California farming in drought: a “robust corpse?”

Jeff Michael published some new data today suggesting California agricultural has been more resilient and less damaged by the current drought than I expected. “[T]here is virtually no difference in farm employment between 2014 and 2013 in the 3 counties that are thought to be most devastated by the drought,” Michael wrote. But perhaps I should not be so surprised.

For my book research, I’ve taken a dive into some research published in the 1960s and early ’70s by the late Bob Young, who started his career with a splash as a young ag economist at the University of Arizona by arguing that central Arizona did not need a huge infusion of Colorado River water. This violated an almost religious tenet in Arizona, his suggestions were ignored*, the Central Arizona Project was built, and we are now where we are. Young’s argument was that CAP would basically provide surplus supplies to an agricultural economy that did not need the water.

In a 1969 paper Young wrote with a colleague named William E. Martin (I hope this link works), he argued from pre-CAP data that, in the face of increasing water scarcity, Central Arizona ag was nevertheless growing. Why? Farmers, being self-interested actors, adapted. They made their irrigation systems more efficient, shifted their cropping patterns, and the like. “Irrigated farming,” they wrote at the time, “emerges as a rather robust corpse.”

That seems to be what is happening in California. Here’s Michael:

As I said, there is more data to sift through, but it is important to recognize that this drought is coming in the midst of a strong expansion period of Valley agriculture.  The total number of acres irrigated and harvested has been growing every year for most of the past decade, even in the face of scarce surface water.  Thus, in the absence of drought, I suspect 2014 employment would have been even higher.  The drought is causing significant fallowing of relatively low value, and non-labor intensive field crops, while new acreage is coming into production by tapping groundwater.  Thus, there are farmers laying people off, I don’t think the farmers in news reports are lying.  But clearly, there are others that were hiring.  In other words, the baseline for agriculture activity is rising, as I discussed last spring in this post.

A “robust corpse” in California as well? There are all kinds of questions about long term sustainability, but in the short term the collapse is not yet underway despite extraordinary drought.

* There’s a widely told story, repeated in Cadillac Desert, that Young was hounded out of Arizona as a result. Young ended up at Colorado State having an illustrious career as an ag and water economist, and died several years ago, so I can’t ask him, but I found a colleague whom Young told several years before his death that the hounding story was untrue – that far from being hounded out, U of A offered him a tenured position, but that CSU made him a better offer. More to come on that.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: California ag showing remarkable resilience | jfleck at inkstain

Comments are closed.