More Thoughts on Agriculture

A couple of days ago I submitted a modest blog post proposal that California’s agricultural system should be transformed in a modular sort of way, starting with irrigation districts (and other water-delivery entities, including mutuals and co-ops). My thinking was that pretty much every farmer facing this water crisis is in some way tapped into some sort of collective water-delivery scheme. In any case, it’s much more prevalent and geographically dense than co-op membership, which tends to be by crop rather than proximity. Water delivery organizations seem like natural building blocks to me (a city guy with little experience with agriculture).

A reader named Graham provided a very thoughtful comment, beginning:

The underlying issues here are surely about the agricultural practices that have been adopted in this area, practices which have led to destruction of soil biology and huge demand for water and nutrient inputs. If, instead of “retiring” farmland than was once some of the most fertile land on the planet, these farmers adopted regenerative farming practices that worked hand in hand with the natural environment, they would relatively quickly, and cheaply, be able to bring this land back into production and build resilience and true sustainability at the same time, making their land better able to withstand drought.

I agree that unsustainable farming practices are doomed to fail and a huge part of the problem with Central Valley agriculture. I didn’t miss that point so much as I chose to focus on a different one to keep that post at a semi-manageable length. I’m an organizational geek and not an agricultural scientist, and I wanted to focus on the structure of how change might happen systemically, rather than the specifics of that change as implemented. I am already a bit over my pay grade here without trying to plan for a very difficult farmland restoration element to the structural changes; I do admit that such restoration will be needed if we hope to continue with anything close to our current population.

I would love to see a more restorative approach, but I’m not sure if that is possible now with the amount of damage, the urgency of drought (as well as chronic pressure from globalization), and the massive debt and investment in existing practices. In any case, I suspect it would take a full stop to restore and relaunch something more sustainable.

I tried to convey with my detailed description of the Westlands’ location that not all agricultural land in this generally amazing agricultural region is the same. As far as I can tell (which is admittedly not much), much of Westlands was always quite marginal due to drainage issues. Even without added chemicals, the local groundwater has its own load of salts and minerals that are causing serious soil pollution problems. This is not prime valley floor, and apparently can’t even last a single farmer’s lifetime without an elaborate drainage system developed and maintained by the federal government.

It’s not clear that more sustainable technical practices would even work in this land with the current occupants’ level of investment, debt and so on. Even assuming that it could work, there’s the challenging matter of switching. Organic certification is quite expensive in the US and I would argue that a cooperative structure (or at least some sort of non-cooperative shared effort along the lines of Westlands Solar Farm) is needed to help share the substantial short-term costs of transition and make the conversion as quickly and painlessly as possible.

There is certainly a role for co-ops in this, although we must admit that many large co-ops in the US have been slow to move toward sustainability; I attribute that slowness to their inability to just dump conventional growers and buy from someone who has already made the change at their own personal risk – co-ops are stuck with their members and must find a way to help members make the transition.

However, I would argue (as I have) that “an increasing share of the organic industry’s product is distributed through investor-owned distributors and sold through investor-owned stores. This makes ‘sustainable’ products ultimately unsustainable, by shifting the profits away from the altruistic entrepreneurs who started these companies, and toward investors who are primarily out for profit.”

I believe that economic and structural sustainability is fundamental, and without it no piecemeal changes to the practices of specific farming operations will really be sustainable. That isn’t to say that these piecemeal changes shouldn’t happen – they must – but I just don’t see how it will change anything in the long run.

Westlands isn’t a co-op so it isn’t bound by the Co-operative Principles. Of course, I would agree with Graham’s second assertion that “concern for community” is where sustainability comes in, and I hope that co-ops add it as a standalone principle, really. Sustainability is not really negotiable – all farmland, sooner or later, must be farmed sustainably or not at all.



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