Here we have the seventh and final article in my series on American farming and food systems, as part of my participation in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder. I wrote a profile of large-scale California farmer Cannon Michael for Ensia magazine, in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). Read an excerpt below. The profile was brought to life by the beautiful photos of photojournalist and Ted Scripps Fellow Sonya Doctorian.
How One California Farmer is Battling the Worst Drought in 1,200 years
California’s byzantine water system and crushing drought are leading farmers to extraordinary measures as they try to keep themselves from running dry.
By Sena Christian
On a warm March afternoon, farmer Cannon Michael walks alongside wheat fields adjacent to his house in Los Banos, in California’s Central Valley. Most of these fields won’t be watered again this year.
“Wheat’s not a glamorous crop, but it makes a lot of bread,” Michael quips.
This wheat, though, won’t return much money, Michael says. So it will be harvested for his sister’s two bakeries in San Francisco and the land fallowed, along with some fields formerly planted in alfalfa and cotton. They are among more than 1,000 acres Michael left unplanted this season to try and conserve water, amounting to about 10 percent of the 10,500 irrigated acres that make up his farm, Bowles Farming Company. Walking past the fields with his wife, Heidi, and their three young sons to a nearby barn with goats and sheep, Michael jokes about an imaginary Taylor Swift song called, “Sheep It Off,” much to his kids’ dismay.
Michael has a humorous side, but laughter can’t mask the rough reality of farming today in the Central Valley, a place famed for its abundant bounty of fruits and vegetables. By the spring of 2014, the region’s farmers had gone into survival mode. They hoped to secure enough water for a decent harvest, but last summer about 15,000 farmers on San Joaquin Valley’s east side received zero allocations of water from the Central Valley Project, the federal project in charge of storing and managing much of California’s water. The state’s worst drought in 1,200 years ravaged the region.
The drought, in combination with this long-established government system for deciding who gets water and who does not, has split the valley. Now Michael’s life, it seems, is almost exclusively focused on finding ways to conserve water and helping his neighbors who lack the precious resource. There’s no time to waste. If Michael and his peers can’t figure out a way to conserve and share the water that remains, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions will be jeopardized. California agriculture is a $46 billion industry, and the Central Valley alone produces nearly half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts in its Class 1 soil — the highest quality.