10 May 2010

What were they thinking?

DW asks:
Why did many Westland farmers, knowing that water shortages were on the horizon, tear our their seasonal crops and replace them with almond orchards that need water year round?

What were they thinking?
I have no idea, really.

What do you guys think?


  1. Making a shift from seasonal to permanent crops, Westland farmers were betting on a guaranteed supply of water. Clearly, they misinterpreted the results of the BOR studies (PEIS CVPIA), which indicated a shift to greater value crops is preferential to lesser value crops.

    I sense Westland farmers were playing poker and counting on a few Aces from the bottom of the deck.

    Opps! Westland farmers either thought no one was watching or no one would care how much water they used.

  2. Yes, it was foolish, but remember when everyone was chewing them a new one because they were growing "low value" crops?

  3. Well, with water supplies dwindling because of environmental demands and the price of water rising, farmers were forced to grow crops of higher value such as almonds, grapes, and pistachios. These crops give a bigger return on investment than crops like cotton or cantaloupes. At that time, the public, including many environmentalists, were calling for water to be directed to higher value crops, and there was enough water to sustain permanent plantings. No one foresaw the environmental regulations in 2007 and 2008 that cut the state’s water supplies by more than a third. Now there won’t be enough water in most years to support the permanent crops they planted or to replenish the reservoirs for our cities.

    Bottom line: Don’t ask farmers to do one thing and then criticize those decisions after changing the rules on them.

  4. Can anyone provide a reference for environmentalists or others advising Westlands to grow almonds (or higher value crops)?

    I'm interested in the logic and who gave them this advice.

  5. @all -- that makes sense. I've heard the "low value, high value" complaint for many years. WWD underestimated reliability, which was perhaps a forgivable oversight, but surprising for farmers who have played with risk for millennia.

  6. Westlands farmers are in a predicament. Their region is at the front line of the future of scarcity and of the ability for humans to control nature.

    Right now, Westlands advocates are managing this as best they can.

  7. @ Mike Wade - "No one foresaw the environmental regulations in 2007 and 2008 that cut the state’s water supplies by more than a third." That's odd because those regulations (ESA) have been around for almost 40 years. What nobody foresaw was that a judge would actually enforce those regulations and use them to cut back ag entitlements, because it seemed unthinkable. But, good or bad, environmental laws are currently about the only thing that can limit some of the consequences of water laws that are viewed unfavorably by many.

  8. Jeff, this "advice" was pretty common currency in environmental circles about 20 years ago, but I don't have an easy means to find a proper citation. However, if you interview most of the senior leadership of environmental groups today, they will recall looking with mild approval at Westlands' efforts to build an intensive, high technology, and valuable agricultural engine centered around annual crops. After all, if the farmers were going to have to pay for remediation of environmental problems, they had to have the money to do so. You can't get blood out of a bunch of boobs leaning on hoes and staring at fields of turnips. Most people overlooked the "hard" demand of permanent crops. Besides, even when there was more water available to Westlands, the water was so expensive by the mid-80's that growers had to grow the most profitable crops they could. Remember, the delivered cost of the water includes all the delivery infrastructure cost, borne entirely by the District. So that cheap water was not cheap at all, if you wanted to farm with it.
    The larger lesson is to steer clear of all government "stimulus" programs and other handouts. The big water projects were one of the more successful of this ilk, as they have produced large tax revenues and some employment. But these grand schemes always create a new entitlement, and have multifarious consequences nobody can predict. They are bad for the environment because they mis-price resources. Wait until the "green energy" and similar Federally supported boondoggles blow up in a decade or two.

  9. Jeff, not only were ag bashers advocating a switch to "high-value" crops 20 years ago, remarkably, they're still doing it today:

    From Barry Nelson at the NRDC Switchboard blog
    April 10, 2010
    “Even water short farmers have many options to adapt: investing in more efficient irrigation; moving to higher value crops; exploring solar farming; and purchasing supplies from water rich neighbors. … “

    From the Pacific Institute report “More With Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency In California
    August 2008
    “These four recommendations are:

    1. Modest Crop Shifting – shifting a small percentage of lower-value, water-intensive crops to higher-value, water-efficient crops

    2. Smart Irrigation Scheduling – using irrigation scheduling information that helps farmers more precisely irrigate to meet crop water needs and boost production

    3. Advanced Irrigation Management – applying advanced management methods that save water, such as regulated deficit irrigation

    4. Efficient Irrigation Technology – shifting a fraction of the crops irrigated using flood irrigation to sprinkler and drip systems”

    From Lloyd Carter Blog
    August 11, 2008
    During California's 1987-1992 drought, there was a 12% decrease in irrigated acreage, but the value of California-produced food and fiber increased by more than 34% over the same period as growers abandoned marginal land, employed the most modern irrigation technologies, and switched to higher-value crops.

    These references were not hard to find and there are plenty more out there. It is disingenuous for anyone to even suggest that farmers weren't encouraged to do exactly what they're doing.

  10. And duh, I mis-typed "annual" instead of "permanent" in my last post.
    The farmers are not entirely blameless here either. Farmers are perpetual optimists (else they would die of despair in bad years) and are always guilty of thinking, like Mr. Micawber, that something will...turnip.
    There were also several incentives in the tax code prior to the Evil Unfair Reagan Years that gave advantages to planting permanent crops, including a 10% investment tax credit for initial establishment costs. That's part of why Mr. Resnick got so enthused about agriculture. Those smart folks who love to tell our economy what to do are not your friends, greenies.

  11. Mr. Wade is correct that some have advocated in the past that agricultural interests should gravitate to higher value crops. But it wasn’t just a simple suggestion or demand that crops be switched. Rather it was a suggestion that subsidies be phased out and eventually eliminated, thus inducing agricultural interests to gravitate away from the low value crops (most of which can be grown where artificial irrigation isn’t needed) and towards the higher value crops. We can thank Mr. Wade for including the Lloyd Carter quote to complete the picture. Carter includes the concept of abandoning or retiring marginal (e.g. selenium tainted and otherwise contaminated) lands. Moral --– end subsidies; marginal land is retired; water is freed up to be divided among (1) higher value crops, (2) population growth, and (3) the environment, including fish. And a whole new argument starts; who gets how much of the new water?

  12. Jerry, a lot of good would be produced by ending the commercial charity that we call price supports, now given out arbitrarily for select agricultural commodities. A lot of environmental benefits would follow as well, since resources would not be wasted on uneconomic pursuits. The overwhelming majority of money squandered to carry out these schemes is lavished on the Midwest and South, not California. California growers of "program" crops are damaged, not helped, by these handouts, since their domestic competitors benefit disproportionately.
    But I think you will find that eliminating these schemes will yield that very little water in California to fight over. Unless, of course, you wanted to dismantle a lot of the CVP infrastructure, and end most Delta exports. The primary beneficiaries of the CVP and SWP have not been farmers, but the property and casualty insurance industries, state and local governments (think "property tax"), and the real estate industry. Not an easy lot to roll over.
    Meet the new water; same as the old water. Not in the places where lots of people ought to live, or where they can make a living, sell their goods, or buy goods from others easily. The "who get what" part is best solved the way we do most things: by providing it to those who add most value to it. Mister Market is a fine referee.

  13. Wait, they converted to almonds because the enviros told them to? Somehow I kinda doubt that. A simpler explanation consistent with observations: They calculated a higher profit. Mister Kurtz makes many fine points, explaining why Mister Market did not referee this game very well.

    Apt analogy, though; in pro sports the refs are often overmatched (like the amateur refs for the NFL) or influenced by the owners and the stars. (Did Michael Jordan ever get called for traveling?)

  14. No, the enviros did not tell them to plant trees, but it was accepted wisdom that what they were doing was the right thing. The farmers behaved rationally, growing a crop that offered the maximum return...as long as they had water. Problem is, they planted too many acres. Farmers always do. In the Cro-Magnon age when I started out, a Westlands grower would own, say 1,000 acres and farm 400, holding the other 600 for their water alone, or maybe a shot at a dryland crop. There have always been these idle acres in Westlands, which is why the "Congress Created Dust Bowl" signs are rather theatrical.
    Most enviros know absolutely nothing about farming, and parrot all sorts of drivel about what crops ought to be grown, and how. I learn of the evils of rice and alfalfa, and the wonders of organic vegetables, as though the world could pack, process, store and eat so much produce if more than a million acres were re-purposed for produce (to say nothing of unsuitable soil types, climate, etc.). Produce which, by the way takes about as much water as anything else, and has extremely rigid water demands and poor efficiency. Of course, most farmers know absolutely nothing about anadramous fish or endangered species, and parrot all sorts of drivel about government dust-bowls, starvation, and liberals bent on ruining them.

  15. Thanks to all for the replies to my question.

    Mike, I wasn't suggesting farmers were not advised to do this. I have picked on farmer rhetoric plenty, so I suppose it is rational to suspect that motive.

    Although these are good examples, I was wondering about environmentalists, or government/academic experts saying something really specific like "They should grow more almonds in Westlands, because x,y,z."

    I think the farmers saw high profits and underestimated risk. It is very common in business, and not unique to farming at all. I doubt they were taking business advice from environmentalists, they are much smarter than that.


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