On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown stood in a meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Normally, the meadow would have been covered with five feet of snow. Normally, the governor would have needed cross-country skis to even get there. But this year, there was nothing but brown grass. The measured snowpack was the lowest in more than 60 years.
The scene was a dramatic illustration of just how bad the drought has gotten in California. (And, make no mistake, Gov. Brown capitalized on that, ordering cities and towns to slash their water use by 25 percent.) But the crisis does not affect only California residents. California produces 99 percent of almonds, 95 percent of celery, 94 percent of broccoli, 88 percent of avocados, 86 percent of cauliflower and 81 percent of carrots produced in the United States. The state’s Central Valley, just one percent of the land mass in the United States, produces 25 percent of the food we eat. As the writer Steven Johnson concludes: “California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.”
The good news? Thanks to the drought, people have finally started talking seriously about what real change might look like. Does it make sense for Americans to depend on concentrated food production in only a couple of regions that are so vulnerable to water shortages? Should we be growing water-thirsty crops like lettuce in places like New York, where the population is dense and where we get about 40 inches of rain a year? How do we decide which crops to grow where?
In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I look at how and if California’s drought could be a catalyst for regional agriculture. As Mike Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University told me: “The key hallmark of climate change is that weather will be more uncertain and extreme weather will be more frequent,” Hamm says. “Under those circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to hedge our bets?”