Hiding indoors from the extreme heat this weekend, I watched a documentary entitled “My Octopus Teacher” — a wonderfully up close look at the daily life of this unique creature. The octopus reminded me a bit of agriculture, its tentacles operating semi-independently of each other but still connected to the ever-adapting body.
As the drought in the Western U.S. receives more attention, the number of posts in the media and social media addressing “problem” of agriculture’s use of water is increasing as well. The simplistic slogans are fairly predictable: Farming uses too much water. We should only be growing high value crops. There are too many almonds. Farmers should grow fruit and vegetables where it rains instead of in California. Why are we growing rice in a drought? Etc.
If agriculture is a giant octopus, farmers are the tentacles. We knew the drought was here before almost anyone else did, paying attention to every storm in the winter and receiving notices from water districts about cut-offs in deliveries. Each farmer began making decisions early based on their experience and unique situation. They shifted crops, fallowed certain fields, and purchased water from neighbors with more flexibility. As the winter progressed, they made harder decisions: orchards were abandoned, employees were laid off, equipment was sold. There were more farm auctions than usual this spring.
As a organism, the agricultural octopus also has to reconcile all the other information coming from its tentacles: Prices and demand are up for hay but down for walnuts; the cost of labor is going up; it hails too much in Kansas to grow peaches; California is the only state in the U.S. where you can grow almonds, etc. The mechanism for making decisions is messy and imperfect, but in its clumsy way, it usually balances out over time. The general public is not aware of these decisions. Maybe farmers need to post more on Instagram and Twitter. “Zero Water Allocation” notices, fallowed fields and pink slips for their employees.
Most consumers base their eating decisions on just two factors: Price and preference. If the almonds get too expensive, they may buy pecans instead. The drought may eventually cause the price of almonds to get so high that people stop buying them. But trying to regulate almond production, or guilt people into not buying them, is not likely to reduce the demand. And in the end, it is demand that is driving farmers to plant them.
Eventually, consumers will see the effects of the drought reflected in food prices and availability. But it won’t be this year for most foods. Most of the crops that are not being grown in 2021 due to the drought are the foods eaters would have been buying in 2022. Prices will rise as a result, which will cause people to buy less. Farmers who have enough water will grow more of those crops… in 2023. Prices will moderate… in 2024. The Agriculture Octopus moves much more slowly than the aquatic one.
Most undersea dwellers know to stay away from the dangerous and unpredictable octopus, and most policymakers feel the same way about agriculture. Smart politicians throughout the world recognize that keeping food affordable and abundant is critical to governing. Second guessing the collective decision making process of the agricultural octopus — for example, by regulating how many acres of which crops can be planted — could backfire quite badly.
When confronted with a big problem, humans seem quite adept at pointing a single finger of blame. In the case of the current drought confronting our state, we need to use more than one finger. Or get some tentacles and start exploring all our options.