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California drought changing what farmers grow

First Published      Last Updated Aug 11 2014 06:56 pm

For more than 70 years, Fred Starrh's family was among the most prominent cotton growers in California's San Joaquin Valley. Then shifting global markets and rising water prices told him that wouldn't work anymore.

So he replaced most of the cotton plants on his farm near Shafter, 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and planted almonds, which make more money per acre and are increasingly popular with consumers in Asia.

"You can't pay $1,000 an acre-foot to grow cotton," said Starrh, 85, crouching to inspect a drip irrigator gently gurgling under an almond tree.

Such crop switching is one sign of a sweeping transformation going on in California — the nation's biggest agricultural state by value — driven by a three-year drought that climate scientists say is a glimpse of a drier future. The result will affect everything from the price of milk in China to the source of cherries eaten by Americans. It has already inflamed competition for water between farmers and homeowners.

Growers have adapted to the record-low rainfall by installing high-technology irrigation systems, watering with treated municipal wastewater and even recycling waste from the processing of pomegranates to feed dairy cows. Some are taking land out of production altogether, bulldozing withered orange trees and leaving hundreds of thousands of acres unplanted.

"There will be some definite changes, probably structural changes, to the entire industry" as drought persists, said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman. "Farmers have made changes. They've shifted. This is what farmers do."

In the long term, California will probably move away from commodity crops produced in bulk elsewhere to high-value products that make more money for the water used, said Richard Howitt, a farm economist at the University of California at Davis. The state still has advantages in almonds, pistachios and wine grapes, and its location means it will always be well-situated to export what can be profitably grown.

That may mean less farmland in production as growers abandon corn and cotton because of the high cost of water. Corn acreage in California has dropped 34 percent from last year, and wheat is down 53 percent, according to the USDA.

Cotton planting, Fred Starrh's one-time mainstay, has fallen 60 percent over the decade, while almonds are up by more than half.

On its own, California would be the world's ninth-largest agricultural economy, according to a University of California at Davis study. Shifts in its production reverberate globally, said Dan Sumner, another agricultural economist at the school.

"It's a really big deal," Sumner said. "Some crops simply grow better here than anyplace else, and our location gives us access to markets you don't have elsewhere."

The success of California agriculture was built in large part on advances in irrigation that allowed the state to expand beyond wheat, which flourishes in dry climates. It's now the U.S.'s top dairy producer and grows half the country's fruits, vegetables and nuts.

"Water has allowed us to grow more valuable crops," Sumner said. "Now, we have fruits and vegetables and North Dakota grows our wheat. Without irrigation, we'd be North Dakota."

An estimated 82 percent of California is experiencing extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Agriculture has been hard hit as it consumes about four-fifths of the water that isn't set aside for environmental preservation. Some farmers are paying as much as 10 times more for water than what it cost before the drought.

Another dry year in 2015 is a strong possibility, according to a study by the University of California at Davis released last month. The same study pegs drought-related farm losses at $1.5 billion, with 17,100 jobs lost statewide.

Groups such as the California Citrus Mutual and California Farm Bureau Federation have been calling for bigger allocations from the state's watersheds for agriculture, asking the state to add storage capacity and ease environmental regulations that set aside water to preserve endangered species.

That puts the farmers on a collision course with environmentalists and urban advocates who say some choices -- such as a switch to almonds -- could worsen the scarcity.

California grows four-fifths of the world's almonds, much of it for overseas markets. That has pushed the price up to more than $3 a pound, a record that has encouraged farmers to divert water from other crops.

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