Nathanael Johnson, in an excellent recent Grist piece, argues that the impact on California’s agricultural economy from the drought is likely to be less than some of the dire rhetoric might suggest because of the way farmers adapt:
Philip Bowles, whose family farms near Los Banos, Calif., said they are changing and adapting every day. His family has idled a quarter of their land and planted more tomatoes. The tomatoes grow enthusiastically with drip irrigation — it’s the crop that maximizes profits best right now, Bowles said. But you can’t just grow tomatoes every year — the soil requires crop rotation. They are also growing cotton (though they’ve cut back on the acreage), cantaloupes, corn nuts (the corn that they make into those snacks), and alfalfa.
Some great new data from Josué Medellín-Azuara at UC Davis points to some important underlying economic implications. A thousand acre feet of water used in a cotton field generates 4 jobs. A thousand acre feet in tomatoes generates 15 jobs (if they’re processing tomatoes, for sauce) or 60-plus (if they’re shipped fresh to market). So a shift out of low-valued crops to protect the high-value crops like vegetables in addition to maximizing farmers’ income is also maximizing jobs. Medellín-Azuara writes:
California agriculture will use less water this year and in the long run. Several factors will lead to long-term reductions in farm water use in many areas of the state. Those include the state’s new groundwater legislation, ongoing salinization and urbanization of cropland, and increasing environmental water requirements.
The drought has raised understanding of these inevitable reductions. But the growing market value of California’s specialty crops and growing yields per acre and per gallon will keep California agriculture healthy in most cases.