Here’s a question that keeps coming up as we continue our Real Food farm tour project – Why should consumers care about or get to know what happens at farms? Why do we need to know about our food and where it comes from?
This question struck us when we came across a survey by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. When asked “How much knowledge do you think the average consumer has about the modern farming and ranching industry in the U.S.” – a whopping 86 percent of farmers and ranchers answered “Very little knowledge” or “No knowledge at all.” When asked “How accurate is consumer perception of modern farming and ranching?” 58 percent of the farmers and ranchers answered “Not accurate at all.”
Ouch – are we that uninformed?
One farm topic that we’ve had a chance to learn a great deal about in the past few months is water – the critical ingredient to success at any farm. The California Farm Water Coalition (“Food grows where water flows”) has helped by giving us a big-picture look at California’s 81,500 farms – tied together by the need for all-important water resources. There’s a big misconception that farms are a huge drain on water supplies, when in fact farms are using water more efficiently now than ever.
Here’s how it works in California: The state gets about 200 million acre-feet (one acre-foot of water is what it would take to fill one acre up to one feet deep) of rain, snowfall, and inflow from the Colorado and Klamath rivers per year. About 50 to 60 percent of that is consumed by natural vegetation, evaporates, or flows out of state. That leaves about 40 to 50 percent for California’s residential water users, agricultural users, and dedicated environmental purposes. An extensive system of dams, aqueducts, canals, and reservoirs connects the water to people, farms, and wildlife refuges throughout the state.
How do farmers use water? Very efficiently – in fact, they’ve doubled the economic efficiency of agricultural water supplies over the past 40 years. Another way of looking at it is this: If they use too much, it can hurt the plants and cost farmers money. For example, many people have the idea that rice is a “monsoon” crop; whereas most California rice is grown with a minimum of water. The average depth of water in a rice field during growing season is only five inches. Last week at Lundberg Family Farms we got a chance to see first-hand how the soil conditions (heavy clay with hardpan underneath) are perfect for holding water in place.
Water needs vary depending on the kind of farm and the type of soil on the farm, but one consistent theme is that every farmer is conscientious about water. At one farm we visited, Lodestar Farms in Oroville, the 100-year-old olive trees can survive on little water if needed. (The olives will grow slower and not quite as large, but they can survive.) The Chico-based Sierra Nevada brewery, which has its own hops and barley fields, treats all of its production wastewater, and has managed to reduce its water usage to about half the typical usage of breweries in the U.S.
Now consider this – If farms don’t get the water they need, their crops (and food) become more expensive. Given that’s it’s been a relatively dry year, how will the price of farm-fresh foods be affected? Will you think of water next time you eat a piece of fruit?