Oregon May Be California’s Agricultural Future

What's to come?
June 20 2014 11:31 AM

Thirsty West: The End of the Road

Oregon may be California’s agricultural future.

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Simonson feels the headwinds of a system built to support industrial agriculture in a deeply personal way. “It’s not at all what we expected it to be. We’re going to write a book someday called Everything We Thought We Knew About Farming Is Wrong.” Regulations from the Food and Drug Administration have limited the size of his flock, and he’s had trouble sourcing corn-free, GMO-free chicken feed in line with his values.

Joshua Simonson with his chickens.
Simonson has had a difficult time transitioning from a grass seed farmer to a pasture-raised chicken rancher due to systemic headwinds that favor industrial agriculture.

Photo by Eric Holthaus

Simonson has noticed the effect that industrial farming has had on local water resources, too. In the past year or so, the California drought has started creeping northward, and Simonson said that’s only heightened what he sees as a long-term shift in the local climate:

Farmers here get paid by the government to get these huge irrigation systems, and they use them constantly, where they didn’t use them before. They water dirt fields, just to keep their water rights. You have to keep irrigating—even on rainy days—or you lose it. I had never seen that before.
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The Willamette Valley was once the American agricultural ideal, the last stop of the Oregon Trail. Now, the water table is dropping, and things are quickly changing.

We’re lucky. We bought a semi-truck load of feed before the drought really got bad. But pretty soon, we’re going to have the climate of the Central Valley where you just came from. We’re going to have the same water problems. People are going to have to learn that you can’t keep doing things the same old way. I’m going to have to learn to grow different crops here. Just like any ecosystem, diversification protects you.

Simonson is one of the first to put his money where his mouth is. But as his story embodies, change won’t be easy.

While it’s a beautiful idea, the romantic idea of organic agriculture as a big red barn on the hill with cute little piglets and lambs living together in harmony needs a wake-up call. At the end of the day, farmers like Simonson still have to pay their bills.

What we need is a better way: a hybrid system of organic and industrial agriculture that will actually be profitable enough for small farmers to return to the fields. The cooperative movement is an example of a possible bridge, but people much smarter than me are going to have to figure out the details.

My wife and I moved from Arizona to Wisconsin in part because of water. Though we get droughts here, too, southwest Wisconsin is reliably green and lush each summer, with a long growing season. Wisconsin also has the highest number of organic farms of any state (except California, of course) and is a hotbed of the local foods movement.

Now that we have a backyard of chickens, raised vegetable beds, and bees, we can offset a tiny bit of what we would have bought at the store, but I’m under no illusions that backyard gardens will replace industrial agriculture anytime soon. In our 21st-century world of extremely specialized skillsets, not everyone is going to have the time or desire to sustainably harvest their own spinach. You do it because you love it, not because it’s the cheapest or most efficient way to feed your family.

At the end of our road trip, I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the complexity of water issues in the West. Taken as a whole, there’s a sense of foreboding, but also hope. Thanks to the current drought, the West is at a crossroads. Decisions we make in the next few years will determine how long it remains Thirsty.

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Tucson, Ariz.

Tucson, Ariz.

Nogales, Ariz.

Las Vegas, Nev.

Death Valley

Sequoia National Forest

Hanford, Calif.

Denair, Calif.

Tulare, Calif.

Oakland, Calif.

Oakland, Calif.

Sheridan, Ore.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.