What drought means for anyone who eats

NOAA Spring drought forecast

Spring drought forecast

Drought isn’t receiving much press outside of California, but it should.  The looming drought in the Central Valley — one which might be as bad or worse than 1977 — has the potential to drastically affect the production of food in the United States.  California produces an astonishing amount of food, but can only do so as long as the irrigation water is flowing.  Rivers are tapped that no longer flow to the sea, deltas are dried up and measuring the snow pack in the mountains is an annual ritual fraught with drama and anticipation for farmers.  Conservation measures by both homeowners and farmers and ecological restoration have modified the delicate balance of water usage, but tap water is sold at artificially low prices so for the homeowner there is little incentive to xeriscape the acres of non-native turf grass or retire their swimming pools.  Homes built in ecological zones where wildfires are normal (and in some cases, necessary to the health of the environment) will be preserved by taxpayer money and the sweat, blood and perhaps even lives of fire fighters.

Indeed, all across the West, the water situation looks dire.  Yet in Southern California, officials are only pondering cutbacks of lawn watering on some days, a feeble response that will not be strengthened unless their reserves drop precipitously.  So much for thinking ahead.  Meanwhile, environmental laws that preserve things like critical salmon runs and smelt habitat are suspended in the wake of the emergency declaration.

Half of the production of America’s fruit, vegetables and nuts happens in California.  Strangely, no one on the news seems to be talking about how the plight of California farmers will affect food prices.  Not just fresh produce will be affected, but also a lot of our condiment processing happens in California, and meat and dairy farms will be affected as well.  We can just import all our food from South America and China, right?  And if fresh food prices skyrocket, well that won’t affect well-paid journalists, pundits and politicians too much.

It will, however, have a ripple effect across the country, and there are three things that need to be done in every home.

First, every household should have at least a week worth of essential water supplies stored at home.  Not just those in drought-prone areas: drought can happen anywhere and water supplies can be disrupted for many reasons.  (Just ask West Virginia.)  Once you have water stored, start thinking about an alternate water source.  For many, that will be storing rainfall and having a way to filter it to make it safe to drink.  Storing rainfall is easy and an astonishing amount of water goes down your gutters in even a small rain shower.   When not in a drought, rainwater is better for your plants than tap water, so use it for watering outside.  (In some places, rainwater harvesting is illegal due to old water rights laws.)

Second, if you are on a tight budget, you need to think about allocating your food dollars now to storable supplies so you can stretch your budget later if food prices rise.  Don’t store anything you don’t eat, and don’t store so much it will go bad before you eat it.  Processed food will be affected less than fresh food (since much of the cost is tied up in processing, shipping and marketing instead of the actual food cost), so while buying three bottles or catsup or four boxes of breakfast cereal when they are on a great sale is good for your budget, it should take a back seat to any efforts you make in your home to can, freeze, dehydrate or otherwise preserve fresh food that you don’t grow yourself.  Nuts grown in California are an excellent candidate for buy-ahead programs, since they require little if any effort to store for the short term, particularly unshelled nuts.

Third, every household needs to think about securing local food sources.  This is recessiongardening.com, so of course I think that growing some of your own — even one thing that you normally buy but could be grown at home in a cost effective way for your region — is the very first thing you should consider.  But few of us have the land, time or ability to grow everything we eat or even a majority of what we eat.  Support your local farmers and other food producers.  By supporting them, you help create strong local food systems.  Decentralizing food production helps buffer the market (and your pocketbook!) against regional disruptions.  Buying local also helps stimulate your local economy, and it may improve your health because produce that has languished for days in transit has fewer nutrients than that fresh off the vine from a home garden, or that picked one or two days ago at a farm 30 miles down the road.

With any luck, the drought out West will not be as severe as anticipated, and food prices will be buffered by a good year in another region of the world.  Nonetheless, personal preparedness is always a good strategy, particularly for anyone who need or wants to be frugal.

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5 thoughts on “What drought means for anyone who eats

  1. We have had a “mild” drought in the Midwest for a couple of years. Since I just started gardening, the effects have been mainly to our trees – we lost three last year and three the year before. Food prices even in the Farmer’s Markets have gone up. Thanks for posting this. It’s so important for folks to know, especially those not involved in farming or gardening. I’ve posted the link to your Blog on my Face Book page.

    • Yes, food trees are particularly vulnerable. If the drought is bad, farmers won’t bother to plant row crops or will plow them up, but an orchard with years and even decades of growth can’t be so easily replaced.

      The fact that much of America’s prime growing regions for fruits and vegetables (the north east and south east) is paved over is a tragedy. California’s farmers are always on life support when it comes to water even in good years.

  2. I recently moved from an ag region of California, and a friend sent me some areal photos of the mountains. It was horrifying. There’s no snowpack to measure this year. No snow at all. The mountains are brown.

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