If you’ve been a Terra Firma subscriber for a while — or a subscriber to any CSA farm — you’re accustomed to hearing a million reasons why there are certain items in your boxes and not others. The weather is the biggest one of course, but there’s also losses to insects, diseases and (very rarely for us) weeds. On smaller farms, mechanical breakdowns of trucks or tractors might cause gaps in crops. Personal illness or family problems might even impact what goes into the boxes on a given week.
Now imagine this paragraph appearing in the section below: “We apologize that due to new regulations from the Water Resources Control Board, we are no longer allowed to plant Carrots due to the amount of water it takes to grow them”.
This year, for the first time ever, every farmer in California will be required to report the acreage of every crop they grow, the locations, the amount of water it takes, how it is irrigated, and how much fertilizer each crop uses. And for every acre of irrigated land, a fee must be paid.
Most farmers in California only grow one crop per year on a given piece of land. But if they farm 20 parcels with 8 different crops, the paperwork required to comply with the new law is still daunting. And it is paper, as the government has no software or website created for the program yet.
On small farms like ours, however, the new water regulations are a nightmare. We grow 30 crops — using several different irrigation methods –some on fields as small as a quarter acre. To accurately comply with the new law we would have to fill out hundreds of pages of forms. There are no exemptions, even for the tiniest farms.
The most troubling aspect of the new rules for most farmers, though, is the question of “what are they going to do with all this information”. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and I sincerely hope that once the bureaucrats are confronted with the sheer volume of the data they have asked farmers to provide, they will be humbled.
But there are prominent vocal and well-meaning people who believe that water use on farms can be micromanaged by government regulators. They imagine a process where farmers must apply for approval from the Water Resources Board before planting a crop. They visualize an evaluation of whether or not the crop is suitable for the land and the available water supply. They appear to have no idea how unworkable, expensive, and counterproductive this would be.
Right now, the media and critics of agriculture are focusing on almonds as the great threat to California’s water supply. Back in the 1980s, environmentalists disparaged crops like alfalfa and rice as low-value commodities wasting precious water. Thousands of people who read Marc Reisner’s “Cadillac Desert” still believe that growing rice in California should be banned.
Now it turns out that both alfalfa and rice provide critical wildife habitat, and use much less water than high-value crops like…you guessed it, almonds. What would have happened if the government had banned growing them back then, based on the opinions of a handful of vocal opinionmakers.
Improving our environment is a grand goal, and I fully support effective government programs to achieve it. Unfortunately, I feel that far too many people in our state government cling to control-based regulatory methods when incentive (and disincentive) programs have proved far more successful and effective.
No one wants to be told what they can and cannot eat. Which is why it will never work to tell farmers what they can and cannot grow. Anyone who doesn’t understand this logic has no business making decisions that affect our economy. There are better ways to protect our limited water supplies in California — there have to be.