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Farmers yield new ideas from drought

Jennifer Collins Apr 20, 2009

Farmers yield new ideas from drought

Jennifer Collins Apr 20, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Chances are pretty good that when you swing by the fruit and vegetable section of your local supermarket the produce you’re picking over came from California. The Central Valley here — running 400 miles up the middle of the state — produces a quarter of this country’s food. Thanks mostly to 80 years of cheap and reliable water.

But California is in the middle of its worst drought in decades. And after three straight years of low rainfall, there is some worry that the Central Valley could become a dust bowl. So the state’s $30 billion farming industry is changing — whether it wants to or not. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jennifer Collins reports.

JENNIFER COLLINS: If Fred Starrh could farm anything in the world, it would be cotton. He grew the crop for more than 50 years just a few miles outside of Bakersfield. He promoted the cotton trade abroad. And the dashboard of his car is covered in fluffy cotton plants.

FRED STARRH: So I’ve been a cotton guy all my life and to have to quit at this time, it’s really, you know it’s hard to do.

Cotton doesn’t make as much as it did back in the 1950s. And because of the drought, it’s more expensive to grow.

STARRH: The economics because of the water costs have pretty much just priced us out of it.

Starrh says the price he pays for water has doubled in just three years. So he and other farmers have to find ways to conserve water and still turn a profit.

PETER Gleick: If we want to keep a strong agricultural economy, we had better start thinking about how to do so as efficiently as possible.

Peter Gleick studies how farmers can save water. He says the rising price of water can be a positive thing. Because farmers who pay a lot to irrigate their fields …

Gleick: Tend to grow more water-efficient crops, and they tend to use more water efficient technology to do so.

Gleick says, in just two decades, thirsty crops like cotton, alfalfa and rice have been cut by a third in California’s Central Valley. Much of that acreage now goes to planting fruits and nuts. They usually need less water and sell for more per pound. So now Fred Starrh farms almond trees.

STARRH: Where are we running water here on 31?

Starrh’s installed an irrigation system that targets water directly to the root of each tree — drop by drop.

STARRH: Now this is the dripper see that’s running right there right now, see it?

But there’s a danger. When farmers cut back too much on these droplets, they risk damaging the trees permanently. Mike Young is the president of the county’s farm bureau. He says some farmers grow plants that need just a few inches of rain, like dryland wheat or oats. But it’s hard to make a living off of them.

MIKE YOUNG: When we’re having to plant drought-resistant crops usually that are lower economic value, you just, it doesn’t make business sense.

So growers are looking for crops that may use a little more water but still save money. Young is harvesting pistachios for the first time this year. He’s considered planting pomegranate trees. But he doesn’t want to completely replant his fields, especially if all of his neighbors do the same thing.

YOUNG: If the whole state were to plant pistachios, pistachios aren’t worth anything anymore. You can only plant so much before you start to flood the market and make the crop go upside down.

Creating a market can take years, so in this drought, farmers like Starrh ration their water using systems like this filtration ditch.

STARRH: After the dirt sorta settles out, it pumps that back in and we reuse it.

COLLINS: So nothing is…

Starrh: Nothing is lost.

And in a state that seems to grow dryer every year, that’s about all he can do.

In Bakersfield, Calif., I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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