California Needs an Agricultural Revolution

From the Ojai Valley, I Can See the State’s Post-Carbon Future—And It Looks Like the Ancient Past

Orange orchard in Ojai Valley. Image by Stephanie Pincetl.

The Ojai Valley in Ventura County is a magical place. Consider its elements: the sweet and intoxicating smell of California citrus blossoms in the spring, the open space preserved by orchards, the seasonal creeks that run free through the cultivated lands, the surrounding chaparral covered hills and mountains.

But the Ojai Valley is also a place in peril. That’s because the water source that keeps this inland Ventura hamlet thriving is nearly dry.

Lake Casitas reservoir was built in the late 1950s when decades of plentiful rain hid the true nature of California’s arid climate. Back then, the official projections for water-resources potential were pretty optimistic. Today, that story has changed dramatically, and any other approach to water supplies seems beyond our conventional ways of water management.

I came to the Ojai Valley with my husband about 15 years ago, when the disruptions to the climate regime still seemed distant. But two consecutive deep droughts have brought water uncertainty front and center.

It’s this fear of water shortages that is dominating conversations and creating antagonisms: farmers versus city dwellers, farmers against farmers, water officials vs. everybody. We all know that the snowpack in the mountains is dwindling, so if we run out of water and average temperatures continue to climb, what then?

I am a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability with several decades of research on California land use, water, energy and the question of sustainability and climate change. I’ve done research with biologists, hydrologists, engineers, climate scientists and public health experts looking at environment and sustainability, environmental justice, policy and politics, and conducted a great deal of quantitative research on water resources. I am also a native Californian, in love with the state.

Thinking about the state’s future and its magnificent resources and agricultural productivity, the fact that much of agriculture today is intertwined with dependence on hydrocarbons—from fertilizers, fumigants and pesticides to diesel and plastics—poses a predicament. These don’t just override the natural conditions, but damage them, seriously. This means that continuing to grow crops and rear livestock using highly consumptive 20th-century methods in a leaner, dryer 21st century will compound ecological crises and implode the agricultural sector. It’s inescapable that in order for California agriculture to survive, and even flourish, with less water and fewer hydrocarbons, we need nothing short of a revolutionary re-envisioning of the future without carbon.

The politics of this change will be enormously contentious, difficult, and protracted. But consider the alternative: The path of agriculture today is toward extinction. A changing climate is here, and water is not something that can be manufactured. With more dry years, and more groundwater extraction, the path toward groundwater depletion is clear. That’s why though what I propose below may seem fanciful and impossible, I offer them as thought pieces, as sketches of a possible future that provides livelihoods and sustenance, a future that the current trajectory cannot deliver.

Before globalization, which is dependent on being able to rapidly ship products anywhere across the world using fossil fuels, people ate far more seasonally. It was unimaginable to eat bell peppers in the wintertime in northern climates, for example. But now, the global south grows crops for the global north to ensure foodstuffs are available all year round. Reduce or eliminate fossil fuels, and a new agriculture will have to emerge for a post-hydrocarbon fuel world that will rely on local and regional resources. People will eat more seasonally and will eat fewer high-energy dense foods, such as meat. Different regions across the U.S. and the world will return to growing what can be grown in those places, supplemented by hot houses heated with compost (for example) in cold regions, or eat mostly tropical crops in tropical regions.

This means California will no longer be a large exporter of food, domestically or, especially, internationally. California agriculture will be primarily destined for Californians. Food will be more expensive and perhaps our diets will be more limited, but that does not mean there necessarily will be less to eat. Rather, we will simply not be able to source the world for our food, often to the detriment of growers here, in Mexico, South America, Africa and elsewhere.

One of the most challenging issues, fundamental to the type of transition described above, will be the question of corporate large-scale land holdings, and the price of land. With dramatically less water available, and the shift away from hydrocarbon agriculture, land prices may plummet on their own. But it may also be that big farms will break up, as they will no longer be viable without water and without the ability to cultivate lands using large-scale, fossil fuel intensive machinery.

Corporate owners might be compensated, but at the pre-water development land costs, and perhaps subtracting the cost of land and water remediation necessary because of the extensive chemical contamination. (Under the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, which authorized federal water projects, farmers were to sell acreage above 160 acres, or 320 for married couples, at pre-water prices, or pay for the full cost of their share of the project. They never did, and under President Reagan that law was overturned, handing over to large-scale corporate agriculture the investment of the American taxpayer in water delivery systems.) If the return on investment for corporate growers declines, they will exit. And since water will be scarce and fuel for commuting non-existent, turning farmland into housing subdivisions will not be an option.

It’s inescapable that in order for California agriculture to survive, and even flourish, with less water and fewer hydrocarbons, we need nothing short of a revolutionary re-envisioning of the future without carbon.

A new agroecological agriculture will, however, create many new jobs. Though lands that were brought into production by the sheer application of fossil energy will go out of production, and the footprint of agriculture in the state will shrink, many more people will work the land. This has the potential to allow us to adopt more sustainable farming practices, modeled on historical examples of regions with climates such as ours, like the Eastern Mediterranean region where water systems were managed by experts adept at passive water systems, where and when the resource was available.

Peasant farmers grew crops based on knowledge about seeds and traditional practices passed from generation to generation and developed over many centuries. Each skill- and knowledge-base was specific to place—to the soils, flora and fauna, climate, slopes, light, and seasons. Practicing small-scale intensive agriculture, growing a diversity of crops, and applying organic inputs to increase or maintain soil fertility, these land artisans were decision makers responsible for feeding their families and others in the community.

We have such land artisans today, although their skills and knowledge are rarely appreciated. They anchor small towns. They create local economies and connected communities. And they have been advocating for such work for decades.

Back in 1996, the international peasants’ movement came together during the Food and Agriculture Organization World Food Summit in Rome to lay the foundation for a 21st-century approach via a policy framework. The coalition, comprised of working-class farmers—known globally as peasants—and Indigenous communities around the world, pointed to the urgent need for an organized, international response to the crisis facing agriculture. They advocated for practices based on agroecology—agriculture that respects local ecologies and fosters wholesome and productive interactions between plants, animals, and humans in order to keep ecosystems healthy and grow food for humans.

The agriculture movement they have built is based on the understanding of the mutual benefits that accrue when farming and livestock rearing practices respect the long-term need for ecosystem functions to endure. Around the world, organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition in the U.S., the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, and Nyéléni Europe and Central Asia Food Sovereignty Network are leading this campaign, which calls for food sovereignty, participation in agricultural policy, and land reform so that workers can retain their land. In addition to farming itself, this movement encompasses occupations including composting, raising beneficial insects, bee keeping, building and maintaining small-scale irrigation systems, manufacturing and maintaining new electric-powered agricultural machinery and processing equipment, food processing, weaving, the making of rope and twine, technical assistance, and local commerce such as distribution, retail, and social services.

Vibrant, modest, local economies will eventually thrive as a result of this agriculture. But none of it will be possible without a politics for a new future, a politics of reclaiming California for the common good, a politics that posits a positive future against an apocalyptic one. It is difficult to construct alternatives within the dominant system, but change does occur, the past is not the present, nor is it destined to be the future.

Take worker cooperatives, for example, which have been growing rapidly, by a net of 35.7 percent since 2013; such cooperatives have an average pay ratio, between the highest and lowest paid workers of 2:1, in contrast to the average pay ratio in the corporate world of 303:1. Current labor trends—including people seeming to prefer to stay home than work for poor wages—also represents a possible shift in thinking about commitment to the current system, which may lead to the kind of transformation that enables other shifts.

All we have to do is look to the Central Valley, which produces a quarter of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts and other table products, for the problems California will face if we continue to follow the path we’re headed down now. There, small towns are shrinking or have disappeared. The workers who live near the fields are served by archipelagos of franchise restaurants, gas stations, and chain hotels. Highway 99 rumbles through these towns, often below grade, both destroying the urban fabric and by-passing it, causing the Valley to reek of pollution from heavy truck traffic and diesel-burning locomotives in addition to the tractors and irrigation pumps whose toxic mix of pesticides and herbicides are contaminating the water or the air.

This story of poverty and ill-health will become the story of our state unless we develop a different ethics of practice, one where modesty, and living within our means is the foundation of a better and wholesome future where life of all kinds thrives. It is a pathway along which it will be possible to repair the rift between humans and nature and reconnect humans with the rest of life, upon which we so ineluctably depend. The driving force of this new ethics is about loving place.

I see glimpses of this other future in the Ojai Valley. Ojai is a transliteration of the Chumash word A’hwai or “moon,” and vestigial ancient oaks that the Chumash lived with still dot the orchards and town. For those who choose to live here, learning to farm within the limits of this small place will ensure the viability of the town and the surrounding agricultural land.

This means learning about place. It means learning about its groundwater resources—how to reinfiltrate stormwater effectively when it does rain (and it will, buckets), and then applying it carefully through up to date and well-maintained drip systems, and ensuring there is enough mulch to maintain soil moisture and build soil fertility. And it means planting locally appropriate plants in gardens, refraining from building individual swimming pools, being thoughtful and aware of limited water resources, and treating it as precious and life-giving.

The idea of living with limits needs to reach the Valley. In response to our changing climate, rather than bring in more water, despite the obvious fact that water from elsewhere does not exist and/or has been long promised to others ahead in the hopeful queue, the Valley should invest in proven and reliable groundwater resources that do exist here and can be managed for long-term sustainable yield. This does not represent hardship; it represents recognition of place and living in that place, fully.

Similarly, a new path for California may seem revolutionary in its vision as it will mean dissolving current systems, reappropriating land through expropriation for the benefit of the many, and insisting on mutualism and collaboration for new social organizations. But it’s a vision that can be possible if we decide this is the future we want, and resolve to follow a new ethic, one of mutual respect, one of compassion, and one that is aimed toward nurturing life.


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