Free Advice to California Farmers

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- California’s farmers tend to feel that they don’t get enough respect or understanding. The state’s agricultural sector is the country’s biggest, but amidst the giant California economy it doesn’t count for much, with farming and food processing directly accounting for only 2 percent of state gross domestic product. In Iowa, the No. 2 agricultural state, that share is 9 percent.

California’s politics are dominated by urban and suburban coastal voters and their concerns. Farmers and their needs not only get short shrift, but when water is short, as is the case every few years, they also are convenient scapegoats for suburbanites who are angry about not being allowed to keep their lawns green.

Sometimes, though, residents of the state’s two giant coastal urban agglomerations have no choice but to heed the concerns of their agricultural heartland. This happens when they need to travel between Greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco-San Jose Bay Area by car, which one can do fastest by driving up or down Interstate 5 along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s most important agricultural region.

Farmers along that route, aware that they have a captive audience, have put up many signs over the past decade arguing their case. After reading the lot of them while driving south on I-5 this past weekend (I turned left before I got to Los Angeles and am currently in Texas), I have a piece of advice for California’s farmers: Make some new signs!

The most common slogan along I-5 is “Is Growing Food Wasting Water?” The idea, I guess, is that people driving by will of course think “no.” But (a) they might not, depending on the kind of food you’re talking about (California’s No. 1 agricultural product is milk, which has its detractors), and (b) that sure is a passive-aggressive way of putting it.

There are several signs that say “Dams Not Trains,” a reference to the planned high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco, parts of which are already under construction in the valley. Big majorities of Bay Area- and Los Angeles-area residents at least tepidly favor the rail project, so maybe that’s not the best either/or to be pushing. There’s a sign with a pie chart showing water use in California, with farmers accounting for 40 percent and “the environment” taking 50 percent, a characterization that isn’t entirely fair but is at least an attempt at educating passersby. Same goes for the sign that reads “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” which seems a little obvious but is hard to dispute. Then there’s the frequently seen “Congress Created Dust Bowl,” which is both cryptic and, when positioned in front of a clearly thriving orchard, quite easy to dispute.

The almond and pistachio orchards that now line much of the route are a relatively new thing. My childhood (and early adulthood) memories of I-5 are mostly of fallow fields and maybe some cotton and alfalfa. The nut trees, along with some grapevines and pomegranate trees, make the view for motorists a lot prettier than it used to be, but they also must make the aggrieved tone of most of the signs even harder for passing motorists who aren’t California water-policy buffs to understand.

I am a California water-policy buff, and I take it that “Congress Created Dust Bowl” is a reference to the Central Valley Project Improvement Act passed by Congress in 1992 and related efforts to protect endangered species and water quality in California’s rivers that have resulted in a ratcheting-back of the amount of water delivered to farmers from state and federal reservoirs. The Westlands Water District along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley has been the most heavily affected by these cutbacks; during the drought years of 2014 and 2015, its farmer-members received no water from the California Aqueduct that flows through it other than via a few deals cut with other water districts. Growers kept their trees alive until the very wet winter of 2016-2017 — at least most of them; there are a couple of abandoned orchards along I-5 — mainly by pumping groundwater.

Getting into whether the cutbacks were fair or all that groundwater-pumping wise is too much for this particular column to take on (if you’re interested, I did write an epic examination last year of the water predicament of the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley, aka the Tulare Lake basin). But I am entirely sympathetic to San Joaquin Valley farmers’ wish to be better understood by the people driving down or up I-5. So here’s my free advice: Save the cranky signs for U.S. 99, the highway down the east side of the valley that is the most important artery of the agricultural sector. That’s where you rally the troops. The I-5 signs should be all about educating those clueless urbanites. With stuff like:

“Agricultural water use in California is down 15 percent since 1980. Production is up more than 60 percent.”

“What are we growing here? Almonds. How are we growing them? With super-efficient drip irrigation systems that cost us millions of dollars to install.”

“We buy extra water when it’s wet to recharge the groundwater aquifers.”

“These trees grow on recycled wastewater.”

OK, these could be pithier. I’m an overly wonky opinion columnist, not an advertising copywriter. But San Joaquin Valley farmers are remarkably efficient and inventive. If they told the people driving on Interstate 5 more about what they’re up to, maybe they’d get more credit for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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