The West Coast is parched. So what?

| 23 Jun 2015 | 02:13

There’s the inevitable increase in food prices the drought will trigger… right? Dirt had the whole story mapped out: food shortages and price hikes would cause an explosion in home gardening like we haven’t seen since World War II, and re-open the door for local farmers, who could charge more for their produce and therefore make a decent living. By hitting us in our wallets, which is of course the fastest way to our hearts, this drought would be the wake-up call that defined our generation and the ones that came after.

The hitch: Four years into the California crisis, food prices for the most part haven’t gone up.

Good news? Bad news? Weird news. I’m reminded of the way I feel when gas prices go down. Part of me says “Road trip!” While the other part despises myself and mourns for the planet.

Yes, beef and fresh vegetables cost a little more this March than last. But in the veggie aisle, other than iceberg and romaine lettuce, up 12 and 43 cents a pound, respectively, and field-grown tomatoes, up from $1.63 to $1.82 a pound, the emphasis is on a little, according to Bureau of Labor stats comparing prices from March 2014 to March 2015. For the most part, it’s the kind of gradual price creep that only hawk-eyed shoppers would notice.

Meanwhile, milk and some vegetables, like broccoli and peppers, have gotten cheaper. Strange, since California produces 94 percent of the country’s broccoli and half its bell peppers. Stranger still, fresh fruit is down across the board. How can that be, when all we’re hearing about California is that it’s America’s fruit bowl, growing 88 percent of our strawberries, 86 percent of our lemons, 97 percent of fresh plums, 95 percent of our avocados?

Gracias, Mexico y Chile. It turns out it’s not just pineapples, mangoes, bananas and papayas that we import from south of the border. California may still have a near monopoly on walnuts and almonds, but almost everything else – classically American apples and oranges, highly perishable strawberries and blueberries – has been increasingly coming Central and South American farmers since the nineties.

“We’re very rich. We can buy food in,” said Joan Gussow. “Most people who are hungry in the world are the people who can’t afford to buy food, not because there isn’t food,” she said.

Gussow, who’s in her 80s, is a matriarch of the local food movement, a precursor and inspiration to Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and Barbara Kingsolver. She has grown what she eats for many decades in her riverfront garden in Piermont, NY, since before local anything was available at the store.

Our adored avocadoes? They’re not about to go AWOL. Not yet. The “Guacapocalypse” – a mass-media induced freak-out that came about after Chipotle made mention of the possibility it might stop serving guacamole if the price of avocadoes got too high – is not on the immediate horizon. Central Valley farmers may be letting groves dry up, but if we can’t grow ‘em we can buy ‘em. We already are. As of mid-May, 78 percent of our Hass avocadoes were being trucked up from Mexico, according to the Hass Avocado Board website. In the winter, we import “green gold” by boat from Chile. Now what’s happened to California’s groundwater is playing out again in Chile, where farmers are extending irrigation systems up mountains, and rivers are drying up. Meanwhile we continue to eat more thoughtlessly than any people in history.

Will the drought be a wakeup call – even without price hikes to command our attention? Even without a Guacapocalypse? “It’s beginning to be,” said Gussow, “don’t you think? Like Sandy was? There are a series of wakeup calls that are happening. And there’s no question in my mind, as someone who’s taught this for a very long time, there’s been a huge change in consciousness. People do now know food is grown, that there’s a person called a farmer.” If she’s joking, she’s got a masterful deadpan.

Still, “I don’t think the real word about it has gotten through, quite how bad it really is. Because they’re draining the aquifer. The ground is collapsing. When that happens, they’re not going to refill again. Everyone is trying to continue to pretend that it’s temporary, that normal will return. I personally don’t think that’s going to happen. Nature’s full of surprises, but the chance that we’re going to get out of this one free is very small.”

How a desert came to feed us

“It’s a desert out there,” said Gussow. She grew up in Los Angeles County during the Depression, so she knows. “This was a kind of fantasy that we could permanently make a desert into the place where we grow food. To grow alfalfa, dairy, rice... there’s a kind of madness in what we’ve done.”

If our food seems cheap at the store – and on paper, we and Singapore are the two countries in the world that spend the smallest percentage of our income on food – that’s partly due to a flaw in accounting. (If our food doesn’t seem cheap, then you haven’t grocery shopped in another country recently.) When you buy a bag of organic pre-washed California-grown mixed greens, the price on the sticker doesn’t include the true cost of the water that irrigated that salad. That bill comes separately. Your tax dollars built and still maintain Hoover Dam, the largest dam in the world when it opened in 1936. By moving water from the wetter north to the San Joaquin Valley and south, the federal project – hailed as heroic, a concrete illustration of limitless human potential – turned California into an agricultural dynamo. And eventually put farmers across the country out of business.

“It’s never going to be like it was,” said Dan Madura, 64, who farms 30 acres of Goshen black dirt. In the sixties, he said, Orange County – that’s New York’s Orange County – grew hundreds of acres of lettuce and a couple thousand acres of celery, which farmers sold wholesale by the trailer to buyers who sold it to middlemen at Hunt’s Point.

In the late sixties, California growers lowered their prices for lettuce and celery during the summer. “They would sell for nothing,” said Madura, maybe 10 cents a head. “In winter they’d charge a dollar a head, when they were the only source.”

“Two dollars a box?” said Madura, of the prices they were getting for lettuce. “The box is a dollar. We needed $5 to $7.”

The message: “It’s not profitable for you to grow celery and lettuce. We own the market,” recalled Madura.

Eventually most of the county switched over to the onions we still grow today, securing profitable government contracts during the Vietnam War. Cuba, too, was a big onion importer until the trade embargo (and may be again, soon).

Change the name of the crop, and variations on the same story unfolded all over the country. “Many food plants that could be grown widely around the country are not produced on a commercial scale simply because they can’t compete with produce grown in California with subsidized water and transportation,” wrote Gussow in her 2001 tome, “This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader.”

Tired of doing battle, Madura got into growing exotic mushrooms in 1977, a niche in which he has flourished. He also grows a wide variety of herbs and vegetables for a handful of farmers markets: chocolate mint and rhubarb, ginger and turmeric, asparagus and melons, and three acres of hops for the Newburgh Brewery. He doesn’t wholesale anymore, except on the rare occasions when he finds he grew way too much, say, cilantro. Madura doesn’t pine for the old celery fields; wholesaling was no picnic. Farmers markets, an outlet that didn’t exist back in those days, are now his bread and butter.

Does he think the drought might be good for business, by neutralizing the competition? Not really. Madura is now competing with other local farms, and they’ve all got an unlimited market called New York City. Farms in this area can’t be feeding the rest of the country.

“We need California,” he said. And besides, he said, “we’re five inches behind average” on rainfall right now. In mid-May, local farmers had taken to irrigating, and those who weren’t were seeing their young onions die.

“We’re like California,” he said. “Look at the dust blowing by.” Indeed, the black dirt fields were on the move.

It rained a few times over the next week, but even so, over half of New York State remained “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. By May’s end, 81 percent of the state was in that category.

Who’s going to feed our grandkids?

Foresight has never been our forte. We might be able to buy our way out of feeling the effects of the West Coast drought for now, but we cannot escape the vagaries of climate change forever, no matter how fat our wallets. Toward the latter half of the century, people who think about this stuff say there’s a real chance we could run into problems with food security.

“In the next several decades, we’ll continue to be doing fine. But I get a little anxious when you start to look out further,” said Michael Hoffman, chair of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change & Agriculture. “I have kids.”

Run out of food? That’s ridiculous. We can put robots on Mars. We can grow a hamburger in a lab. And besides, look at all these farms!

It is ridiculous. “We obviously have ample farmland. We have ample capacity to feed ourselves,” said Gussow. “But we’re using huge amounts of our cropland to grow fuel, to grow animal feed. We’re behaving in a very profligate way.”

“If I felt the people in charge knew what they were doing, I would feel a lot better” about food security, said Gussow. “But I don’t see rational behavior in the face of problems as the first option. We don’t seem able to do that. We’re so much enslaved by the companies running the food system.”

As the source of our food recedes still farther from us – as California gives way to Mexico and Chile and even China – our food supply becomes less and less certain. “When the controls are so far away, you really can’t guarantee” you’ll be fed, said Gussow.

There is a pretty sure bet against famine. It involves a garden hoe and a patch of dirt in your yard, or even just a basket and some foraging know-how. “It’s really easy, if you know how to grow food, to be secure in terms of food in your local community,” said Gussow. It would behoove all of us to remember how to plant beans and corn and squash (it’s not as hard as you think), but you don’t have to get your hands dirty to move in the right direction. Buying local accomplishes the goal, too, of shortening the chain from farm to table. Or as a dusty bumper sticker reads: “Support your local hick-onomy.”

Local, of course, is up against the seductive convenience of the industrial food machine. Remembering to get to the farmers market takes more brain power than stopping at the grocery store on your way home from work. Commerce is no locavore; at the store, your slightest whim never bumps up against the constraints of reality. There’s no such thing as out of season. Tomatoes in February. Asparagus in October. This is a slippery slope.

Things are changing here, too

Irene, Sandy. We’ve had our share of devastating storms, but still it’s safe to say Northeast farmers would not trade places with their West Coast counterparts right now.

Since 2000, we’ve had just a couple periods of drought that lasted more than a few weeks. Only for two weeks, in August 2002, did we experience the level of “exceptional drought” that’s been haranguing California for years.

Climate change models forecast that the Northeast is going to see more rain in the coming years, which, while preferable to the alternative, will come wrapped in its own box of challenges, detailed in the National Climate Assessment, an interagency federal report. There will be more heavy downpours. More plant disease, more virulent pests like the corn earworm and new ones altogether like our recently met constant companion, the stink bug. Aggressive new weeds like kudzu, an Asian invader that has already earned the nickname, “the vine that ate the South.” More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere favors weed over crop growth, and by the way, the main ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, looks like it’s going to become less effective on these carbon dioxide-boosted weeds. More blistering hot days, and with them a greater risk of seasonal drought, since the hotter weather leads to quicker evaporation and earlier snowmelt. More rain, more drought. Welcome to climate uncertainty.

“If we get really serious about reducing emissions (80% reduction by 2050), we’ll limit warming to the point that New York’s 2100 climate will be similar to today’s Virginia, whereas if we continue on business as usual we’ll experience Georgia’s climate by the end of century,” said Dr. Sacha Spector, director of conservation science at Scenic Hudson, in an e-mail to Dirt.

“Now, they grow a lot of same crops in Georgia as we do here but they grow them at different times with different varieties than we do. Other crops like apples and maple syrup, not so much.”

There’s no guarantee that we won’t suffer California’s fate; at some point, drought will visit. “It’s worth noting that while our region has been very legitimately focused on flood mitigation given the set of storms in recent years, we are statistically overdue for drought,” said David Church, planning commissioner of Orange County, NY, in an email. “The last drought of record here was in the 1960s. We need to prepare better for drought conditions that unfortunately will come.”

Dan Daly, who owns a garden supply and hydroponics store in Goshen, has noticed more people moving their tomato and basil growing indoors, where they won’t get hit by the blight that’s been getting worse with the humidity. More customers are also foregoing lawns in favor of xeriscaping, or landscaping with plants that can tolerate dry, almost desert-like conditions and that “kind of thrive on neglect,” he said. Plants like yarrow, salvias, sage, and hyssop are “resilient on both sides. They absorb the moisture they need to” when it rains, “and they can withstand prolonged exposure to heat and drought as well.”

Back to feeding ourselves 101

If problems are opportunities in work clothes, then we’ve got quite an opportunity on our hands.

“I think the heat and droughts in California and elsewhere, including more extreme weather in the Midwest, are providing opportunities for growers in the Northeast,” said Keith Stewart, a Westtown, NY organic farmer and author, in an email. “Here we usually have enough rainfall, we’ve got a lengthening growing season, we get enough heat but not too much yet, and we’ve got the mouths to feed, especially the ones that aren’t going to be eating so much from California and the arid West, as the water supply in those parts of the country runs low.

“True, the climate here is a bit less predictable than it used to be and we’ve had some severe storms in the last half dozen years, but overall I think conditions are still okay for growers — unless you’re in low-lying, flood-prone areas. Watch out for them.”

We’re probably not going to scale up to the point where we become an exporter like California, but we can get back to feeding ourselves.

Earlier springs and later autumns mean farmers can double-crop, said Hoffman, of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change & Agriculture, or grow two sets of crops in a season, as well as grow new crops like higher-yielding field corn. Milder winters mean we can grow things like winter canola in northern New York, to be processed into canola oil.

If field corn and canola don’t thrill you, get out into your garden with some zone 7 seeds (that’s gardener speak for plants that like the climate around the Mason-Dixon line) and see what takes.

“We’re going to need to be really nimble and diversified to stay resilient, repeatedly changing crops or to better suited varieties to keep up productivity, and having diverse crop portfolios that buffer failure or production hits from extremes,” said Spector, of Scenic Hudson.

Frank Cetera, founder of the nonprofit Alchemical Nursery in Syracuse, had just gotten a shipment of yucca and oca the day Dirt called. Both are perennial tubers associated with Central and South American climates, but he’s going to try planting them this year, since he lives in a neighborhood with a lot of Spanish speakers. “I was aware they don’t quite fit the bill for our zone, but we’re in the city, we don’t get early or late frost,” he said. Alchemical Nursery does not have a brick and mortar location. They plant mostly perennials – fruit and nut trees, and the indestructible tuber called the sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke – and encourage locals to take cuttings and re-plant them. It’s lots of little things we can do to strengthen our own vibrant foodshed as we head into the unknown.

“The only way to ensure food security for the Northeast is to have locally bred and produced seed sources of resilient, regionally adapted varieties,” said Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, NY, in an e-mail. “This is true for all regions – with the Southeast, Southwest, and Northeast being three of the most neglected by the big corporate multinational seed producers.”

But one massive seed producer has been just as busy here as anywhere: Mother Nature is tireless in developing and propagating hardy regional strains all over your yard. The best place to look for the toughest food plants is actually outside your garden gates, said Dina Falconi, a New Paltz-based forager, gardener, and author of “Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook.”

“Our climate’s really unstable and it’s hard to keep the traditional crops going, so what does the earth provide without all that care and pampering? In general the weed plants are the ones that have survived for thousands and thousands of years on their own,” said Falconi. “Maybe the change will be so severe that they’ll get knocked out too, but I could place bets that your weeds will be the last ones standing,” said Falconi.

It’s past time to get acquainted with the abundance of nourishing food all around us, which is the same stuff we usually pull up to grow our gardens. Like lamb’s ear, which can grow to the size of a man, and whose tender tips can be harvested all season like an ancient spinach; or maligned invasives like garlic mustard, whose leaves make pungent salad greens, flowers a garnish, and roots a substitute for horseradish. The prickly pear cactus, whose pads or “nopales” grace the cover, is native to North America, where it grows wild, but until I tracked nopales down at Garcia’s Supermarket in Middletown, I’m not sure I’d ever really seen a prickly pear cactus. Now that I’ve cut the spines off a couple nopales, sauteed them and eaten them with scrambled eggs, I feel more American, in a Wild West kind of way.

Inside the garden gates, “the other big piece is that you want to create an ecosystem that is resilient,” said Falconi, whose own “wild garden” is locally renowned. All the old-school organic gardening concepts, like composting and intercropping, become more essential as the extremes get pointier. “When you’re looking through a more permacultural lens, you’re enriching your soil’s humus so that it will hold the moisture that actually falls.”

Now is prime time for farming to reinvent itself. American farmers will have to put aside our historic arrogance, said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a food-activism nonprofit in Washington D.C., and look to places like Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where they grow those virtuous-sounding grains like millet, sorghum, and perennials that have deeper root systems than our staple grains, wheat and corn. (More extensive roots let plants reach deeper for water and nutrients, plus perennials don’t require annual plowing, which leads to erosion.) The Land Institute in Kansas is developing a perennial wheat, so that we can have our cake and eat it in the future, too.

If you’re a pioneering and energetic soul, why not seize this transitional moment to become a farmer? “There’s a huge potential for other people to move into this arena,” said Eliza Greenman, 31, an apple orchardist in upstate New York and the director of biodiversity at Greenhorns, an organization for young farmers. Sure, apples – particularly the organic apples that Greenman is planning to grow – are going to face more disease with the warmer weather, but there’s also a huge demand for them from, among other things, the burgeoning (gluten free!) hard cider industry.

“This is the most amazing time to plant the trees,” she said. “In terms of security and taking over what perhaps is being left by California, I think this would be the time. In terms of market and not having to compete with anybody in California – yeah. In terms of cost, because we’re not paying for water like they are, I certainly think this would be the time.”

Sidebar: How to prep your property for drought or flood

Watch what water does in a rain storm, said Ben Falk, Vermont farmer and author of “The Resilient Homestead,” and you will learn all you need to know to keep more water on-site, which both reduces flooding and leaves you with more moisture to work with in a drought situation.

Where the water runs the fastest in a rain storm – usually below buildings and driveways – figure out how to slow it down (maybe with handmade rock dams), and store the water on-site, in ponds, ditches or barrels, to be released slowly over time.

“We want to have our landscape act like little tiny deltas everywhere, rather than confluences of water. Once water really gets together in a big way it becomes difficult to manage. It becomes erosive, it becomes hard to spread out.”

Planting trees in your lawn breaks up soil and promotes deep infiltration. Reducing impermeable surfaces gives water more places to go, and stay. “Decide if you need that much driveway.” If not, turn it into a yard, or better yet, a garden or forest. Lawn is less permeable than gardens, orchard zones, woodlands or forested areas.

Avoid impermeable surfaces and bare soil whenever possible. Not only is soil relatively impermeable, but any significant rainstorm will take bare soil with it, causing erosion. If you’ve got bare soil in your garden or during construction projects, mulch it, seed it or get some plants growing in it as soon as possible. Mulching trees or gardens with natural materials found on-site helps keep water in.

“We have a pretty moist climate in the Northeast, but that could certainly change,” said Falk. “We’re always trying to absorb and utilize all water in the landscape. Never is runoff a good thing. Keeping water onsite as much as possible is always the goal.”

Sidebar: Roster of indomitables

Dirt asked local gardeners and farmers to name one crop that does well year after year.

Tomatillos - Joan Gussow, Piermont NY

Sunchoke, aka Jerusalem artichoke - Frank Cetera, Syracuse NY

Arugula (Sylvetta) - Gar Wang, Warwick NY

Chives - Diane Lindsay, Goshen NY

Sage - Therese Mattil, Wantage NJ