The future of San Joaquin Valley agriculture could be ‘dryland agriculture’

Faced with fallow land as California dries up, farmers in the Central Valley may need to adopt new types of crops to survive.

(CN) — Often touted as the breadbasket of the world, California’s San Joaquin Valley is the most agriculturally productive region with more than 250 different crops. But the area is also a well-drained desert, and years of below-average rain and snowfall have dried up its relatively few water sources.

So far, farmers in the area have laid aside about 100,000 acres of farmland. Experts believe that by 2040, drought could force up to 500,000 acres to go fallow. The extreme drought has already led to a combination of less water routed through the Central Valley Water Project, reductions in surface water pumping and requirements for sustainable management of groundwater pumping to combat pollution. subsidence.

But the fallow land is also becoming a dust hazard for people living in nearby communities already affected by one of the country’s worst air qualities. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has published two gears and hosted a webinar on Tuesday to discuss both land fallow and the resulting dust pollution, as well as a solution: dryland farming.

Caitlin Peterson, associate director of the center and senior fellow at PPIC, extolled the potential of dryland, water-limited agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. In the past, farmers cultivated drylands as part of a normal crop rotation, although the practice is less common today. However, the unpredictability of rainfall in the region can lead to crop failure in arid lands unless limited irrigation is provided to establish the crop.

“The models show that even with some water to settle, the success rate increases and the yields themselves have increased beyond the five tonne threshold,” Peterson said.

She said winter wheat is best for forage — hay or silage for cattle and dairy cattle — because it requires less overhead and effort to grow than other crops. But the price of winter wheat is much lower than that of almonds or other cash crops, which could deter farmers from making the switch.

And there are other concerns too, Peterson said.

“The first is that the salts will build up because they will no longer be flushed out of the soil and the invasive weeds will put pressure on the native plants,” she said. She also highlighted the importance of irrigated farmland to limit dust and provide habitat for birds and other aquatic species. This would be lost if farmers fallow their fields without some sort of cover crop.

“One of the strengths of the report is that fields that incorporate dryland farming practices are able to retain water at a level equal to or greater than fields that are only fallow,” Peterson said. .

Much of the San Joaquin Valley is plagued by natural features that trap particles — mountain ranges on all sides and high-pressure ridges that trap air during the summer months. This can cause a number of health issues for youngsters and those with pre-existing conditions – and farm dust makes the situation worse.

PPIC researcher Andrew Ayres noted that proactive dust and farmland management can help improve air quality in the San Joaquin Valley. He presented a map of communities in the San Joaquin Valley — specifically in the northern part of the valley and in Madera and Kings counties — and how they might be affected by dust if additional fields were left totally fallow.

“A lot of these areas that will be impacted by increased dust will be low-income and rural communities,” Ayres said. “It will lead to more chronic and respiratory diseases as well as developmental problems in children.”

He said it will take innovative thinking from local, state and federal agencies to implement solutions.

One of the main problems for farmers is financing. This may include the question of whether it is worth digging up an orchard for a type of dryland crop – a discussion that prevailed during the panelist portion of the webinar.

Chowchilla nut and almond grower Mark Hutchson said grubbing up an orchard doesn’t come cheap. He noted that subsidy funding would be a factor in convincing farmers to switch to dryland agriculture and other cover crops.

Reyn Akiona, executive director of Valley Eco, said one way farmers are funding cover crops is through private companies that seek to offset carbon emissions. Cover crops and winter wheat naturally store carbon.

All panelists agreed that solutions to the problem will need to be innovative, especially as drought conditions are expected to continue and funding will need to be consistent. Some of the ideas put forward include water banking, storage, and other types of dryland crops besides winter wheat.

PPIC plans to publish additional reports on the subject until 2022.

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