Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rain, Rain, Went Away, Along with Everything Else

So, on top of all of California's economic ills (statewide unemployment at 9%) and governmental ills (see posts below) we now have a severe drought. Although clouds are overhead as I write this, the truth is we have had only a handful of rainy days since April of last year. This is causing severe hardships in the Central Valley. According to the NYTimes (not the crappy LA Times, of course), unemployment rates in many farming towns are hovering in the 30-40% range. The likelihood is that the federal water controllers will allocate zero water this year, for a variety of reasons related to conservation. So we are in deep, dry, doo-doo. Whatever your opinions are about California agriculture, I'm sure you will agree that the last thing we need in the middle of a growing depression is another dustbowl.

Of course, California's pathetic government is doing all it can to make things worse. Feds are trying to stimulate government and cut taxes. The new state budget does the opposite: it raises sales taxes to 9.25% statewide, slaps 0.25% surcharge on income taxes, and slashes spending on everything from infrastructure to education. Call it the anti-stimulus. The reason? Prop 13 has created an unfair and unstable tax system that rewards the old, rich, and idle while punishing the young, poor, and working. And CA can't do what the feds can do: just print dollars. The obvious solution was for the Feds to fill the budget caps, but the GOP blocked that in the senate.

The only bright spot is that CA's economy is somewhat independent of the rest of the country, so a more severe downturn here will have less effect on the rest of the country than it otherwise might.

Combined with the fact that some creature invaded my garden last night, pulled up parts of the sod, and destroyed my spinach planting bed I laid down last week (nothing will germinate there now, I bet), I'm pretty pissed. Somehow my need to sprinkle fox urine pellets seems in keeping with the whole state economy right now. I need a drink, and it's only 10am.


Raised By Republicans said...

Any region where water must be "allocated" by government officials really shouldn't be farming in the first place.

The problem California now faces in it's inland desert regions just proves my point about how ill advised it was to subsidize these farms in the first place.

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR, I don't understand this Midwestern snobbery that irrigation is not real farming. Irrigation was the cradle of Middle Eastern civilization, whether in Egypt or Mesopotamia. True, it is expensive to maintain dams and irrigation canals, but it also creates the most productive agriculture on the planet. Without California agriculture, we would lose 90% of most the fresh fruits and vegetables in this country. The rest of the country produces primarily grains, corn, potatoes, and other staple crops, plus certain cold-weather fruits like apples. Such products cannot be imported without losing lots of flavor - they are bad enough shipped around the US alone.

FYI, the drought is affecting most the Central Valley, not the inland desert areas, because the Central Valley relies on water allocations from the Sierra snowpack, while the desert areas get their water from the Colorado river - the Rockies.

When drought hits the south and the midwest -- and we see farmers in small towns literally praying for rain, even hiring Indians to do rain dances -- some Californians wonder why irrigation isn't practiced at all in the midwest. And nobody says "gee, you shouldn't be farming where you can't run canals and guarantee water supplies."

So I'd prefer a little sympathy for the hardworking people in the Central Valley who puts lettuce and strawberries on midwestern tables in the middle of winter. You don't want to live in a world without California agriculture. It would be like going back to the supermarkets of the 1970s.

Raised By Republicans said...

It isn't snobbery. It's about comparative advantage. The difference between a drought in Iowa or Ohio and the lack of water in the Central Valley is that one is unusual and the other is the norm. The Central Valley may not naturally look like the Mojoave but compared to Illinois or Minnesota in the planting season, it is a brown and lifeless place in its natural state.

My problem isn't with irrigation per se. In fact much of the central time zone uses irrigation. However, this irrigation is typically small scale, not depended upon as the only source of water and not paid for by tax payers. The classic image of a midwestern farm with the small windmill in the background...that windmill is connected to a pump that brings ground water up for animals and even fields during droughts.

My problem is with the entire concept of farming in areas entirely unsuited to farming without the infusion of billions and billions in tax payers' money. Money for irrigation canals, money to keep the market price of the water in those canals ridiculously lower than its actual market price, money for all the usual crop subsidies that farmers whine about and get.

Think about that pricing thing now for a second. Because we (US taxpayers) pay for such a high percentage of the water that they (the Central California farmers) use, there is no price mechanism linking demand to the supply. These farmers in California - quite unlike their counterparts in the Midwest - have less incentive to conserve water than the real supply of water would otherwise impose. They try to farm year round with a wide variety of water sucking crops instead of only planting crops suited to the local climate and only in the relatively humid winter. Also, potential California farmers are too easily convinced that farming in this area is economically viable. Because their production costs are kept artificially low by the water subsidies. So farms are larger and more numerous than the local climate would normally support. The result is the same result you get whenever the government imposes price controls - shortages. And that is what we are seeing now.

And eliminating these farms would NOT mean losing out on all that produce. It would NOT be "going the 1970s." You are forgetting one major thing. Trade (remember your endorsement of me for Commerce Secretary). I don't give a fig about where my figs come from. Frankly, I'd be happier, and we'd all have more money in our pockets, if Americans got their figs and lettuce from Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, or even, dare I say, sub-Saharan Africa.

Encouraging farms on naturally unproductive land at tax payer expense makes food cost more, it damages the environment and it impoverishes farmers in the developing world who would otherwise be making a profit selling us their produce. The Central Valley of California is 400 mile long monument to the waste and hubris of the rich countries of the world.

The Law Talking Guy said...

You do care where your figs come from. Fruits and vegetables are time-sensitive products that perish quickly. Shipping them from overseas requires that they be picked or packaged several days earlier, at a state of serious underripeness. Also, they are shipped from places where environmental regulations on pesticides and cleanliness are nonexistent or simply not enforced. So you get a rubbery, leathery, and less healthy food supply. As I said, transporting the fruit from CA is already bad enough without ADDING the weeks of overseas shipment time to CA ports on the front end.

Ironically, it is midwestern grain that can be imported with no loss, not Californian fruits and veggies. We would do better to end subsidies to these importable foodstuffs and focus our efforts on the products that must be produced locally to be any good.

I question the statement that billions of federal dollars subsidize CA agriculture. Until the 2006 farm bill, there were no direct subsidies to fruit and veggie growers - only to midwestern grain farmers. The subsidies are for the water system, but for the Central Valley, that is mostly state-run and was mostly built forty years ago. The Imperial valley gets it from CO, and that depends on dams built in the 1930s. So I'd like to see the figures on how much it really costs to supply water to CA agriculture, keeping in mind that the same water supplies are crucial to supporting the urban centers.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I should also add that year-round farming of lettuce and other vegetables is the most economically profitable thing that is done in CA farms. There would be no iceberg on midwestern salad bars 2/3 of the year but for CA farms, no tomato slices for McD burgers. There is a premium paid for these out-of-season vegetables, which is why the whole country now has year-round wide selections of fruits and vegetables in their supermarkets. That's why you have OJ on the table, lemons to cook with, broccoli to hide under the mashed potatoes. Admittedly, the seasonal produce that appears on farmstands for a few weeks each year is far better, but we have long since decided that we do not want to have fresh produce on such rare seasonal occasions.

Check out Russ Parsons' "How to Pick a Peach" (book) which describes how much of the nation's fruit and veggie harvest comes from CA - 90-95% of most of them. It is astonishing to realize just how impoverished America's tables would be without such products.

Raised By Republicans said...

It's not just a question of "is there a competing source overseas?" Midwestern corn and grain farmers should not be subsidized of course. But their existence does not DEPEND on the subsidies they get. With cheap land that is naturally fertile, they have competed on the world market, and could again. As I said - and you apparently misunderstood - this is about comparative advantage. Kansas and Iowa and Illinois have cheap fertile land that gives them a comparative advantage in corn and grain production. By farming in the arid interior of California, we are forcing ourselves to invest in our comparative DISadvantage. Not wise.

I'm sure lettuce growing in California makes money for the people who grow it. But would it make money if those farmers in CA had to pay the true market price for their water? Would it make money without the billions in tax payer dollars invested in massive irrigation projects? I suspect it would not. All these studies you talk about that trumpet the massive productivity of California agriculture ignore comparative advantage and - I suspect - the massive costs born by taxpayers that make these activities profitable.

As for shipping unripe fruit. You are right, transporting fruit over long distances requires early picking. And all else equal I'd prefer fresh, vine ripened fruit. But most of the world, including the US outside of California and Florida, imports most fruits etc anyway. The fruit I buy in my local store was picked - unripe - in California and trucked in. So for me the choice is between a truck ripened piece of fruit from California and a truck ripened piece of fruit from Mexico or something. But between the share of my taxes going to pay for California's water and the other subsidies going into that piece of fruit, I'm overpaying for a product that comparable or at best barely superior to its imported competitor.

Now, if we did stop all these water subsidies etc in California, it would not halt all farming. Far from it. The coastal areas would still be ideal for growing citrus, grapes, olives etc (gee, the typical crops of Mediterranean climate zones - what a coincidence). And since, as you point out, vine ripened fruit tastes better, some people would pay a premium to get locally grown fruits and vegetables from smaller scale operators that are more in sync with the local environment.

You keep talking like if we don't have fruit from California we'd all die of scurvy or something. You just dismiss the possibility of imports from neighboring countries like Mexico with remarks about poor quality control. My response is to say that if they weren't competing with artificially price controlled products from California, Central American producers might be able to afford to increase their quality. And it would be far FAR cheaper for us to pay slightly higher prices to them than they currently get to increase quality and import from them than it is for us to do all the things we do to make California's arid interior bloom.

Take a look at this LTG.

Pombat said...

That's not a drought. This is a drought.

Sorry, just channelling, um... yes, anyway.

I'm with RbR on the fact that farmers should pay market rates for water, as should all industry in fact (especially in CA, our dry corner of Aus, and any other dry bits of the world). The chief argument against this seems to be that the price increase would be passed on to the consumer, which, frankly, I do not see as a problem - price increases forcing people to stop buying items that require a lot of water to grow/create, in an area without much water, sounds like a fantastic idea. Also, industry that does not actually need drinking water should be forced to use recycled water or storm water (I'm thinking water used for cooling etc, which never gets into any product).

Question about CA, prompted by LTG's comment that "the same water supplies are crucial to supporting the urban centers". What kind of water restrictions / water saving measures are in place at the moment? One thing I noticed in LA was that the fountains were all running - they've been switched off in Melbourne for ages, as there isn't enough water to justify them (ponds/fountains in parks have been allowed to dry up etc). Also, small but effective things such as dual flush toilets don't seem to exist over there (two flush buttons rather than one, one is a half flush using 4-5 litres, the other is the standard full flush using 9-10, when necessary. 'Homemade' solution is to stick a [half] brick in the top of the toilet so it doesn't have space for as much water).

The reason I ask is that if the urban centres are using less water, via some of these little saving measures, there's more water available to the farmers. And if those farmers are being charged the true rate for their water, they make sure that they use it efficiently.

Of course, water saving ideas targetted at the average household consumer, such as Victoria's current Target 155 campaign*, are next to useless if the government doesn't get its act into gear.

*Target 155 is trying to encourage Melburnians to use 155litres or less per person per day. Some people seem to find this incredibly hard, using two or even three hundred each on average. Spotted H and I are using a total of 126l/day in our house with garden, so we reckon we're well under 155 each once we add in the water we use whilst at work. However, the government is merrily allowing industry to use millions of litres of drinking water where recycled/storm water would do; is most unhelpful when it comes to incentives for people to install rainwater tanks (there are rebates, only available if you use a qualified plumber, who charge about as much as the rebate); is building a desalination plant rather than a recycling plant despite the enviromental issues with it; and seems perfectly happy to leave the water companies privatised, despite the fact that they've recently put their prices up, because their profits went down due to people conserving water... Sigh.

Pombat said...

ps off topic but: I believe that broccoli, once established, will 'fruit' (somehow 'veg' doesn't sound right, maybe I should just say produce) all year round. It just needs to be started off in autumn. I only know this because I'm counting down the days until I can plant the seeds I bought at the weekend - March/April is perfect down here apparently.
(am getting into growing our own food, despite having to put everything in pots because we rent. So far I've killed several tomato plants...)

Oh, and the issue with the evil little critters destroying garden beds? Takes a bit of effort to sort out initially, but rigging up netting / metal netting (such as chicken wire mesh) horizontally across the beds can often stop them. At the moment we're babysitting an entire jungle's worth of herbs for some friends, everything's covered in black 'fruit tree netting', and it seems to be working thus far (against Aussie possums, who are apparently dumb enough to eat anything - heard at the weekend of one that returned four nights in a row to scoff chillies off an outdoor bush - from inside you could apparently hear the crunching of it eating several, and then the screams and crashes as it ran around the deck, mouth presumably burning).

Raised By Republicans said...

"You've played droughty-floody before..."

USWest said...

One thing that everyone on this thread has ignored is that farmers in the Central Valley are investing large amounts of money in water-conservation and pollution control mechanisms. CA farmers have been at the forefront of water conservation methods for several years. They more than anyone are aware of the effects of climate change. I grew up in the Central Valley, as I said in my previous post (see comment thread below). Winters used to be wetter, air used to be cleaner in that area. Then population shifted and it all went to hell.

Farmers used to flood their orchards and fields to irrigate. They also used sprinklers where a lot of water was lost in midair. Now many of them, if not most, are on low-flow drip systems. Wine growers in my current region of residence are dry farming. (Most grapes don't require much water anyway and the best wines are made from grapes that must "struggle").

So let's give the poor farmers some credit. You all make it sound like they are just water wasters getting fat off of Federal subsidies. That just ain't so.

The other thing to keep in mind is something that LTG mentioned. The state has clamped down on water use in agriculture. The housing boom also ate up a lot of old farm land and put a more demand on limited water resources. So farmers, who have farmed for generations, have been forced to adjust as population grew and shifted. Farmers retired and sold the land to developers. As more of these areas were paved over, we lost soil surfaces that would naturally absorb water. And land was taken out of food production. This year, water restrictions in California are so tight that farmers will be forced to use very expensive well water. So, RBR, the market is still a force.

I agree that many industrial size farms in California are probably not practical. Industrialization of farming is fairly new. When many farms were established in the Central Valley, they were much smaller in scale. Industrialization resulted in huge farms that were much more resource intensive. Since I live here, I'd love it if we reverted back to small, sustainable, organic farms. If I live in such a fertile state, why am I still seeing tomatoes from the EU and strawberries from Latin America? (Good news for me is that they have winter varietals in Watsonville! So I get local berries year around!) Again, the market is at work. Industrialized farming is leeching the nutrition out of our food. So I say let's have small farms that feed California and quit exporting to everyone else. Let them get their fruit from Latin America.

The other thing is that the Central Valley does much more than produce fruits and veggies. In my area the product has always been nuts: almonds, walnuts, pistachios. Then there are the dairies (rather water intensive) and the cattle grazing zones that take up huge portions of the state. Don't think California is just about lettuce and broccoli.