, alfalfa or silage was the best they could do. If they switch out of alfalfa, what would they grow? Not almonds. Not vines. The idea of switching to a high-value crop is great, but if a higher value crop were readily available to growers, wouldn’t they have grown it before, with their cheap water? Maybe “end water subsidies” will translate into “marginal farms out of production.” I don’t mind the idea of that, but again, it will ruin real people who depend on the system the way it is now. They can't pull the wealth of the subsidy back out of a farm that isn't viable anymore, not all of it. They won’t even be able to sell their land for much. Before we implement a blanket policy of “no more subsidies to low value crops”, we should make explicit decisions about their transition and fate.

That raises one more point, one that I don’t find persuasive, but also isn’t irrelevant. The great water projects were built to do something. They were meant to settle the west, to put farms on every horizontal acre and grow things. The water projects did what they were meant to do; people responded to the all that potential, the rich soils and the sunshine and the water that we gutted rivers to bring to them. In some ways, the growers that are so easy to vilify are still living out the deal that America promised them. In exchange for working the west, they get cheap water.

That old bargain is the default; people structured their lives around it and depend on it. It probably** isn’t the deal we want anymore. But changing parts 'cause they sound outrageous just tinkers with a system that is overwhelmingly geared for the outcome that has been realized, the one that dominates our interior. If we want a new landscape, we should openly and collectively discuss and select goals. Once we have the goals, we should design a system that will get us to the state we want to live in. I have some thoughts on what that should look like.

*Not the selenium soils on the west side of the Valley. Those can’t be drained and should be retired immediately.
**I say 'probably' because I am constantly surprised by what all y'all want. Maybe you freakshows do want big conventional agriculture. The world is large and varied.


Blogger Louis said...

Well, to be honest, I've always thought that it made a lot more sense to grow in areas with a shorter growing season and ample water. There is plenty of very fertile land other places in the country that doesn't require much, or any, water to be moved. The infrastructure to do this isn't cheap, and neither is the water in a dry region like the southwest.

The water table there can't help your irrigation amounts either.

The best argument for agriculture in California is that you're closer to a large population, reducing transportation costs, and some temperature sensitive crops can be grown there due to the climate.

I have to wonder how much the longer growing season benefits you in California... How many cuts of Alfalfa do you get in a year for instance? How does it affect soil stress?

I understand your bias toward local produce, but a lot of farmers elsewhere in the country (I'd say most, even) think that it's ridiculous that you're watering a bunch of desert to grow some of the things that are being grown.

That said, it's still a better use of water than watering golf courses and lawn grass.


6:31 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

Huh? What? Please explain more about the meat. I was under the impression most of my cheap daily meat comes from my home state of Nebraska and its neighbors, where it is fed on corn watered by rain from the sky. I thought the parts of my diet that originated in your fair state were avocadoes, almonds, lettuce, Jelly Bellies, etc.

6:37 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

Oh, as a point of reference, I grew up on a cattle ranch in Montana. Just so you know where my biases lie...


6:39 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

In response to Nick:

I was a little curious about California beef production myself, so I poked around a little.

It looks like California is #5 in the country, so they are a fairly large beef producer.

Nebraska is #2, or #3 depending on if you're looking at total cattle, or just beef cattle.

California looks to have little bit less in the way of beef cattle and a little bit more in the way of dairy cattle compared to other cattle producing states.


6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alfalfa - Ice Cream in the Making!*

Two things about alfalfa in particular. First, it is not a particularly low value crop in California. Over the last 5 years, statewide average revenue is over $775 per acre**. Second, it has additional value as a rotation crop, which doesn't get priced. You can get nitrogen in the soil other ways, but there are tilth benefits, too.


*That the title of a section from a UC Davis publication about the benefits of alfalfa. It has a picture of a funny looking kid eating an ice cream cone.

**I had to look this up. Note that these yields are twice-ish the national average.

***Footnotes are fun!

7:34 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

***Aren't they!!!

Louis, I'm not sure about the number of cuts. Three or four is my guess, but I could be way off. I can get behind your model of matching agricultural production to local resources. I'd love to see the Great Plains converted back to truck crops and native pasture.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

First, alfalfa is *not* a low value crop. Most California alfalfa goes either to the export market or the dairy industry; very little is fed to cattle. It is also a very efficient user of water, as it has a long tap root. It compares very favorably to other crops on the basis of harvested biomass to water applied. And, of course, it does not require nitrogen fertilizers.
Second, cotton subsidies are a disgrace, which damage California cotton growers by supporting production in high-cost/low yield areas like the Deep South and Texas. Most California cotton is now Pima, which is not subsidized. The remaining California cotton is a very high quality product in high demand worldwide. The protected and inefficient US mills are too backward to consume it.
And, Louis, we get from six to ten cuttings of alfalfa a year in the southern half of the state, 3 to 4 in the mountain areas.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Louis said...

Philip said:

-And, Louis, we get from six to ten cuttings of alfalfa a year in the southern half of the state, 3 to 4 in the mountain areas.-

Wow! That's impressive! I did check alfalfa production numbers, and CA averages almost 7 tons/acre which is really good.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I love having real experts visit.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philip said:
"Most California alfalfa goes either to the export market or the dairy industry; "


Do you know the form in which alfalfa is exported? Pelletized? One of those things I've wondered about.

Also, you mention "harvested biomass to water applied." Is this a common thing to compare across crops? I'm going back and forth between "Oh, of course that's important," and "Wait, why should we care about that?"


10:43 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

A4, in my circles we talk about "crop per drop". Lots of times, when growers switch to intensive irrigation management, their water use goes up. They'd been systematically underwatering all those years. But if their yields go up more, we're fine with that outcome.

I think (but don't know) that most of alfalfa biomass is crop yield. Cows just eat it, right? So yield per acrefoot applied could be very high for alfalfa. Then you look to see whether dollars per acrefoot applied compares across crops. That part I don't know.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

Most of the hay exported is in the form of compressed bales. There are still a few cubers (devices where chopped hay is forced through dies, and turned into chunks somewhat resembling charcoal briquettes) operating. Pellet mills take ground hay, often first dehydrated with natural gas, and turns it into little things that resemble rabbit turds. These are mostly fed to hamsters, goats, etc. and are a fairly small part of hay use these days.
As far as the "biomass/water" equation, it is just one way (out of many) of seeing if an agricultural practice is adding value or not. To say that any crop is a "big" or "small" water user without placing the value and quantity of the end product in context can be misleading. Alfalfa *is* grown in areas where a fairly abundant and reliable water source is available, because if you're going to get seven cuttings, you need to water it seven times. However, one neat feature of the crop is that it's tough as hell. In a tight water year, you can stop irrigating an established field after one or two cuttings. It will just sit there, sort of dormant, but it won't die. That allows for flexible water marketing schemes and rotational watering (like saving your orchard while idling your hay).

11:12 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Philip, are you are regular here? Welcome, if not. How come you know lots about alfalfa?

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

Taking this thread in a somewhat different direction, what drives me crazy is people who think there's such a thing as a "market" for water. Who's making the water? The environment. Who's moving the water? Governmental agencies. Where is this mystical market going to come from, privately owned icebergs towed into Long Beach Harbor?

Asking for a "market" in water is, most often, code for urban dwellers complaining about their water bill. Hey, us urban dwellers live in a desert too! And the infrastructure that gets water to, say, San Diego, would never have been built if it weren't for ag. demand.

Another thing that drives me nuts (but less so) is people assuming that all California water operates under the same legal system, so that people getting cheap CVP water are somehow screwing over people getting more expensive SWP water.

It may all look the same when it comes out the tap, but it ain't the same at all.

Imperial County grows a lot of alfalfa because the Imperial Irrigation District is the successor to a lot of very senior rights on the Colorado River. Those rights were created because Imperial County was settled early in the history of the West (more or less) by some incredibly tough people.

SWP water is delivered more or less at cost to the actual users. Farmers get the water cheaper because they were willing to be cut back first in a drought. But there is no taxpayer subsidy for SWP water; the users pay the bond debt that was issued to build the infrastructure.

The CVP has, historically, been hugely subsidized by the federal taxpayer; the water cost has not covered the cost of construction. To me, this shows that federal water systems -- Klamath, CVP -- can be far worse than state systems. But these mistakes were made long ago and cannot be undone simply by waving a wand.

My understanding of the value of ag is more limited. But I have been told again and again that California has some of the most productive farmland of anywhere on the planet! You need to get to certain water-rich areas of sub-Saharan Africa to find comparable inputs of sun, water and soil.

11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philip, thanks. My nature is to multiply yield by price to get $ per water applied, rather than biomass. But pretty much the same page there.

Megan, I like Philip. Please don't scare him off.


11:43 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

I grow the stuff. One of the wonders of farming is that the more you do it, you come to understand how *little* you know, as you wrestle with all the complexities, interactions and trade-offs. To my mind this is one of the real joys of working in applied/natural science, it keeps your sense of awe fresh. Water policy is one of those things like drugs policy, homelessness, and education, that lend themselves to sweeping general prescriptions that sound great. If the solutions were that simple, we'd have found and implemented them by now.
I just found your blog a few weeks ago, so I guess I'm an "irregular", but not constipated.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Francis, I don't want to drive you crazy, but isn't there/wasn't there a functioning watermarket around the turn of the century (late 1990s early 2000s)?

I seem to recall that Sacramento Valley growers could sell water to San Joaquin Valley growers, municipalities, and I thought the state bought some for in-stream use. I thought it was a lot of water, like 1% of total use.

Still not sure I recall correctly, one of the problems was growers in the north valley selling riparian water rights, then substituting groundwater pumping. Counties were working to prevent transfers. Existing, government run infrastructure was used for the transfers.


12:08 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I wasn't scaring you off, right? That wasn't what I meant at all.

A4, there were some transfers and much talk of a market. There are a lot of institutional difficulties, like the ones you describe. The other market I know of (or rather, heard described ten years ago and can't now verify) is an intra-district water market in W/stlands W/ter District. If I'm remembering right, they have an internal internet hosted water market, in which district growers can trade or sell water to each other. I think they can order reasonably big amounts of water (enough for an additional irrigation) within a day or so and the district delivers it. i haven't heard anything about it in a long time, though.

Francis, you really asking me to talk about a water market? I have other big posts backlogged.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sheesh, I should have remembered the Westlands internal market, what with knowing two people who wrote theses on it. I don't know the current status.

Here is some information about water markets from a couple years back. It sounds like they are pretty thin.


1:10 PM  
Anonymous Francis said...


There is an enormously complex field of water transfers (this is in small part what I do for a living) between water rights holders, like from Kern County to northern LA County, from Imperial County to San Diego County.

These transfers are tremendously political, highly complex, and hotly litigated. (adverb overdose!) It's not really a market in any sense of the word.

Megan: like the cake said, Bring It! (speaking of which, where are you on reviewing the M*nterey Am*ndments E*R?)

1:25 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I am supposed to be reviewing an EIR for the entertainment of my readers? That may be more than I can pull off. 'Sides, I don't know anything about it.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Pardon my ignorance, but are water subsidies (directly or indirectly) remotely as significant an impact on delivered costs of meat products as corn subsidies (and therebye petroleum too)? Not my impression at all, but as I said, I don't know much about any of this, so I could be way off.


2:06 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

s - I don't have a good sense of scale for that either. My very rough guess is that corn subsidies are a very big part and water subsidies are a much littler part. There could be regional influences, in which water subsidies play a larger part in the costs of California meats.

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great post, Megan!

I have to say, I think it would be great for us to shift towards eating only grass-fed beef and eating it less often. There are lots of problems with the meat industry - antibiotic overuse that contributes to antibiotic resistance, waste disposal problems, horrible slaughterhouse working conditions, etc. - and meat overconsumption isn't helping with our national obesity issues.

But, as you point out, the transition has implications and would need to be managed carefully. How can we get the process started?

- Liz

4:11 PM  
Blogger dcw said...

Why do we have to have a "better use" in mind to end farm subdidies? If there is no profitable, unsubsidized use of land, why can't it just be wilderness? (Given your environmentalist bent, I would presume you would even think such a use to be itself subsidy-worthy.)

2:19 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

"Cheap Food" was the mantra governing all our agricultural policies over the past 60 years or more. Like many things, it probably had some initial merit (in the time of my grandparents, chicken was a luxury food). Now we have so damn much cheap food we have to export lots of it, stuff ourselves into obesity, give handouts to the farmers who were told to oversupply the market ( i.e. produce feed grains when the price was below the cost of production) then went broke. The quicker we get rid of all market interference by our government, the better for agriculture and for the environment. These whiny "save the family farm" types are just middle class mooches who want to stay on the gravy train.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Great thread dudes! Thanks to everyone for teasing out the complexity in what seems (to me, perhaps foolishly) a fairly simple issue.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Ennis said...

Megan - why do you choose not to eat food which is transported over a distance (well, you wont eat fruits and veg but you will eat grains and spices), but you have no problem with food which is produced locally from water which is transported over a long distance? It seems to be to be two sides of the same coin in terms of environmental disruption.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Transportation pollution has all the byproducts of burning petroleum, is widely dispersed and hard to clean up.

Transporting water is locally mostly gravity, but where it uses (staggering amounts of) energy, those are point sources and possible to scrub, if we ever got our acts together.

Moving water causes different kinds of environmental destructions (like in the source rivers), and those are very problematic.

Also, I like other positive aspects of eating locally.

12:40 PM  

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