California’s farmers produce the lion's share of the fruits, vegetables and tree nuts in the U.S. That’s thanks to the warm climate, which permits multiple growing seasons, and the state’s rich soils.
Another advantage? Despite some recent thunderstorms, it doesn’t rain much. Relying on irrigation allows farmers to apply just the amount of water they need to make their crops flourish.
Rain, many experts say, actually screws things up.
“In the middle of harvest it can,” said Dennis Atkinson, vice president of agriculture and water resources at the Tejon Ranch Company. “Think about your whole livelihood being lost on the ground.”
Tejon Ranch produces grapes, pistachios and almonds at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Atkinson said unexpected rain can hurt those products.
Dennis Atkinson holds almonds from his trees.
“In the almond business, it's a dry process all the way through, and the pistachios never touch the ground. They're put in tarps and things. So if you get a big rainstorm, the almonds are wet, and now you have to dry them,” he said. “And the pistachios got knocked on the ground, and they're lost, because you can't pick them up off the ground — too much chance of contamination.”
Other parts of the country know this problem well: Harvests can be great one year and lousy the next, all because of too much or too little rain.
But given four years of drought, should California still be the seat of agriculture? Several agriculture experts say “yes,” with some caveats.
Some changes are afoot in California. Farmers are fallowing water-guzzling, low-value crops like cotton and alfalfa, and they’re focusing their resources on fruits and nuts, some of which still use a lot of water but are much more valuable.
“We're now down 1.2 million fewer acres in production of California products, and primarily that's due to the drought,” said Mary Holz-Clause, dean of agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona.
If the market demands more of the crops California farmers produce less of, the price of those crops will go up, according to agriculture economist Bruce Babcock at Iowa State University.
“That price increase will signal other regions or other countries to produce more of that crop,” he said.
Babcock said those shifts aren't really happening yet — except in the case of dairy production, which has started to move to other states.
But overall, it doesn't seem like experts foresee a much bigger exodus of food production from California in the near term.
Still, water expert Peter Gleick at the Pacific Institute said there should be a bigger conversation about the best crops to grow in the state, because climate change might bring more droughts.
“Climate change is real," he said. "It’s already having an impact on California — especially California water and agriculture — and it's going to get worse. Temperatures are going to go up. There's going to be increasing pressure on water resources and increasing demand for water by the crops we choose to grow.”
Rebecca Shaw at the Environmental Defense Fund would also like to see other states slowly take over some production of high-value crops, even if they are less efficient at doing so.
“The concentration of fruits and vegetables in California, although highly productive, is fairly recent in the past 50 years,” she said. “And it doesn't serve us in the times of extreme climate variability when you're trying to produce food for a nation or for a planet."