Gold Turning to Brown in ‘Golden State’ Ag Fields?

The nation’s food shoppers and dining tables could be facing soaring prices and increasing scarcities from California’s leading agricultural suppliers in the warmer atmosphere they likely are facing.

If humans got unchanging weather patterns from year-to-year, the snow storms that have pummeled the Midwest in recent weeks would have released their wintry precipitation on soils already saturated from a full season of snow.

But that’s not the way the weather works, and forecasters say the outlook for the country’s parched heartland — blighted since 2011 by a severe drought — remains grim. So bad has the situation become that in January the federal government declared much of the central and southern U.S. wheat belt a natural disaster area, and serious talk circled around possibly having to curtail Mississippi River barge traffic.

Since onset of the drought, media reports have covered the Midwest drought regularly, and for good reason: Reinsurance companies estimate that it may end up causing crop losses totaling more than $100 billion. That’s a lot of un-grown corn and wheat. Coming during a period when New Mexico and Colorado underwent record-setting wildfires and “Superstorm Sandy” ravaged parts of northern New Jersey and New York, climate change has fit naturally, if not always smoothly, into much coverage of the drought. Even though the spate of extreme weather events cannot be directed solely to global warming, climate scientists have told reporters, they can be said to represent future trends in a warmer atmosphere. In effect, that warming sets a new baseline — higher sea level and warmer ocean temperatures — from which storms can take their energy.

A Tough Sell for ‘Green Eyeshades’ Media Managers?

Climate change and agriculture: As news stories go, not always an easy sell for editors or for media business “green eyeshades” hoping to capture more eyeballs. But what’s happening in the Midwest can’t be ignored, and in not ignoring the troubles facing the Plains States, there might be opportunities for the nation’s press corps to shine a spotlight on another, related story, one less obvious and immediate, but no less dramatic and consequential.

Sacramento farmland: fears of even more water shortages in years ahead.

Although California is not strongly associated with farming in the popular imagination — Hollywood, Silicon Valley, palm trees and Yosemite fill that role — the state is something of an agricultural arcadia. It is the country’s leading dairy producer, and from its sun-kissed soils emerges, each year, nearly half of all of the fruit and vegetables consumed in America. Though somewhat tarnished in recent years by economic woes, the “Golden State” is by far the country’s leading farming state, and within its borders is situated, arguably, the world’s single most bountiful agricultural region.

And climate change threatens to spoil it.

At the heart of California’s agriculture industry are delicate, high-value fruit and vegetable crops. As the greenhouse effect intensifies and temperatures climb, climate models indicate, weather extremes will occur more frequently in California and throughout the West. Nonnative plants, weeds, and pests will spread, increasingly aggressive, northward from the equator. Fruit and vegetable crops like grapes and berries are more vulnerable to climate disruptions than field crops like cotton and wheat; if they were hardier they wouldn’t be so heavily concentrated in a state so well known for the mild consistency of its climate.

Shrinking Snowpack and Risks to the State’s Hydrology

But a still more severe climate-induced problem threatens California’s agriculture. Climate models indicate that as warming intensifies, rain will fall less frequently, and drought — a perennial feature of the state’s landscape, and a recurring nightmare for its farmers and population generally – will worsen. Such changes will have a “profound effect on regional hydrology,” a recent study commissioned by the state’s Energy Agency concludes.

More troubling still, climate models have projected that by mid-century the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountain range — melt water from which constitutes the largest single source of water in California — will be halved. By 2100, the models projected, the snowpack will be 90 percent less than it was in 1990.

In 2009, then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen [due to unchecked climate change]. We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Supply and Demand: Reduced Crop Yields = Soaring Prices

For shoppers, a bit of sticker shock … reduced supplies at higher prices.

Chu’s wording may have been hyperbolic, but his choice of examples suggests the importance California’s agriculture holds for the country. Major ongoing yield reductions across California will drive up the prices for the country’s most valuable crops, wreaking havoc on an industry that provides one out of every ten jobs in the country’s most populous state… and employs fully 35 percent of all of the farm workers employed in America.

Nationally and locally, reporting on the threat climate change poses to agriculture in California has been infrequent and generally limited in scope.

The health of the state’s famous wine crop — which rising temperatures will threaten with increasing severity — is glamorous enough to have attracted considerable attention, but the same hasn’t been true of the state’s agriculture industry as a whole. Last September both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee published fine articles on the subject, but together they added up to only 1,800 words. The general lack of coverage is understandable. For one thing, climate change will alter agricultural production in California in unpredictable ways, in part because the state is home to many distinct microclimates, and in part because what will harm one crop may benefit another, at least in the short term.

More significantly, what rising temperatures will do to dairy production in California isn’t exactly the world’s most glamorous topic or the one most likely to “go viral” in the new media atmosphere, even when compared with other climate stories. It lacks the visible drama (and images and video) of more immediately catastrophic climate threats, such as coastal flooding and destructive weather events. Furthermore, the subject applies directly to just a portion of the population — farmers — who in the last half century have steadily receded from the iconic image of past generations. In 1950 farmers comprised 12 percent of the national labor force; today they comprise less than 2 percent.

And yet there is no question among climate experts that continued and heightened global atmospheric temperatures will harm agriculture in California, and there is a growing body of research on the subject for reporters to consult, and a recently formed foundation dedicated to the matter.

It Only Matters to Those Who Eat

Moreover, while the trials and tribulations of the farming community seem for now a remote public concern, the cost and availability of the food we all eat is not. California is the country’s sole producer of almonds and walnuts, and 99 percent of the grapes, figs, dates, and raisins Americans consume each year are grown there. And most of our domestic olives also hail from the state. In 2011 California produced more than one-fifth of all the milk consumed in the United States. In total, the state produces more than 400 agricultural commodities. What happens if a 10-year drought severely reduces yields for any or all of these crops?

Northern California vineyards attract lots of interest and tourists, and lots of concern too about impacts of warming.

The resulting price increases clearly would concern all Americans. There’s a high probability that the fruit they — and that means YOU — buy at the market tomorrow came from the Central Valley. And that glass of wine with tonight’s dinner more likely than not originated in the rolling hills of Northern California, in counties with names like Napa and Sonoma.

Any news story about farming inevitably is a story involving flux. The weather changes daily; the water supply fluctuates annually; a disease spreads, weeds proliferate, insects infest. Coping with change is, after all, what farmers do.

But global warming is mobilizing those changes at an accelerating pace and not necessarily in a linear fashion – immense, transnational changes that will test the ability of farmers everywhere to adapt.

The threat a warming climate poses to California agriculture is dramatic, and the potential national and international consequences stark. It’s a story with a lot of angles for the media, educators, and communicators everywhere. And with important appeal to their audiences – both within and beyond the state’s own borders.

AUTHOR
Sam Kornell, a freelance writer in Oakland, has written extensively about climate change and California agriculture in the Santa Barbara Independent.

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