Monday, March 14, 2011

Food Production in California's Central Valley

Common egret in grassy area near rice field in Northern California
photo source: usda
Common egret in grassy area near rice field in Northern California

This month's issue of Audubon magazine has an article about growing rice in the Central Valley of California and describes how newer flooding methods have led to a resurgence in numbers of waterfowl such as long-billed curlews. There is some good Ag info included in the article, which I've selected below. California is so important to this nation in the food it provides for us year round, and I don't cover it here often enough.

In the mid-1800s the Gold Rush that lured people westward forever changed the face of the valley, reducing the pronghorn and elk to small, isolated populations. By the late 1800s grizzly bears and wolves had vanished altogether. A few mountain lions survived, but today the largest predator common to the Central Valley is the coyote. Less than one percent of the valley’s remaining grasses are native. Farm fields have replaced more than 94 percent of the freshwater marshes, and 99 percent of the riparian woodlands have been degraded or destroyed.

This is the bad news.

But if you are accustomed to strawberries on your cereal in the middle of winter, you might need to think twice before you criticize this land transformation. The Central Valley, with its Mediterranean climate of mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, has more than 81,000 farms and ranches on 14.5 million acres of agricultural land that produces fully one-fourth of the varieties of food items we place on our tables. More than 300 crops are grown here, from lemons, asparagus, and bell peppers to olives, almonds, and spinach.


In California rice is harvested once a year. Each April the fields are flooded with five inches of water, and the rice seed is planted. During the growing season, May to July or August, more water is added, but before the season’s apex, in August and September, the fields are dried out so the heavy harvesters can do their work. The rice stalks that remain after harvest must be worked back into the soil over the winter in order to prepare the fields for replanting the following spring.

For 80 years, since rice farming began in California in 1912, the growers routinely set their fields ablaze, burning off the straw. This was efficient, though unpleasant to anyone who lived nearby. “I grew up in Sacramento,” Langham says, “and as a kid you couldn’t play outside for two weeks or more. It was hard to see. Ash fell from the sky.” In 1991 the Rice Straw Burning Reduction Act mandated that burning be phased out over the next decade. As rice growers tried various mechanical means to get rid of the straw, some realized that keeping water in the fields created anaerobic conditions that would break down the plants naturally. “Lo and behold,” says Langham, “this also had the effect of creating a huge amount of waterbird habitat.”


A pound of rice requires between 250 and 650 gallons of water, although numerous crops use comparable amounts (a pound of soybeans uses about 240). Still, Hartman says, “There’s simply not enough water to go around.” How California’s water is split among farmers and 35 million residents is complex and often contentious.


Near Dixon we run smack into another problem: blocks of new homes that appear to have been dropped, like a movie set, into the middle of the fields. Small farming towns are becoming bedroom communities for people who want to work in the city but live in the country. “All these houses went up in the last six to seven years,” says Chris Conard, a natural resource specialist and curlew census volunteer. “And developers own much of this ag land, just waiting to develop it.”


Don Stap, author of Birdsong: A Natural History and A Parrot Without a Name, teaches English at the University of Central Florida.

Source: Audubon "Grains of Change"

From wikipedia:

Agriculture is an important sector in California's economy. Farming-related sales more than quadrupled over the past three decades, from $7.3 billion in 1974 to nearly $31 billion in 2004. This increase has occurred despite a 15 percent decline in acreage devoted to farming during the period, and water supply suffering from chronic instability. Factors contributing to the growth in sales-per-acre include more intensive use of active farmlands and technological improvements in crop production. In 2008, California's 81,500 farms and ranches generated $36.2 billion products revenue.