disaggregating agriculture

One of the great insights from my University of New Mexico colleague Bob Berrens, chair of the economics department and my predecessor as director of UNM’s Water Resources Program, is the importance of disaggregating agriculture.

Much water policy discussion, rightly, revolves around the agriculture-municipal distinction. With ag getting (and needing) a much larger share of the water in arid western North America, the distinction is important. But this Faith Kearns piece out of California’s Central Valley is a reminder that ag is no one thing:

Small farmers were hit hard by California’s drought. Perhaps none as hard as the Hmong and other Southeast Asian farmers that lease small plots of land, often with declining groundwater levels, shallow wells, and outdated irrigation systems. Yet, many of these small farmers persist, growing an incredible variety of tropical and subtropical crops in California’s temperate climate.

According to a 2007 survey, around 900 out of a total of 1400 Southeast Asian farms in Fresno County in California’s Central Valley are Hmong. The Hmong largely arrived as refugees from Laos after government upheaval in the 1970’s. For many, farming is part of who they are, despite the challenges.

And, the list of challenges for these small farmers can be long: not owning the land they farm, decreasing acres of land to lease due to urbanization and the potential for growing higher value crops than the Hmong specialize in, language and cultural barriers, and competition for groundwater.

Much of the ag around these small farmers is big, industrial scale farming. As California wrestles with the management of its groundwater, it’ll be important to recognize the full range of agricultural water users.


  1. What will happen in Ca is what has happened in the corn and wheat belts further east the big guys will devour the little guys, that is the way it is. In particular once the landlord sees a big tenant can pay more rent the small guy is toast. You see this everywhere in the midwest as the number of farms shrink and the size grows in the midwest the minimum now seems to be a section.

  2. In California, the big guys will continue to devour the little guys, but the reason has more to do with the fact that they keep creating more and more costly and complex regulations for farms in the state. The little guys can’t afford to keep up. In the 1950s, farming in CA was 80% working in the field and 20% doing paperwork/bookkeeping. Now thanks to increasing regulatory requirements it is 80% doing paperwork and 20% in the field. A small farmer working by himself can’t easily run a farm and keep up with all the requirements.

  3. Is there a good place to go for a history of how the original 160 acre limit for subsidized water has been ignored?

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