html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: We'll still send you oranges at Christmas.

Monday, November 05, 2007

We'll still send you oranges at Christmas.

If I’m telling the truth, my new system of California agriculture would be to institute a quota system that supports small farms. Honestly, I’d be happy if California farms produced just enough food to feed Californians, and not one tomato more. What most people don’t realize is that produce is a water transfer. Farm products are bundled sunlight and water, conveniently packaged like wheat or something. So the waters of my state, my public trust good, plus the sunlight that I am less protective of, are gathered up by farmers and sent away in exchange for some money that I never see. It is a pretty sucky deal for me. They send water and sunlight out of California, but as you no doubt recall from your force diagrams, there is always, always an opposite arrow. In the case of conventional agriculture, the inward arrows are some money and environmental degradation.

Since we are facing substantially less water for agriculture in California (cut by a third this year alone, and maybe down to half or so over the long haul), I would like it if we decided collectively to grow only what California needs and have Californians buy all of that. Even under climate change, we’ll have enough developed water to do that and leave far more in our rivers. Other states should develop their local water resources and convert corn and soybeans fields into produce producing farms. Maybe they’ll be willing to sell you far away people their water, sunlight and environmental quality. I don’t want to sell you mine.

I also don’t want California agriculture to collapse, because I like it. I would prefer it take on different qualities, as described above, and as a state, we support those through a quota system that keeps small farms stable. I would match those farms to good ag land, and I would let the rest become wildland again. A free market might arrive at this system, maybe, if oil and gas become vastly more expensive. But I would rather we chose it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Produce is definitely a water (and labor, and other resource) transfer. But MONEY is a water (etc.) transfer too. You're getting money to buy/make more water. You get to claim ownership (as a state resident) of the money JUST as much as you do of the water. You can exercise this ownership by charging fairer rates for the water.

I have to admit that I'm confused by the quota theory, as with most things that include the phrase "decide collectively to...". How do you pick the collection which can decide? Why "California" rather than "Northern California" or "WA, ID, OR and CA", or "Napa Valley", or "My House", or "Earth"?

Are there states committing the crime of water-theft-via-produce-purchase that are more egregious than inside-California transfers?

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which is exactly why I asked you about moving water.

Different question - why should the rest of us want picturesque farms in California? That is, why should we, who do not necessarily share your aesthetic vision, think that small farms are better?

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second the question about why California farms a) necessary and b) too precious for non-Californians to eat the fruits thereof (oranges at Christmas, apparently, excepted).

Incidentally, when you stated that California would have more than enough developed water to do its own agriculture and run its cities, would that developed water include any of the water presently imported by California via the Colorado river or other transfers?

More generally, why the idealized retreat to autarky? Or are there more general thoughts on free trade or globalization that lie behind this?

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So the waters of my state, my public trust good, plus the sunlight that I am less protective of, are gathered up by farmers and sent away in exchange for some money that I never see."

I believe you have attended colleges in California. Were any of these public universities? If so, the tuition was held down by infusions of tax dollars, paid in part by the incomes of farmers who make their money by selling produce.

Do you ride your bike on roads in California? I bet many of the roads you ride on are maintained by the state with

Do you have a job with the state of California. I bet your paycheck is made up of tax dollars paid in part by the incomes of farmers who make their money by selling produce.


6:46 AM  
Blogger Mister Kurtz said...

Oh boy, I can see the cucumber police joining the radish police to bust someone who has gone beyond their "quota". Sheesh.

But here is an interesting thing to ponder. California could drastically change its food production system to one that produced little more than what Californians need to eat. Undoubtedly, there would be significant environmental benefits for our state, perhaps large enough to offset the lost tax revenues, employment, etc. However, the demand for the food produced here (and by extension the same could apply to all US agriculture) would not go away; it would simply be produced somewhere else, under far worse environmental stewardship. But hey, my trout stream's fine; so what if the rest of the world takes and environmental ass-raping as people scramble for replacement food sources?
We California farmers, whether organic or not, certainly don't do everything properly, but we still set the standard for productivity, conservation, and environmental and worker protection. The present water "issue" is just one more challenge, like all the others we have conquered in the past century.

Along these lines, it's interesting to ponder the efficiency question. An organic crop takes just as much water, land, diesel, and (maybe) fertilizer as a non-organic crop, but fewer units of food are produced. Is that a good use of the resources? Are the benefits of a low input system great enough to offset the waste? To use a transportation analogy: Prius or ox-cart, two models of small carbon footprints, each with good and bad points. These are complicated questions that defy easy answers.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Megan said...


Why California? Because it is a pre-set jurisdiction that people already identify with that aligns reasonably closely with geological regions like watersheds. Other regions might be fine as well, although you need some amount of land to produce enough food for cities (who should be growing food themselves, too).


I don't think the rest of you should want my plan. I think picturesque farms in California would mean less produce for you, unless your own regional farmers step up. In that case, you would probably get a smaller variety of tastier food.

Why support a small farm economy? It is just a choice between different values. I happen to like aspects of a small-farm economy - the food security of having multiple redundant systems, the variety, the work ethic and potential for neighborliness (I fully understand that it can also be conformist and stifling), the close daily relationship to nature, the aesthetic, the ability to steward wildlife and nature. Those are value choices. Others might like other values, like efficiency.


California farms in some form are necessary because they are capable of feeding so many people. It would be wasteful to let that capacity go idle.

Too precious for non-Californias to eat the fruits of? Because. Use your own. You have your own rivers and soils. Use them to feed you and stop growing corn to feed the rest of the world. Live close to your choices, of environmental destruction if that is what you choose, or agrarian stewardship if that is what you choose.

I would be happy to forego any Colorado River water under my scenario. We wouldn't need it, and it won't be wet in forty years anyway.


Eh. They aren't the only ones paying taxes, and I don't think they're even major contributors anymore. I'll look it up later, so I'm not just guessing. I'm sure that a couple generations back, though, ag was a huge engine, and I owe them a debt for that.

BUT, draining my rivers to pay back to me in the form of roads is still a sucky deal for me. If that is the chain, we should look at it carefully and make that choice explicitly. I wouldn't, so I would look for other ways to fund and accomplish the things we decide are priorities.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Philip, if you look at the link on quotas, it describes the east coast tobacco market, in which a small number of buyers set a price and amount they would purchase every year. It kept small farms alive and disaggregated for decades.

My hope would be that if people lived close to their food production, they could witness the results and decide whether those are worth it. Maybe. Or maybe they'd rather pay an extra few cents per pound of beef to allow a farmer to fence off the stream corridor. (Also, I love California more than I love everywhere else. So yeah. I'd pick my trout stream. They can fix theirs the same way, if they want to.)

I'm not sure I agree with you that organic crops are as resource intensive (land and water, yes. Diesel - shouldn't be. Fertilizer - shouldn't be.). But they provide other environmental benefits, which have to be put on the balance against lost yields.

(We don't need so much yield if we are feeding fewer people.)

9:06 AM  
Blogger Mister Kurtz said...

Diesel use is a tillage decision, not specific to conventional or organic production. Given comparative (till vs no-till) systems, I'll bet the organic uses a bit more, because the only means of weed control is tillage.
But here's the crux of the question: "We don't need so much yield if we are feeding fewer people." You're right about that. We have a choice here. Should we let those nasty excess people: 1) starve, 2) kill each other in food wars, or 3) destroy the environment in their home countries and the oceans in an effort to feed themselves? Kinda takes the joy out of my fishing day to think that is the only solution to my being able to enjoy "my" environment.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I've advocated having vastly fewer people consistently, and I don't think those are the only options. For the foreseeable future, you could have vastly fewer people on earth by educating women in third world countries. Declining populations in every industrialized nation is a great start and should be encouraged. Voluntarily choosing not to have children because your quality of life is so high is a fantastic alternative to population collapse from famine.

I've been saying all along that we should have no more people than can be supported with local resources. We should plan for the most painless transition to that possible. But that, again, requires making choices and living them.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

I always forget that shipping food is shipping water. Funny that it is a main point of contention in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Mister Kurtz said...

While I certainly agree with you about population growth, it's a long way from Here to There. (There's a strong correlation between GDP per head and family size, either because wealthier people don't feel they need to have a bunch of kids to make sure at least one lives long enough to look after them in old age, or because when they don't have to support a big family they can save & invest more. Anyway, economic growth seems the only reliable way to population control. To make matters more complicated, modern welfare states can't sustain themselves without generating huge numbers of young workers to keep the Ponzi scheme going.) In the meantime, we have several billion excess humans wandering about and requiring food. It can be produced here, cleanly, humanely, and safely, or it can be produced God knows where and how while we enjoy our little green paradise until the dirty little people who spoiled their part of the planet come a-knocking. In substantial numbers. Ugh.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember Megan, that oranges were for Christmas only because prior to the development of the railroads and refrigerated boxcars oranges were rare commodities in Eastern population centers.

Small produce farms aren't sucking up as much water as the cotton boys, anyway. As a matter of fact, aren't fiber and fodder bigger abusers of water than food?

5:18 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I meant to imply that under the New Austerity, oranges would become rare commodities in the East again. But maybe you'll be able to grow your own! Or Florida would step up!

Fiber and fodder are the biggest users of water because there's so much of them. On a per acre basis, most well-managed crops require three or four feet of water per year. Switching the same amount of acreage between crops isn't going to generate big quantities of water.

6:09 PM  

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