One weekend in late June, I drove with friends to Yolo County, California, a rural area in the Sacramento Valley. It was the second day of a multiday heat wave, and temperatures approached the triple digits. The road shimmered. In the passenger seat, a friend, seven months pregnant, wondered aloud whether it was safe for her to be outside. As we neared our destination, winding through fruit and nut farms, we passed a walnut orchard. Its trees had been cut down to the roots—the trunks neatly dominoed, flat and brittle against the earth.
That night, I asked a farmer friend, also in walnuts, what had happened at the orchard. A confluence of things, he explained. Walnuts are a billion-dollar industry, but during the pandemic things got complicated. In California, there was an ongoing labor crisis; also, owing to global supply-chain upsets, the costs of machinery and mechanical parts had gone up. My friend guessed that the orchard I had seen would still have been productive for another decade, but it no longer made financial sense to farm and harvest it.
Across the state, he said, many produce farmers were weighing the market prices of their crops against the rising cost of water. To meet their contracts, some had overplanted, and now they found it was more cost-effective to kill certain crops than to proceed with the harvest. Others had already scaled back and planted less. Farmers were throttling production, razing fields, and disposing of surplus. If these adjustments seemed crude, even unfathomable, they were in response to complex, intertwined issues: immigration policies, trade wars, a housing shortage, agribusiness monopolies, resource mismanagement, climate change, globalization, supply-chain disruption, accelerating financialization.
“It’s like something out of a Jonathan Franzen novel,” I said. My friend misheard. “Really?” he replied. “I’d love to read that.”
California is going through an extreme drought this year, after a decade marked by record-breaking dry spells. Rivers and reservoirs are low and strained. Aquifers are draining; wells are going dry. Some households don’t have access to clean water, whereas others are rationing and have been for months. This has led to a great many uses of the word “emergency”: a drought state of emergency has been declared for forty-two per cent of the state’s residents; an emergency curtailment order has prohibited further depletion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed; in an emergency procedure, nearly seventeen million juvenile Chinook salmon, spawned in Central Valley hatcheries, have been displaced, by truck, to deeper, cooler bodies of water. In May, farmers with ties to Ammon Bundy camped along the border with Oregon to protest water shutoffs. In August, the federal government declared a water shortage for the Colorado River, which, among other crucial functions, feeds Lake Mead, the reservoir propelling the Hoover Dam—a significant source of power…
Read more:: Growing Uncertainty in the Central Valley