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Modesto Bee Story about the Agricultural Economy

Barry Nelson

Posted April 20, 2010

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If you’ve read many of the stories about water and agriculture in California over the past year or two, you might think that the agricultural economy has tanked.  In fact, the opposite is true. Here’s a remarkably upbeat story in the Modesto Bee about the agricultural industry in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Among the highlights is a report that gross farm income doubled from 2000 to 2008.

Make no mistake.  Some farmers at the bottom of the water rights seniority system have suffered during the past three dry years.  Overall, however, California agriculture remains a strong industry.   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. 

It’s a good thing that agricultural in the Valley remains strong.  In the water policy world, environmentalists and agriculture are often at odds.  But it’s important to acknowledge that keeping land in agricultural production helps reduce sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions from our cities.  Farms can help sequester carbon.  And some crops, like rice, and some agricultural areas, like the Delta, provide important wildlife habitat.  Frankly, environmentalists don’t express their support for a strong, sustainable agricultural economy often enough.  This is one of the reasons NRDC created the Growing Green Awards.  

We can maintain a healthy agricultural economy without sacrificing the health of our rivers and our fisheries.   To do that, however, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  This article helps. 

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steve shoapApr 20 2010 04:46 PM

I propose a new type of intelligent irrigation system. Please view it at

and tell me if the idea is worthwhile.

The system might allow for more efficient use of water by more farmers.

PhilipApr 21 2010 10:37 AM

Add alfalfa to rice as one of the crops with a lot of positive environmental externalities. But thanks for pointing out that a profitable agricultural economy is a Good Thing. Weirdly, there are still a lot of people who see making money in agriculture as evil, mostly because they cling to a myth of Ma and Pa and a bunch of chickens running around as "the way it ought to be". "All the horrible corporate giants", that sort of thing. I ask them how the environment, the working conditions of the employees, or the local economy would improve if agriculture in our state were an enfeebled cottage industry dependent on commodity supports, and get a blank look.
We don't do everything right, but we do it a heck of a lot better than wherever our crops would be grown if we got chased away. (Kern County, or the more tolerant workers' paradise of Iran for your pistachios, kids?). Agriculture is a cyclical, risky business, and you have to have the capital structure to survive some very rough years, like what 2010 appears to be. You also need to know, for good or bad, whether you have a reliable source of water, so that you can make long term investments and offer steady employment with reasonable benefits. If nobody wants to pay for reliable water, and a lot of land has to be retired, better to retire it now before everyone is ruined. That's another reason why stalemate helps nobody.

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