A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Ag

This summer, I returned to California’s Central Valley to report again on how the state’s historic drought is impacting farmers. Photojournalist Sonya Doctorian joined me. This time, I focused on how farmers are proactively responding and adapting. My story appears in High Country News, and you can read an excerpt below. A big thank you to the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for making my reporting trip possible!

1ChrisHurdLoRes

Chris Hurd has been farming for three decades in California’s Central Valley. He’s worried about the drought and high cost of water. (Photo by Sonya Doctorian)

A Dry Future Weighs Heavy on California Agriculture

Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what.

By Sena Christian

On a hot summer afternoon, California farmer Chris Hurd barrels down a country road through the Central Valley city of Firebaugh, his dog Frank riding in the truck bed. He lurches to a stop in front of Oro Loma Elementary School, which was built in the 1950s to accommodate an influx of farmers’ and farmworkers’ children. “All three of my sons went here,” Hurd says, as we walk through overgrown weeds toward the shuttered building, closed in 2010. “I was on the school board, the grass was green, kids were running around. Now it’s a pile of rubble.”

Agricultural land stretches out in every direction. Most of the town’s 8,300 residents are involved in growing or packing produce. The city is on the west side of the San Joaquin River, an area hit particularly hard by a historic drought, now in its fifth year. Wells have run dry and farm-related jobs are running out. Many other places in the eight counties comprising the San Joaquin Valley have suffered similar fates. These areas were disadvantaged to begin with, rural and isolated, lacking infrastructure, public transportation and safe housing. Persistent drought has compounded the struggles of some of the poorest communities in the nation. As of late January, 64 percent of the state was experiencing extreme drought—down from 78 percent that time last year. But even a stellar El Niño year won’t undo all the damage.

Hurd, 65, who earned a degree in mechanized agriculture from California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in 1972, has farmed for the past 33 years. These days, he tends 1,500 acres and serves on the board of a local water district. Right now, he’s debating whether to rip out 80 acres of 20-year-old almond trees whose yields don’t justify the cost of the water. Three years ago, his annual water bill was $500,000. Now, he says, it’s $2.5 million; the price per acre-foot has sharply increased since the drought. Farmers like Hurd, who have junior water rights, are the first to see their allocations from the state’s two major water projects curtailed during shortages, forcing them to invest in new wells to pump groundwater or buy water on the market. In 2014, farmers with junior water rights faced an unprecedented zero allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. That happened again last year. In late February, the federal project will announce its water supply outlook for 2016. The State Water Project has also dramatically reduced its deliveries over the last two years.

In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, farmers escape Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl by heading west to California in search of jobs and fertile land. Hurd says his friends have begun joking, grimly, about the reverse scenario — California isn’t working out, so why not pick up and move back to Oklahoma? “Some are leaving, some are staying to fight, a lot of them are in flux,” he says. Yet while grit has something to do with who stays and who goes, it ultimately comes down to two main factors: water and money. The survivors will likely need senior water rights and money to spend on planting high-value orchards or implementing expensive technology. Economically, California remains the largest agricultural producer in the United States. But El Niño’s precipitation not withstanding, the prolonged drought is putting some farmers under heavy duress, and no one is sure how far California’s Eden will sink.

… Read the rest of the article here …

The Fort Knox of Food

In October, I visited the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks is part of a system that safeguards the American food supply. In November, I checked out another piece of that system — the Wolfskill Experimental Orchards in Winters, California. Read more about gene banks in my Newsweek feature story, and check out an excerpt below.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.

Inside the freezer vault at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. (Photo by Sena Christian)

JohnPreece

John Preece supervises the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

Pomegranate

One of the many pomegranate varieties grown at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository. (Photo by Sena Christian)

The Fort Knox of Food

In the bowels of an unassuming building in the Colorado Front Range is a vast library of plant and animal material that could keep humanity thriving for centuries to come.

By Sena Christian

In 1948, botanist F.W. Went began a modest experiment that has since grown and grown into what is now a massive science project networked across the globe with ambitions of saving humankind. But its initial goal sought to answer a remarkably simple question: How long do seeds survive?

The year the project launched, Life magazine wrote about the “wonderfully unhurried” experiment intended to last 360 years, complete with a photo of Went, a California Institute of Technology professor at the time, standing behind shelves lined with 2,400 slender glass tubes holding 120 types of dried seeds from California-native plants.

Sixty-seven years later, Went’s seeds reside in a beige multistoried building off the quad of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Its blandness masks the significance of the project it houses. This “Fort Knox” of gene banks—the nickname for the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—is designed to safeguard the American food supply from the numerous threats posed by a rapidly changing planet. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Droughts, floods, sea-level rise, ocean acidification and the resulting hunger, malnutrition and mass displacement of people will likely become more severe in coming years because of climate change. And though poor people in developing countries will be on the front lines, even wealthier nations like the U.S. are going to have to come to terms with the urgent need for action.

Additionally, the world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. Many believe Earth has entered its sixth mass extinction: a human-induced and accelerated decline of animal and plant species of massive proportions. What remains needs to be kept alive and available for breeding. Otherwise, the material could be lost forever—and when crop and livestock diversity is lost, so is our food supply’s resiliency to environmental threats. We can’t let that happen because the world’s population is projected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050. And that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Is Plant Science The Answer To Improved Food Security?

In May, I had the opportunity to participate in the Metcalf Institute for Climate Change and the News in St. Louis, Missouri. The institute coincided with the second National Adaptation Forum, and I wrote a dispatch from the forum for Earth Island Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team tasked with developing virus-resistant cassava, which is a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri (Photo by Sena Christian).

Senior Research Scientist Nigel Taylor leads a team developing virus-resistant cassava. Taylor works at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Photo by Sena Christian).

Is plant science the answer to improved food security?

In a world of climate change and growing global population, researchers believe plants are key to adaptation

By Sena Christian

Nigel Taylor spreads apart the wilted and discolored leaves of a cassava plant. He wants us to see its sickness on full display. Taylor leads a team of scientists in St. Louis attempting to genetically engineer a virus-resistant version of the plant, and is working with researchers in Uganda and Kenya, where cassava is a staple crop. Once created, this plant will be delivered to small-landholder farmers for widespread use in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

“Cassava is an incredibly important source of calories in the tropics,” Taylor explains to a group of journalists visiting the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri in early May. The ultimate goal of this not-for-profit center, founded in 1998, is to double production of the world’s most important crops while lowering agriculture’s environmental footprint. More than 200 employees are on the case, and for these scientists, answers lie in an obvious place: “We think plants are a wonderful solution to a lot of global challenges,” vice president of research Dr. Toni Kutchan tells us.

Among the biggest challenges is a growing global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, which will need to be fed without degrading more natural resources. Other challenges include regions around the world suffering from increased salinity in soil, water supplies tainted with fertilizer, declining crop yields due to plant disease, and intensifying droughts. The agricultural powerhouse of California, for instance — responsible for producing about half of the United States’ vegetables, fruits and nuts — has entered the fourth year of a historic drought with no relief in sight. Danforth scientists are developing crops to withstand these environmental stressors as we brace for the impacts of climate change.

“Human-induced climate change is here and now. It’s not just something we need to think about for our grandchildren,” says Kathy Jacobs at the second National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis, where she joined more than 800 representatives from the private and public sector in May.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Unconventional Agriculture

This time around I’ve profiled four women farmers in the United States who are trying to make agriculture better. We’ve got an urban farmer, an ex-farmworker, an activist and a beginner. This article appears in the spring print issue of Earth Island Journal and is the fifth story in my series on American farming and food systems. Read an excerpt below.

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Originally from Mexico, Nelida Martinez labored as a farmworker for several years before launching her own operation at Viva Farms in Washington. (Photo by Cole Allen)

Elle2

Elle Huftill-Balzer is a farm manager for Soil Born Farms in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Sena Christian)

Unconventional Agriculture

A rising crop of women farmers are changing our food systems for the better

By Sena Christian

Last year, all five of the first-year apprentices at Soil Born Farms’ headquarters near Sacramento, California were women. Another young woman, Elle Huftill-Balzer, was the boss of them all, the farm manager. “It [was] a total girl-power year around here,” says Janet Whalen Zeller, co-founder and co-director of Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, which oversees two farms totaling 56 acres. In fact, during the past few years the majority of apprenticeship applicants at the farm have been women.

Zeller isn’t a farmer. She is an educator and advocate with a vision of healthy food for all of Sacramento County’s 1.4 million residents. In 2004, she and two farmers turned Soil Born into a nonprofit organization to help urban residents connect with their local food system and to improve under- served communities’ access to organic produce.

Zeller can’t really explain the girl-power phenomenon, or why Soil Born’s team is such a striking con- trast to the demographic portrait of American farmers, which skews largely male. According to the US Census of Agriculture, 86 percent of the 2.1 mil- lion people responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of this coun- try’s farms are men. But wagering a guess, Zeller suggests that young wom- en are probably becoming attracted to sustainable agriculture because of an interest in social justice and in curbing the harmful environmental practices of industrial-scale farming. “There seems to be a cellular call to tend the earth in a more sustainable way,” she says.

… Read rest of the article here …

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Don’t get too excited, but here we have the third article in my series on alternative farming and food systems, which I’m working on as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Colorado. And you can expect my fourth article to publish within the coming weeks. I’ve been one busy bee! My first piece was on the challenges of urban farming for Earth Island Journal. Next up: efforts to encourage military veterans to become farmers, written for Newsweek. My latest article is on the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol and its role in the food-versus-fuel debate for EIJ. Wham bam, thank you ma’am! Here’s an excerpt:

Michael Crowley, a senior scientist with the Chemical and Biosciences Center at NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Michael Crowley, a scientist with the NREL, created an animated model of Cel7A, which is nature’s primary enzyme for decaying plants. Visualizing the enzyme’s process could help scientists bioengineer a version that accelerates the cellulosic ethanol process. (Photo by Pat Corkery/courtesy of NREL).

Is Cellulosic Ethanol the Next Big Thing in Renewable Fuels?

Ongoing efforts to commercialize this clean energy source may lead the US to a more independent energy future

By Sena Christian

For a long time it seemed like turning the inedible parts of plants into a commercially viable biofuel, known as cellulosic ethanol, was nothing more than a pipedream. The enzymes needed to release sugars from cellulose — the fiber that forms plant structure — to be fermented into ethanol were inefficient and expensive. And the cellulose found in virtually every plant, flower, tree, grass, and bush is by its very nature evolved to withstand decay.

Ethanol can be derived from sugar-based, corn-based, and cellulose-based materials. In Brazil, sugarcane is the feedstock of choice, while in the United States that designation goes to corn. The starch in corn kernels easily converts into simple sugars, with the enzyme catalyzing this process costing a mere .03-cents per gallon; the sugars are then fermented into alcohol (additives make it undrinkable). Because of the relatively low cost, corn-based ethanol has been meeting America’s demand for an alternative fuel source, especially as people drive less and fuel economy improves.

Why even bother with cellulosic ethanol? For one, there’s the questionable carbon footprint of corn ethanol, which, depending on how it is produced, can be significantly better or significantly worse than that of petroleum. Greenhouse-gas emissions from cellulosic ethanol, on the other hand, are estimated to be roughly 86 percent lessthan petroleum sources. And using cellulosic materials doesn’t create a food-versus-fuel scenario. Ramping up production of the biofuel could reduce the nation’s reliance on imported oil. In 2012, the US imported about 40 percent of the petroleum it consumed, nearly three-quarters of which fueled transportation around the country. The US government also spends millions of dollars on military support to keep oil shipping lanes open; money that could go toward domestic needs instead.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Time For A Change

So far, this blog has chronicled my “Wailing Peacocks” project, which involved a Kickstarter campaign, traveling to Hawaii and writing about the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging and its role in navigating climate change. Now, this blog will tell of my second Kickstarter venture, which involves a trip to Quito, Ecuador to write about an urban farming project. Click here to learn about “Quito Grown.” I hope you’ll follow along on my journey! But, first, here are some of my favorite photos from the Hawaii project.

Navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, left, and Kapu Na Keiki member Jason Patterson rebuild Hokule’a.

Kapu Na Keiki member Jason Patterson works on repairing the legendary canoe, Hokule’a.

Kapu Na Keiki members prepare for a short sail.

Kaina Holomalia reflects on the importance of voyaging in his life.