California ag showing remarkable resilience

Amid the rhetoric of doom, California agriculture has so far been growing its way through drought:

Even as many farmers cut back their planting, California’s farm economy overall has been surprisingly resilient. Farm employment increased by more than 1 percent last year. Gross farm revenue from crop production actually increased by two-tenths of 1 percent last year, to $33.09 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s from Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese at the Sacramento Bee, who have have had a couple of recent stories challenging the apocalyptic framing around the impact of drought on California agriculture. Last week they noted in more detail the observation that, pockets of trouble notwithstanding, overall agricultural employment in California is up:

Overall, there was more farm work available in California last year than during any other year at least since 1990, when modern record-keeping began, according to the state Employment Development Department. And hired farmworkers collectively made more money, too, separate federal data show.

This is exactly what Bob Young, an agricultural economist, was getting at back in the 1960s when he described the transformation of central Arizona agriculture as water supplies declined. As water runs short, Young argued, its users adapt.

As Kasler and Reese are reporting, it has not been easy for farmers. But this suggests that what I’ve come to think of as “the California experiment” – the deepest shock on this sort of time scale to a large, 21st century agricultural/urban economy – has much to teach us about adaptation and resilience when the water runs low.


  1. These ag statistics per se don’t really support your thesis of resilience, which comes over as a chest-thumping IS THIS A GREAT COUNTRY OR WHAT!!!. The drought is hitting home *this year* and maybe the next, not last year. There was orderly evacuation of the Titanic but still a lot of people perished.

    Ag is a business, most often a corporation with a dispersed multi-generational family as sole shareholders. True, CA makes artisanal goat cheese and grows lots of arugula but that is not 1% of the irrigated acreage (even though 99% of LA Times and Bee articles focus on the former). The vast majority of ag operations grow commodities at scale.

    Unbeknownst to reporters, a business is primarily concerned with return on capital investment (ROI). A farm located in a hellhole such as the Central Valley, Imperial Valley, or Yuma is not a lifestyle choice (trout ranch in Montana) but a business decision about ROI.

    Gross farm gate sales are not a proxy for how well the business is going, especially as the price per acre-ft of water goes through the roof. Ask yourself, what is your flat, hot, ugly, contaminated, zoned farmland worth if it doesn’t have dependable and affordable water? Answer: a whole lot less than it was before this drought, maybe nothing.

    It’s conceivable no crop no matter how low its water use can bring in more revenue than the cost of doing business in a drought — urbanites think ‘oh they can just switch to og heirloom kiwis’, not realizing the price tanks as supplies soar while demand stagnates.

    Celebrating growth in ag labor? Is this something that you ever considered for yourself — horribly monotonus, poorly paid, dead-end work that not one single white person in the entire USA has chosen since the Great Depression. The billboards of Nogales tell the reality, one after another offering panaceas for repetitive stress injury, damaged hands, bad backs, terminal arthritis, kidney damage.

  2. Tom –

    Your business/ROI argument offers a testable hypothesis.

    According to the latest USDA/NASS statistics, the per-acre value of California farm land rose 3 percent per acre last year. The value of both irrigated and non-irrigated land rose. This is farmers, making a business decision about ROI, voting with their dollars on what *they* think the land is worth. California farm land has risen in value every year since the drought began.

    This is not to say the drought is not having an effect on farm land prices. In Iowa (the ag state with the next-most-valuable farmland – New Jersey doesn’t count), value per acre rose 9 percent. Nationally, the value of farmland rose 8 percent. It is merely to point out that your observation about the impact of the drought on the value of farmland seems measurable, and this measure does not support your observation that the value of the land is “a whole lot less than it was before this drought, maybe nothing.”

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