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Are we too reliant on food from California?

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Seventy percent of California has been experiencing extreme drought; 95 percent of the state has had some form of drought for three years. The rains have come but it does not end the drought and recovery will take years. Bermuda gets the bulk of its food from distributors on the east coast and they get it mainly from California.

The Golden State is the top ranking agricultural state supplying nearly half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables consumed by the US. Lots of water is required to support the industry and it is running low. It is inevitable that prices will be affected. How long is it likely to last? What are the alternatives? These are questions that need asking.

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Fruits and vegetables

supplied by California

It is estimated that California farmers will leave 500,000 acres unplanted this year, about 12 percent of last year's acreage. The state produces over 400 agricultural commodities earning $44 billion from the nation and $18 billion from exports. The top income earners are grapes, almonds, beef, strawberries, lettuce, walnuts, and tomatoes. California is the sole supplier to the US of almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, grapes, raisins, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, prunes, pomegranates, sweet rice, and walnuts.

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The water crisis

Some authorities identify climate change as the cause of the current drought while others cite studies of tree rings and other natural evidence from the past 1,000 years. There have been several 10- to 20-year droughts and two severe mega-droughts, one lasting 240 years and the other more than 180 years. The devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s lasted up to 10 years. Both factions may be valid but neither can promise the 15 inches of rain California needs to recover.

I was in the drought-affected San Joaquin Valley, the single richest agricultural region in the world, for eight weeks over the last five months. Dust was so thick that I thought California might be returning to its dust bowl days. Vast fields lay barren and dry in 100-degree plus weather, perfect conditions for drying raisins in September, but not for living crops. Acres of walnut trees were seen uprooted and fruit trees severely pruned to reduce their demand on water. Dust level warnings and bans on lighting fireplaces were issued in cold December and January; hospitals saw a rise in respiratory complaints.

Eighty percent of California's water is consumed by agriculture. The 38 million population is the largest in the country and consumes a shocking 360 gallons of water per person a day according to a 2011 study of California water consumption; 190 gallons of it goes to landscaping and other outdoor uses.

California is reputed to have the most controlled and contentious water system in the world. The water supply comes from rain, snowfall, Canada and the Colorado and Klamath Rivers and is distributed through a network of complicated natural and man-made waterways. Drought conditions are bad enough but perennial squabbling between farmers, municipalities, environmentalists, politicians, and water authorities over water usage exacerbates it.

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Alternatives to

California-raised food

The Supermart's manager, Tredick Gorham, thinks other states will likely move to fill in but in the short-term prices will rise with quality produce going to the highest bidder.

Group Produce Manager for The MarketPlace, Wesley Jones, said: “Right now we are getting produce from Arizona. Florida's produce will come in May but we can get items from Chile.”

He says there is little effect from the drought now but a price rise is likely to occur this summer as California crops come on.

California now has access to $867 million in state and federal relief funds to help mitigate the drought's impact. In my opinion the crisis is an opportunity to design more equitable water distribution and sustainable farming practices, and plant drought-tolerant trees and cover crops to protect the soil and groundwater in the long term. Adopting a Grow Local Food philosophy in every state and Bermuda would not only take the pressure off California it would reduce oil dependence. Eating foods in season, buying local, smaller scale farming, and more people engaged in growing food is the sustainable way to go.

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For information Grow Biointensive gardening courses e-mail franceseddy@logic.bm or call 238-0059.

A visitor to Folsom Lake, California, walks his dog down a boat ramp that is now several hundred yards away from the waters edge during the recent drought. Reservoirs in the state have dipped to historic lows after one of the driest calendar years on record.
Bermuda may want to adopt a Grow Local Fruit philosophy.

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Published March 06, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated March 06, 2014 at 11:48 am)

Are we too reliant on food from California?

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