California's Drought Isn't Making Food Cost More. Here's Why

May 23, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 4:48 pm

The entire state of California is in a severe drought. Farmers and farmworkers are hurting.

You might expect this to cause food shortages and higher prices across the country. After all, California grows 95 percent of America's broccoli, 81 percent of its carrots and 99 percent of the country's artichokes, almonds and walnuts, among other foods.

Yet there's been no sign of a big price shock. What gives?

Here are three explanations.

1. Some farmers have backup water supplies.

Drive southwest from Fresno, and you can easily see the drought's impact. In this area, farmers rely on the Westlands Water District for irrigation.

In a normal year, Westlands delivers water to each farm through a network of underground pipes. That water is drawn from artificial rivers that link this area to dams and reservoirs hundreds of miles away, mostly in the northern part of the state.

This year, because of the drought, Westlands cannot deliver any of that water. And the result is bare dirt where vegetables normally would grow.

Sarah Woolf takes me on a tour of her family's farm, and points toward one dry field. "It had onions in it last year, and we're not farming it at all, because we don't have enough water supply," she says. (Woolf is also on the board of the Westlands Water District.)

But that's not the whole story in this region. I still see plenty of green: fields of alfalfa and garlic and leafy almond orchards.

They exist because many farmers here have a backup supply of water. They're pumping it out of underground aquifers.

This is happening all across the state. According to a new report from the University of California, Davis, the extra water that farmers will pump from their wells this year will make up for about 75 percent of the cutbacks in water from dams and reservoirs.

But this can't go on forever: That groundwater is limited. Woolf tells me that just this morning, she heard about problems at one of their wells. "We have to actually drill down and drop the well deeper, which is a very bad sign," she says. It means that the water table is dropping; the aquifer is drying up.

2. Some parts of California are less dry than others.

Agriculture in California is spread around different parts of the state. One key region is the Salinas Valley, sometimes called America's salad bowl.

"In June, 90 percent of the lettuce in the United States is grown in the Salinas Valley," says Daniel Sumner, an economist at UC Davis. Yet there's "no effect of the drought yet in the Salinas Valley."

Those farms don't get water from California's dams and reservoirs, even in a normal year. They've always been able to rely on wells, and nothing's changed this year.

So fear not; there's plenty of baby spinach and mesclun mix.

In the winter, meanwhile, salad greens mostly come from areas far to the south, near the Mexican border. Those areas get their water from the Colorado River, which is also in relatively good shape this year thanks to snowfall far upstream.

3. The limited water is going to crops that consumers are most likely to notice.

Allen Peterson farms land near the town of Turlock, on the east side of the Central Valley. He grows mostly almonds, but also some corn and alfalfa, which he sells to dairy farmers nearby.

An irrigation canal runs right past his orchards. It's a concrete channel 18 feet wide and 6 feet deep, full of water.

That water supply is relatively secure; it comes straight from Lake Don Pedro, created by a dam that the Turlock Irrigation District helped to build. So Peterson is still getting about half of his normal allotment of water. It's enough to grow a crop, but not on every acre.

"I've kept water on our almond crop, which is a higher-value crop. I've left fallow some corn ground, to make sure I have enough water for my almonds," Peterson says.

That means he won't have corn to sell to his neighbors, the dairy farmers. Those dairy farmers are suffering from the drought. They're bringing in feed from far away, and it's expensive. Farmers in California are also growing less rice.

In other words, water is flowing toward food that consumers eat directly, because that's where the money is. Those also tend to be crops that California dominates. Less water is going toward production of crops like alfalfa or rice, which are available from other places or that consumers don't eat directly.

As a consequence, consumers are shielded from the drought's effects.

Sumner, the agricultural economist, says this is economics in action. "People move the water to its highest-value use. People pay attention to markets. If you can't get something from California, you get it from somewhere else. That's what markets do. They're good at it," he says.

Of course, the drought is having an effect, just not a big one so far. A few farms have bulldozed almond and citrus trees because of water shortages. It's possible that citrus prices will rise next winter, because of shortfalls in production.

If the drought continues into next year, meanwhile, some of the current coping strategies may not work so well. The unrestricted use of groundwater is increasingly controversial. Some water experts are calling for limits on the amounts of water that farmers can draw from underground aquifers.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The entire state of California is in a drought, one of the most severe on record. And since California grows a big share of the country's vegetables and nuts, You might think that we'd be feeling the effects across the U.S. But so far the drought has not created shortages, nor is it driving up food prices. NPR's Dan Charles explains why.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Ninety-five percent of America's broccoli grows in California, 81 percent of its carrots, 99 percent of the country's artichokes, almonds and walnuts. Even in a normal year, it doesn't rain much where those crops grow, so farmers typically get water from far away, mostly from melting snowpack in the mountains delivered through aqueducts and canals.

Southwest of Fresno, those systems are run by the Westlands Water District.

SARAH WOOLF: We have a Westlands outlet right here.

CHARLES: Sarah Woolf is showing me around her family's land. She's pointing to a big blue pipe coming right out of the ground. It's her farm's lifeline.

WOOLF: All Westlands growers get their water out of stem pipes just like this. All of Westlands delivery system is underground, in pipelines, and a blue outlet pops up like this on everyone's field.

CHARLES: But this year no water is coming out of that pipe. Because of the drought, the entire Westlands Irrigation District, 600,000 acres of farmland, has been cut off. One result is a field of bare dirt.

WOOLF: Actually it had onions in it last year, and we're not farming it at all because we don't have enough water supply.

CHARLES: But that's not the whole story here. About half the fields in this area still are green. I see alfalfa, garlic plants, leafy almond orchards. They exist because many farmers here have a backup supply of water. They're pumping it out of underground aquifers.

And this is the first and biggest reason why you're still getting plenty of vegetables and nuts from California this year. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, farmers are pumping so much extra water from wells it will make up for about 75 percent of the cutbacks in water from dams and reservoirs.

But it comes at a cost. There's a limited supply of that groundwater. Sarah Woolf tells me just this morning she heard about problems at one of their wells.

WOOLF: We have to actually drill down and drop the well deeper, which is a very bad sign.

CHARLES: So the water table is dropping?

WOOLF: Yes, so we have to go down deeper to get it.

CHARLES: The second reason why the drought is not driving up food prices is some places in California have not actually been hit very hard. Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says take this example: The Salinas Valley, a place that people call America's salad bowl.

DANIEL SUMNER: In June, 90 percent of the lettuce in the United States is grown in the Salinas Valley. No effect of the drought yet in the Salinas Valley.

CHARLES: Those farms don't get water from the reservoirs. They've always been able to rely on wells, and nothing's changed this year. And finally, reason number three: California's farmers are doing a kind of triage on their crops. Allen Peterson, for example, he farms land near the town of Turlock. He grows mostly almonds, or almonds as many people here call them.

ALLEN PETERSON: Here we're approaching a canal system that we have delivering water to us and other farms.

CHARLES: The canal runs right past his orchards. It's a concrete channel 18 feet wide and six feet deep, full of water. Peterson is getting less water this year, about half the normal allotment. It's enough to grow a crop but not on every acre.

PETERSON: I've kept water on our almond crop, which is a higher-value crop. I've left fallow some corn ground to make sure I have enough water for my almonds.

CHARLES: That means he won't have corn to sell to his dairy farmer neighbors. Dairy farmers are suffering from the drought. They're bringing in feed from far away, and it's expensive. Farmers in California also are growing less rice.

But the effect of all that on consumers will be muted. Those foods come from lots of places, not just California. Daniel Sumner, the agricultural economist, says this is economics in action.

SUMNER: People move the water to its highest-value use. People pay attention to markets. If you can't get something from California, there are a few other suppliers where it's available. That's what markets do. They're good at it.

CHARLES: But if the drought continues into next year, some of these coping strategies eventually may not work so well. For instance there's increasing talk in California that farmers really should not be allowed to pump unlimited amounts of water from underground aquifers. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.