The Local Food Movement Is Flourishing And Shows No Signs Of Stopping

Joseph Erbentraut Senior Reporter, The Huffington Post- February 2, 2017
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For a long time, the prevailing mantra of farming in America has been simple: “Get big or get out.”

That mantra traces its roots back to the late Earl Butz, who President Richard Nixon appointed as U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1971. He held the position for five years.

Under Butz’s watch, domestic farm policies shifted to favor large, industrial operations planting mostly corn and soy and shun smaller farms that favored organic, locally sold crops. That legacy has continued to this day, as evidenced by U.S. farms’ dwindling crop diversity and the massive environmental footprint — like degraded soil, excessive water use, and heavy use of pesticides and herbicides — such approaches to farming leave behind.

Despite this, alternative approaches have continued to survive — and even thrive. A growing number of Americans want to know where their food comes from, connect with the families producing it and buy products at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs.

But how, exactly, can small farms capitalize on that interest and earn a living? Can farmers markets and CSA boxes really sustain a farm, especially at a time when the incoming administration has signaled a push to fight the local food movement’s recent gains?

Josh Volk thinks so. He’s the owner of Slow Hand Farm in Portland, Oregon, and he has a lot of evidence to back up his argument.

In a new book titled Compact Farms, out this week, Volk highlights 15 different farms across the country ― all of which are located on no more than 5 acres ― and the hard-working people who run them.

Volk details how each farm grows and sells its products, even offering advice to aspiring farmers who are interested in taking up the trade themselves. And through telling their stories, Volk pushes back against the “get big or get out” narrative, making a strong case for how smaller farms can, and do, contribute to our nation and planet’s health and livelihood — and will continue to do so regardless of the current political climate.

The Huffington Post recently spoke with Volk about farming and the future of food policy under President Donald Trump.

What inspired you to write this book that’s a how-to guide for small farmers?

I wanted to create a dialogue around how these things work and how can we make them better. I wanted to look at this smaller scale of agriculture and find out from the people what they are doing that is making them so successful, to put those ideas out into the world and try to generate more discussion around the topic.

How did you select the farms you highlight? What made them unique?

Narrowing it down was a little bit tricky. I was looking for a cross-section of farms. I wanted to have urban examples and rural examples in all different parts of the country. I ended up with more of a mid-northern tier and didn’t get farms further south, but I had so many good examples from farmers in the northern tier that just ended up being the way it was.

I was also looking for diversity in markets and to have a good gender balance. What I didn’t end up with, which I wish I had found more examples of, was a more racially diverse audience. It would have been interesting to find more examples of those farms ― they are out there, but that just wasn’t where my connections were.

You’ve been in this business for some time. You know your stuff. What surprises did you encountered along the way of working on this? 

The most surprising thing to me was how many examples of these farms there were. And some of these examples went back 15, 20, 30 or more years. There are many people who have been doing this for a significant amount of time. This is something that’s out there. It’s not new. I knew that to some extent but was surprised at how easy it was, in some ways, to find examples of that.

This all pushes back against the “get big or get out” idea — do you think that idea is dying out? Is there momentum here, or still a long way to go?

We always need more education about how successful these [small] farms can be. These examples of folks doing it for 20 or 30 years show you can maintain this. That this is sustainable in the environmental sense, in the social sense and in the business sense. I also included some examples of farms in their third or fourth or fifth year to show that it looks like when you’re first starting this. I don’t know if those farms will continue to succeed, but so far they have. But I think this is getting easier and there is a lot more information out there, and a lot more acceptance. I think it is gaining momentum.

I also don’t think that means that “small” is the only way. There needs to be a place for the mid-sized farms and even the bigger farms. But I think the landscape needs to be more open and more accepting of all of it. I hope this book will help make this more of an option of people who don’t want farming to just be the one way.

Farm policy has been in the spotlight recently thanks to Trump’s late nomination of a U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary. There have been reports of some farm groups being anxious about Trump. How are you feeling about the future of small farms, given the current political climate and incoming administration?

From what I’ve seen over my last 15 to 20 years in small-scale agriculture, the organic farming movement operated without any help — and, really, antagonism — from the USDA and government entities and it still successfully grew. There’s no question in my mind that when the USDA took over the organic label and started the National Organic Program that that really kickstarted a lot of help from universities and other organizations and things have been much better. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be better than they are right now, but they are better than they ever were.

I think it’s almost impossible to think there won’t be a major step backwards [under the Trump administration], but I don’t think that step backwards will be particularly problematic. Certainly, with the very minimal subsidies there are and the kind of momentum there is in terms of interest in research, I think we’re still on solid ground. But we’re going to have to make major efforts to continue to move things forward now more than ever.

It sounds like you’re feeling more optimistic than many people might guess you would be. Why is that?

I live in a bit of a bubble here in Portland. We’re so progressive in some ways and there is so much support at the local level, not just in terms of local government, but with the customers — the people at the farmers markets and the support for the CSA growers and restaurateurs using local produce and buying from local farmers. It doesn’t feel like any of that is going to change. If anything, I think in some ways, there’s more of an excuse than ever for that core group to put their support behind these small farms, to double down on that.

I’m optimistic, too, because I do travel and visit farms in other parts of the country. And over the past five to 10 years doing that, I’ve always been impressed when I go see these places. I grew up on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and it was not like that when I lived there 30 years ago. The food scene is changing. Maybe it doesn’t look the same as it looks in Portland, but there are a lot of the same aspects of support for local farms. I meet a lot of farmers who are making it work because restaurants are buying from them and people want their produce at farmers markets. I don’t just see that in this bubble in Portland. I see it everywhere I go.

What are other indications of this movement that you’re seeing?

When I first moved to Portland in 2001, I think there were maybe 15 CSAs serving the area. Now I think it’s at least five or six times that. There were no training programs for new farmers starting out, unless you consider the on-farm jobs, which were limited at the time. Now you have formalized training programs at community colleges and private organizations, as well as through farms. And all of those programs exist because people are interested in getting involved at this scale in this type of agriculture. It’s a huge leap forward. If you track it year to year, it doesn’t seem like much, but if you compare it to 20 or 30 years ago, it’s a leap forward. I don’t see that slowing down. I see it accelerating.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Slow Hand Farm CSA, Sauvie Island, Portland, Oregon.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

A network of small farms and suppliers selling especially fresh food can produce inexpensive food!

By Katherine Whittaker June 27, 2016

Produce prices at your local Chinatown are likely a fraction of what they cost at other supermarkets, and if you’ve wondered why, you’re not alone. In an investigative report for the Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Kadet admits she always assumed the low prices were a reflection of subpar produce. But a deeper investigation of New York’s Chinatown with author Valerie Imbruce led her to the opposite conclusion, and reveals the hidden truths behind the neighborhood’s fruit and vegetable supply chain.

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The markets reduce prices by negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers, said Wellington Chen, director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.

Imbruce, who’s researched the Chinatown produce economy for over a decade, is the author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace. In the Journal she distills to Kadet the real reason Chinatown can keep prices low: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” While most of the rest of New York’s markets get their produce from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, Chinatown sellers work directly with small neighborhood warehouses. Since they’re operating in close geographic proximity, they can get fresh produce throughout the day from wholesalers, and therefore don’t need

Markets also cut costs by eschewing extra technology and certain aesthetic choices—the Journal points out that shelves “are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint,” prices are scrawled on cardboard instead of printed on stickers, and credit cards are not always accepted. Chinatown retailers also manage to cut costs by “negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers,” Kadet notes.

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People shop at one of Chinatown’s many green grocers along Mott Street in NYC

“All this translates into low overhead for the retailers—and low prices for shoppers,” the article points out. “The typical Chinatown produce markup is just 10% to 12% over wholesale, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.”

And then there’s the variety. In Chinatown, Imbruce says, you can find anything from jackfruit to fuzzy squash and baby Shanghai bok choy, in addition to almost 200 other fruits and vegetables. Wholesalers in Chinatown source these interesting items from family farms growing Asian vegetables in Florida or Honduras. Imbruce mentions that she has visited more than 75 of these farms and saw very little exploitation; in fact, they were happy to be working for Chinatown wholesalers “because they could cultivate an array of crops, leading to economic and agronomic stability.”

But what may keep Imbruce coming back is, as she puts it, the adventure of learning about other fruits and vegetables. “It’s just a fun, happy place to go…And it’s always bustling.”

“Cheap” Food has a High Cost

The industrial food system that provides 95-99% of the food to U.S. households results in the least expensive food anywhere in the world on a price basis… at a very high social, environmental, and human and animal health cost.  We can do better….


HANOVER — The United States needs a new food policy, much like it already has an energy policy and an agriculture policy, journalist and author Michael Pollan told a crowd of more than 700 on Monday.

The country’s existing so-called food policy, as it has remained over the last 50 years, is to ensure Americans’ food is “plenty and cheap,” Pollan said.

On that metric, we’ve succeeded, he said — Americans spend about 9.5 percent of their disposable income on food, while Europeans spend 14 to 15 percent. United States citizens, Pollan said, enjoy cheaper food than do the citizens of any other country, now or ever.

“In the history of humankind, that is a blessing,” he said.

But cheap food incurs costs elsewhere, Pollan said.

Americans need a more thoughtful food policy, Pollan said, because left unchecked this $1.5 trillion industry produces environmental, social and medical harms, of which the public remains largely unaware.

For instance, one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas pollution today results from the agriculture industry, Pollan said. Nitrogen pollution from farms — used to fertilize fields depleted by monocultural agriculture — has created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Massachusetts, he said. Oligopolies in the meat industry (only four meat packers slaughter 85 percent of the beef in the country, he said) mean that farmers are forced to accept unfairly low prices for their livestock — prices that prevent them from adopting sustainable practices, Pollan said. Overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry has led to evolution of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, he said. Americans suffer more chronic diseases from dietary choices than from any other cause, he added.

These and other consequences of Americans’ food consumption and food production ought to be addressed intentionally and holistically, Pollan said, through a national food policy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wrote in a memo leaked to the press that the Obama administration needs to coordinate such a food policy. Vilsack was on Hillary Clinton’s short list for vice presidential candidates, and Pollan said he’s likely to have her ear should Clinton win the election.

It’s worth watching for steps in this direction, should Clinton prevail, he said, but advocates for better food policy have been disappointed before. Clinton has also said she’d pursue antitrust litigation against the few meat-packing corporations that currently control the industry — “I’ll believe that when I see it,” Pollan said.

A professor at Vermont Law School is currently working with her peers at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to draft a blueprint for what a national food policy might look like.

Today, numerous agencies oversee food-related issues, and no overarching policy guides their actions with respect to food, so the agencies and the other policies they try to put in place “are not coordinated, and sometimes they’re at cross-purposes, and sometimes they undermine each other,” said Laurie Ristino, who teaches at Vermont Law School and heads the institution’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems.

“We’d really benefit from a coordinated approach” to food, Ristino said.

As president, Clinton might invest the time and political capital that a national food policy would require, but it’s hard to say for certain, since candidates this year have articulated relatively few specific policy positions, Ristino said. No president is likely to undertake a food policy without clear support from voters, she said.

“I don’t think it’s impossible or out of the question that Clinton would focus on it … but really it has to coalesce and be part of [her] agenda, which is partly our responsibility — to say, ‘This is important,’” Ristino said.

One thing standing in the way of food-policy reform in the U.S., Pollan said, is the food movement itself.

It’s a very diverse coalition, Pollan said, “and not all interests in it care about each other.”

For instance, many activists working toward improved food-production practices care primarily about animal welfare, Pollan said. These activists don’t care nearly as much about the working conditions laborers experience while picking produce in fields or while preparing meals in fast-food restaurants, he said. Those who feel most strongly about workers’ conditions aren’t animated by concern for the environment, and those who care most about the environment aren’t typically worried about processed foods’ deleterious effects on public health, he said.

Pollan likened the situation to that experienced by members of the gay rights movement a decade ago — fractured and heterogeneous, until “some part of it decided to work on marriage equality” — and said a similar focus on a single issue could lead to real improvements in the industry.

Another obstacle to food policy reform, Pollan said, can be seen even in the congressional committees devoted to agriculture, which are composed almost entirely of representatives for agricultural interests. There are no committee members chosen to represent “eaters,” or ordinary American citizens, Pollan said.

The result is agriculture policies written to serve the agriculture industry, and to a lesser extent, farmers, he said. Ordinary Americans ought to have a seat at the table that makes these decisions, Pollan said, because, for instance, current agricultural policies drive national public health problems that ramp up health care costs.

Although corporations exercise significant influence over what Americans eat and what Americans wish to eat, Pollan said, consumers also play a role in shaping the country’s approach to food.

Among the most influential decisions Americans make in their food habits, Pollan said, is the choice to eat meat.

Americans on average consume half a pound of meat per person every day, he said.

“In the history of humankind, this is a new thing,” he said. “Meat was a luxury for most of humankind for most of human history.”

Meat requires enormous resources to produce, he said, to the point that eliminating meat from their diet is among the single most effective methods individuals have to combat anthropogenic climate change.

At some point, he said, Americans’ current meat-eating habits “will seem irresponsible.”

“I’m old enough to remember when, if you had any litter in your car, you threw it out the window,” Pollan said, and when “smoking in public places was something routine.

“I think meat eating’s going to suffer the same thing,” he said.

Although Pollan professed to enjoy eating the flesh of other animals, he said that at some point the environmental community will need to reckon with the practice.

Once that happens, he said, meat’s likely to become “something very special you have on Sunday night.”

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Urban farmers find success leads to eviction

It’s a prickly chore Clark loathes but one she can’t avoid as her Big Muddy Farm has had to move from one vacant lot to another even though the business was thriving.

Urban farms like Clark’s are being evicted from center cities across the nation where they’ve become a much-remarked-on driver of urban revival in recent years, having brought healthy food, commerce and eye-pleasing greenery to dreary neighborhoods. During the recession, downtown landowners and leaders offered up plots for free to get new vitality on empty streets.

Now the thriving farms are being routed by another urban phenomenon: the hordes of people moving back downtown to live, which is turning green spaces into prime real estate. Plots where low-income residents raised vegetables, where community groups trained at-risk youth and where small garden businesses took root are being snapped up for construction of new apartments and townhouses.

“You have to plant as if you’re going to be there 10 years, even if you know it probably won’t work that way,” said Clark, a co-founder of Big Muddy Farm. She added, “It stinks to put in the time in an investment that doesn’t last.”

The evictions are sad but inevitable, said Amy Brendmoen, a City Council member in St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently booted an urban farm from city land to make way for housing construction. Even the most robust farms can’t earn enough to compete with a real estate development.

“You couldn’t help but smile when you went by,” she said of the ousted Stones Throw farm. “They were working so hard. You could see the harvest. It was incredible.”

No estimates exist on the number of urban farms, but their popularity soared in the past seven or eight years. Many started as community projects.

It’s unclear how many will survive. Big Muddy’s partners are hoping to hold onto their main farm, a series of raised beds and unheated greenhouses on three empty lots between a nonprofit theater and houses dating to the early 1900s.

But in Denver, Lisa Rogers last month closed her Feed Denver organization, which promoted urban farming in the booming city. The fact that the farms’ beautifying effect actually helps endanger them is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Developers will call and say, ‘We have a piece of land, can you pretty it up for two years?’ Rogers said. “As available land gets squeezed and prices go through the roof, like in Denver, it’s nearly impossible to find land and stay there.”

Even public property isn’t safe. Recently, a 6,000-square-foot nonprofit farm called GreenLeaf was evicted by the Denver Housing Authority so the land could be sold to a private housing developer. At-risk high school students worked at the farm, which is now moving next to a middle school.

“We’re going to have to look for new customers, and our old ones are going to have to look for a new produce source,” said Cody Meinhardt, the nonprofit group’s executive director.

In many center cities, residents are lamenting the disappearance of the farms, or their move to the suburbs.

Laura Staugaitis regularly bought produce-filled boxes from a local farmer near Denver, but said she can’t justify the 45-minute trip the purchase now requires.

“The drive made it a negative experience rather than an enriching experience,” she said.

The pressure for urban land is especially intense in the fastest growing cities like Houston.

In 2008, neighbors in a financially and racially mixed area just southwest of downtown signed a $1 a year lease with a property owner to turn an overgrown lot into the Midtown Community Garden.

“My goal was to get people out of their homes and apartments so they could relate to each other, and we did that,” said resident Scott Harbers, who helped set it up.

But attempts to get local government to acquire the site as a public space failed, and last year it was sold for nearly $1 million to a housing developer.

Some urban farm promoters are pushing local officials to begin setting aside plots for urban agriculture because of the health and community benefits. In the Seattle area, officials have designated portions of parks and other public land. In Los Angeles, community groups are working to encourage developers to have farming and green space designed into housing projects, including on rooftops.

“The vacant lot story is cool, but it’s also short term,” said Jesse Dubois, a leader in the Los Angeles urban farming effort.

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Follow Scott McFetridge at: https://twitter.com/smcfetridge .


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/businessmoney/19693746-95/urban-farmers-find-success-leads-to-eviction

Veganism: A Solution to World Hunger

By Emilee Herrick; UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Student

Out of the 7 billion humans on this planet, 925 million of them suffer from the effects of hunger, and 870 million people are affected by malnutrition. Each year, five million people will die of starvation; 2.5 million will be children under the age of five. Based on these statistics, one might think that the world, as a whole, cannot produce enough food, however that is not the case. We produce enough plant-based foods to feed the entire world, so why are there people suffering the effects of starvation?

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The meat, egg, and dairy industries are leading contributors to world hunger. A vast majority of plant foods produced each year, specifically corn, grains, and soybeans, are fed to livestock rather than people. The University of Minnesota conducted a study on the connection between agricultural resources and world hunger. They concluded that if all crops were grown for direct human consumption, there would be a 70% increase in the world’s food supply, and 4 billion more people would have access to food to eat. Such an increase would be able to sustain the world’s current population, as well as the estimated two to three billion increase by the year 2050.

endhungerAccording to the Worldwatch Institute, “Meat consumption is an inefficient use of grain—the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor.” To produce one pound of meat: cows need thirteen pounds of grain, pigs require seven pounds of grain, and chickens must consume four and a half pounds of grain. If that grain were instead going directly to people, we would have more grain and fewer hungry people.   Another exemplification of this inefficiency is in the decrease of available calories when animals are processed.   Researchers of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment found that 36% of calories in crops are being fed to animals, but when the animal is processed into meat, only 12% of those calories are available to people.

feedingIn order to combat world hunger, we must reduce or abstain from animal-based products and rely more on plant foods.   In a world where the population is driven primarily by personal wants and excessive luxuries, we must think about the detrimental factors that our mere desire to eat and produce animal-based products has on us at an individual level as well as a societal level. As a population, we have all of the research and statistics to prove just how unsustainable our consumption habits are on all levels, but today people seem too focused on their own wants than about whether others have met their basic needs.

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You may contact the author at: Emilee Herrick

They are drilling for water millions of years old

df445f6f-703f-4629-a9b3-681e90efbeb5-1020x612Kim Hammond does not want responsibility for her neighbours’ livelihoods, or for the crops which stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, or for the earth itself in this corner of California.

But these days, her little bungalow office in the yard of her family’s drilling company can feel like Mount Olympus.

“It’s just way too stressful, playing God,” said Hammond, a grandmother who co-owns the company and works as its secretary. “Every day we have people on the phone or here in person, pleading. It breaks your heart. But I always give it to them straight. I don’t sugarcoat it.”

It is her job to tell farmers when – or if – a team can visit their property to drill for groundwater and make a well which can save a crop, avert bankruptcy and, perhaps, preserve a way of life.

As California faces a likely fourth year of drought, demand for drilling in the Central Valley has exploded. Hammond’s company, Arthur & Orum, can barely keep up: its seven rigs are working flat-out, yet a white folder with pending requests is thicker than three telephone books.

The waiting list has grown to three years, leaving many farmers to contemplate parched fields and ruin in what has been one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. It supplies half of America’s fruit, nuts and vegetables.

“We’re overwhelmed. We’re going crazy,” said Hammond. “Everyone is in a desperate situation. Everyone has a sad story.”

Arthur & Orum has bought an additional rig for $1.2m, and out-of-state drillers have moved into the area. But as drills criss-cross the landscape, boring ever deeper into the earth, there is a haunting fear: what if they suck up all the groundwater? What if, one day, the water runs out?
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“We’re having to go deeper and deeper,” said Hammond. “They say we’re tapping water millions of years old. That boggles the mind. I can hardly grasp it.”

Meagre rain has depressed the water table so much that in some areas drills bore more than 1,500ft. Sucking up water stored long underground can cause soil to subside and collapse. In some places the land has dropped by a foot. Hydrogeologists have warned that pumping out groundwater faster than it can recharge threatens springs, streams and ecosystems.

Hammond said she was conflicted that the family business was saving some neighbours’ livelihoods for now but risked long-term devastation. “They say we’re cutting our own throats. I live here. I don’t want to live in the desert.”

Sensing drama, a reality TV production company has asked the family company about doing a show.
Desperate times

The spectre of desertification inched closer this week. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which supplies about a third of California’s water, is paltry. The California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program found just 6.7in of snow – close to the lowest on record – at a survey spot near Echo Summit.

Storms in December and February mean reservoirs hold more water than this time last year, but they remain well below average. Conservation efforts are slipping. In January urban areas used 9% less water than January 2013, far below the official target of 20%.

El Niño, the weather system which often douses the western US, has returned after a five-year absence but promises little relief. Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement it is “likely too late and too weak to provide much relief for drought-stricken California”.

Federal officials warned last week that for a second consecutive year irrigation projects were likely to allocate zero water to Central Valley farmers without senior water rights.

“This is an absolutely devastating shock,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director for the Fresno County farm bureau. “Unless things change dramatically in the next six weeks, we expect 2015 to be much worse than last year.”

Crisis is apparent as you drive through the valley. Many fields are fallow – some idled last year, others more recently. The earth is baked hard. Preliminary estimates suggest Fresno may have recorded its warmest-ever February, prolonging what has been dubbed the “time without winter”. Roadside signs warn of the consequences. “No water = no food.” “Food grows where water flows.”

The American Meteorological Society has found no definitive link between climate change and California’s drought, but a recent report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said rising temperatures caused dry periods to overlap more often with warm periods.
‘It’s like frigging chemotherapy’

Computers and state-of-the-art irrigation have not spared Shawn Coburn, 46, who owns a farm near Dos Palos, in Merced County. Last year he abandoned alfalfa and pomegranates and cut his 1,000-acre tomato crop by two-thirds. “This year I’ll fallow all of it. You’ll see a lot more land fallowed this year.”

Like many farmers, he assailed pumping restrictions aimed at protecting the delta smelt, a threatened fish, and other environmental regulations, branding them ruinous and futile. Environmentalists call them vital to the entire ecosystem.

Coburn has spent almost $4m on wells but said in some areas water plumbed from ever lower depths was often laden with salt and other minerals. “It’s like frigging chemotherapy,” he said. “You can get away with it for one year. By the third year you’re basically killing the tree.”

Even so, many farmers see no alternative.

Clarence Freitas, 56, who owns 70 acres of almonds and grapes, watched with relief as a team from Arthur & Orum drilled into his baked soil, boring through 80ft a day until reaching 440ft and an expensive, urgent replacement for his old 160ft-deep well.

“My heart hurts, my bank account hurts,” he said, as muddy water gushed from pipes. Neighbours advised him to go deeper, in anticipation of the water table plunging further, but Freitas said the men in his family tended to die young – “I hope it’ll last 20 years and by then I’ll be gone.” He was not optimistic about the valley. “This could go back to being desert, the way it was before irrigation.”

Many farmers are descendants of migrants who fled here to escape the 1930s dust bowl, a trauma immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. It could happen again, except this time in California’s man-made Eden, said Matt Hammond, 51, Kim’s husband, on his way to a drilling site.

“They’ll keep growing crops around here until they pump the valley dry. If something doesn’t change, everything will dry up and die. It won’t be farmable anymore.”

The community had hoped for a “miracle March” of bountiful rain but that seems unlikely, he said, scanning azure skies. “Nobody’s fault but God’s.”

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