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San Joaquin farmer: ‘This year was bad — next year may be worse’

A View From the Edge

As any New Englander will tell you — especially farmers — mitigation of risks, avoiding obvious pitfalls of pretending it’ll all be alright on the day, and especially assuming anything when it comes to outside influences (you know the saying… assume makes an “ass out of U and me”) — these are the only ways to keep your business thriving and your house from being taken away. Guessing is a dumb way to plan for your future.

When we lived in Amenia just down the road from Millerton and Lakeville and nearest to Kent, we had a small farm. During nearly 20 years there we had one tornado (the first ever in our valley in 175 years), two FEMA-declared disasters (flooding in February that filled the Ten Mile River valley bank-to-bank), five days of -16 degree weather (that killed 50-year-old fruit trees), a summer drought with 10 days over 105 degrees, too many lightening strikes to keep count of and, worst of all, usually absolutely no idea of what the next winter/spring/summer or fall would bring. Now, many people would say this is just nature cycling, absolutely normal.

It may once have been, spaced out over 150 years, but all that happened in a 20-year period. It is the frequency and impact of huge swings of change that nature and our environment cannot take.

This year, if you listen carefully, you will hear farmers who produce 65% of all the food you eat talking about the winter — farmers from east and west of the Rockies, farmers from east and west of the Sierra Nevadas, all of whom depend on well and running water to grow crops. 

I live now at the base of the Mogollon range (bottom of the Rockies) and for the last five years there has been a shortfall of snowpack — how short? Zero, nada, nothing. Normally, in Hummingbird Pass in the Mogollons up until the 90s, there was 16 feet of snowpack by end of winter. Between 2000 to 2009 there was a shortage to 6 to 8 feet. In the last few years the snowpack after winter was zero. 

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in central California have become terrified at this problem, snowpack of the Sierra Madres there was zero as well. All of them are drilling deeper and deeper wells, tapping into the last water reservoirs underground — some wells already go below 1,500 feet. 

Why should San Joaquin worry you? Thirty percent of all the fruit, onions, lettuce and other vegetables that are served in America come from there. Half of the trains trundling across the country carry that produce.

Here’s something to remember as well: 40% of all employed workers in America are working in or linked to the food and beverage industry. If the crops fail, the workers will be laid off — pickers, stackers, truckers, train drivers, supermarket employees. 

If climate change hammers us again this winter the economy — remember 40% of all workers — will falter again. And, as that farmer in the title said, “Next year may be worse.”

Isn’t it time to stop guessing or assuming it is all nature’s normal course and try to mediate and  remedy the problems? We build oil pipelines at the drop of a hat to feed cars. Couldn’t we build water pipelines to actually feed our children — taking flood waters and distributing this asset? Couldn’t we actually switch to sustainable energy to stop the breaking of the Earth’s climate systems and calm things down? If not now, when? Soon, the snow won’t fall in the mountains and food will triple in price and become scarce. Will people pay attention only then, or is it all too late already?


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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