Op-Ed: Feeling the Drought on My Family Farm

I can see my future: it is dry, thirsty and dark. On our farm, we live with drought daily, work with limited groundwater and learn to adapt and adapt, or fail and abandon our fields. Water will determine the survival of a farmer.

I farm organically outside of Fresno, which is part of one of the richest and most productive agricultural oases in the world, provided, of course, we have water. Generally, we use two sources of liquid gold: the annual precipitation and snowmelt captured in the Sierra, as well as the groundwater table below our lands. Both are threatened by a lack of rain and snow, exacerbated by the slow depletion and over-pumping of our aquifers.

In the past, many of us took water for granted. We simply turned on the faucet or flipped an irrigation pump switch and the water magically appeared. He was there when we needed him until he wasn’t.

Many farmers have switched to drip irrigation, which limits water use and keeps plants alive, but intensifies the depletion of soil biology through irrigation. We fell into the trap of believing that technology and innovation would save us from water scarcity. Today, a comeback to reality greets every season: we cannot produce more water nor control the forces of nature.

A severe two-year drought dries out western and southwestern Washington to California, from Montana to Texas. Agriculture is feeling the impact with crop wilting and limited production. We started to fallow some of our fields, pull up vines and trees, and leave the land empty that my father and grandfather used to cultivate. They would cringe to witness what needs to be done.

Every fallow field means a declining rural economy and an uncertain future. The scope of the drought will be felt in grocery stores across the country with higher prices. Cheap food may no longer be the engine of agriculture. Everyone will pay the price for a lack of water.

Climate change cannot be denied. Historical precipitation amounts, based on 30-year averages, do not reflect significant variations in normal climate. And now drought is becoming the new normal; the golden age of constant precipitation over the past 50 to 100 years may have been the anomaly. Mega droughts that will last for decades could be on the horizon.

As farmers grapple with dwindling water, extreme temperatures – 116 in Portland, Oregon in late June or 118 in Phoenix – are affecting many more people. Suddenly, nature also takes on a new reality for city dwellers, who feel the heat and can taste the sweat of climate change.

How do we value water? Some farmers and river basin districts are faced with the decision: selling their water may be more profitable than farming. Will monetizing water be part of my family’s farming operation?

A larger question looms: who owns water and how should a natural resource be controlled and allocated?

Already California farmers – some screaming, others accepting that water has become a finite resource – must plan for sustainable groundwater use and limit our pumping so that our aquifers maintain a stable water supply. How do cities and the environment fit into our water future? The answer is not just economic or political: we must rethink water as something rare, sacred and shared by all.

Masumoto cleans the irrigation lines of his peach trees during another drought in 2015.

(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

On our farm, we cultivate perennial crops – organic peaches, nectarines, apricots and grapes for the raisins. We have century-old vines and 60-year-old peach trees that have witnessed huge climatic fluctuations – lingering over a season or a year is short-term thinking. COVID-19 highlights another lesson for this old farmer: Things are often out of our control. How we respond will determine what happens next.

I think of the generations on the land and the history I leave behind for my daughter, Nikiko, who partners on the farm with her brother, Korio. They will inherit climate change, prolonged droughts and whatever comes from the decisions we make now.

At the heart of our farm is a Japanese aesthetic captured in the sense of wabi-sabi: Life is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Drought exposes the inconsistency of nature and how the “perfect” fishing must reflect the imperfect weather we all experience.

Despite our thirsty future, there is a note of hope for me – I believe our farm is still incomplete. I inherited everything I have from my parents and grandparents; my children will take up this incomplete agricultural history and add their own chapters.

I remember the feeling at the start of a farming year. When I work the fields in the spring, something is plowed in me. With these irregular but regular droughts, something more is now being plowed on our family farm.

David Mas Masumoto is a farmer in Del Rey, California, and author of numerous books, including “Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm”.

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