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Addressing agriculture in the withering West

By: Gary Paul Nabhan, Opinion Contributor

Most Americans are aware that much of the West is suffering unrelenting drought, but they may not recognize how dramatically broader climatic shifts are affecting farmers’ and ranchers’ options for the future. Our country’s capacity to provide food security to its own citizens is being wounded by a wild bunch of climatic catastrophes that cannot healed by band-aid solutions.

Yields on arable lands managed by farmers, vintners, orchard keepers and stockmen are diminishing do to meager rainfall, empty reservoirs, scorching heat waves and wildfires. More than 173 million acres of rural lands west of the Mississippi are suffering unprecedented soil moisture deficits. Through Thanksgiving of this year, 1671 counties were experiencing moderate to severe drought, with 646 agricultural counties (38 percent) declared drought disaster areas. 

The federal government recently set aside an additional $700 million to help food producers with recent livestock losses and crop failures due to water scarcity. But this safety net is slowly unraveling. It hardly covers those most affected by the consequences of climate change other than drought. For example, the rationing of Colorado River water for irrigated farms in Nevada and Arizona was triggered by record-low levels in reservoirs, but some of the farms downstream received better-than-average rainfall this last year. They will not be eligible for drought disaster relief since lingering heatwaves and reduced snow pack far upstream were what triggered Tier 1 rationing in the Colorado basin. Similarly, farmers who rely on aquifers depleted by years of over-pumping can no longer irrigate water-hungry crops like alfalfa, and now suffer the consequences of their earlier imprudence.

Economists question whether dairies and feedlots for beef production are now reaching their breaking points because of the cost of irrigated hay.  The price of water from Central Valley wells for forage production has now topped $2,000 an acre foot, compared to $250 an acre foot in the most recent years when drought and heat waves were not as challenging. To merely save their cattle herds, ranchers are buying alfalfa for as much as $200 to $275 a ton, compared to $160 to $175 a quarter century ago. Their transportation costs have risen as well, as stockmen in New Mexico and Arizona are hauling in truckloads from as far away as Nebraska. Most ranchers will admit that buying hay at such high prices from distant sources will “never pencil out,” and may drive them into further into the red.

And yet this September, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently approved $500 million of pay-outs to stockmen to help with drought recovery, including the costs for hauling irrigated hay into the arid Southwest from Midwestern states. This is a classic case of an insidious subsidy, one that “addicts” stockmen to a commodity that they cannot really afford, while adding to greenhouse gas emissions and depleting water resources. You can’t get producers to adapt to a hotter, drier world if you keep subsidizing them to buy alfalfa that use five to six acre feet per irrigated acre. Most climate-friendly grains and perennial crops require half that much to produce an economic yield.

Worse yet, some agricultural economists have estimated that nearly half of all crop insurance benefits go to the largest 5 percent of farms. That leaves over 3 million farmers competing for the other half. Such drought hand-outs do little to make farms more resilient in the face of climate change. Farmers seldom use this support to transition to more efficient irrigation systems or to crops that sequester more carbon. Food producers need other kinds of assistance to move toward longer term solutions to the climate crisis, or else we will have a food security crisis.

One proposal now being forwarded calls for a new USDA Desert Agriculture and Climate Adaptation Center to be located in the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border, where rural poverty is twice the national average. It would undertake trials of desert adapted food crops, determine which tree crops and perennial forages pull down more carbon and test super-efficient irrigation technologies. It would evaluate the benefits of growing high-value herbs and berries under high-strut agrivoltaic panels, facilitating the co-location of renewable energy, rainwater-harvesting and food production. It is time the USDA invest in solutions that will work for farmers and ranchers over the long haul, rather than throwing them dry crumbs after each drought disaster.


Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K. Kellogg chair in food and water security for the borderlands at the University of Arizona Southwest Center and author “Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized by Our Food System.”

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