Category Archives: drought

Overuse of Groundwater in California Threatens Future Farming and Human Habitation and Requires Enormous Amounts of Electricity

As this California drought intensifies, this week I caught the first headline warning that people may need to be migrated out of areas where its groundwater has been depleted from pumping until exhaustion. As it turns out, there is little or no oversight on using up groundwater in the state, and so the busiest industry there of late has been well drilling.

Stanford is doing a series on groundwater use and policy problems in California, beginning with a great title, “Ignore it and it might go away“, referring to its unregulated use. They tell us that six million Californians rely on groundwater solely for their water supply (mostly in the Central Valley or Central Coast); 85% of California’s population relies on it to some degree; and California’s $45 billion agriculture industry relies upon it. Unfortunately, the state’s antiquated laws concerning groundwater use allow for secrecy, unfettered use, and depletion.

In that article, they inform us what ground water is:

Contrary to a popular misconception of an underground river or lake, groundwater is found in the tiny spaces between sand and gravel and rock. Glaciers left some of that water thousands of years ago, while much of it is regularly replenished by snowmelt, rain and surface rivers and streams.

A lesser known story is how much electricity is required to pump this groundwater, and as it depletes, the amount of electricity needed grows ever larger to pump from deeper depths. Earlier this year, a news reporter friend of mine told me that a large landowner in California’s Central Valley was paying 3 million dollars per month for electricity to pump water. Previously, I wrote about how much energy is required to move water in California.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

California’s State Water Project uses 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California, including the electricity required to pump water 2,000 feet up over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world to supply southern Californians with water.

These percentages don’t include the farmers who pump water out of the ground, plus other users. And we all know that it takes a lot of water to make electricity, too.

Estimates tell us that between 19 – 23 percent of California’s total electrical consumption is used for water pumping, treating, collecting and discharging water, and most of that is used for farming.

We are facing a vicious cycle of quests for energy and water coupled with our human desire to live in the wonderful desert oasis climates.

ADDENDUM . . . Just so happens PBS Newshour covered this same story today, so I am adding their fine video to this post.

To learn more, see my previous post: How much energy does California use to move water?

Also see: California drought: ‘May have to migrate people’

What is a Keyhole Garden?

Global Service Corps photo of Tanzanian keyhole garden.

A keyhole garden is a type of raised bed that contains compost and it is higher in the middle so that water flows into the growing bed area. These gardens are being taught to African farmers and they are becoming more popular in drier regions such as parts of Texas. They are popular among permaculturists, too. The following video explains how to make one.

A September Trip Through Nebraska in Drought Year 2012

Sunset on Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

From My Ántonia: “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

One night of my recent trip through Nebraska was spent in Red Cloud, where Willa Cather grew up. While there, I spent time reading the writing of those who first settled this region. Back then, it was the land of new opportunity for overcrowded Europeans who could no longer make a living in Europe. It was man against nature for these new settlers, and unless man conquered the land, there would be no living to be made. It didn’t take long, however, for the White Man to drive out the Red Man, to kill the bison and the passenger pigeon, and to plow up the prairie sod for crop cultivation.

While some saw and others still see the prairie as nothingness, Cather said after moving from Virginia at age nine, “So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.” She and her contemporaries didn’t know what nature-deficit-disorder was. They grew up wading in creeks, playing with frogs, running from snakes, and herding cattle.

Though seldom noted, Cather’s writings (I have read most of them) are interspersed with her concerns for conservation. Like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Robinson Jeffers, her thinking was far ahead of her time. She criticizes the draining of marshes for crop profit, as one example.

Downtown Red Cloud in 2012

Interestingly, today the town of Red Cloud at population 1,000 is about half the size that it was in 1890. Cather lived there during its most vibrant time.

Corn at railroad grain terminal near Central City

Fast forward to today and we have conquered Cather’s land. The most productive Nebraska farmland is now a giant industrial operation devoid of most life save for corn, soybeans, and cattle.

I always try to note what is changing in the state that I grew up in and spent most of my life in when I visit. One observation this year is that there is more irrigation everywhere. The county that I grew up in is not in Ogallala Aquifer country, yet irrigation pivots now surround my family’s farm. One was installed just last month. My family is worried because their own well will probably run dry eventually, as a result. High corn prices drive more irrigation installations.

Pile of bulldozed trees from a low-lying area in northeast Nebraska to make way for more cropland.

Ethanol policy and resulting high corn prices cause marginal land to be farmed. Corn is being grown between railroad tracks and highways. Piles of dead trees lay in fields which have been removed from low-lying pastures and waterways, to grow crops. Fences have been removed from fields to gain another row or two on the edges, and besides, if you don’t rotate the cattle through, you don’t need the fences. In one location, some very steep hillside pasture which had never been farmed before became a cornfield this year. There isn’t much CRP (conservation reserve program) land to be seen as compared to five years ago. Fields are ever-larger than the year before and there are always fewer farm places, something I’ve noted for decades.

DDGS by-product being spit out from the ADM Ethanol Plant in Columbus

I can’t drive by Columbus, Nebraska without turning in to see what’s going on at the second largest ethanol facility in the U.S. This wet and dry mill ADM ethanol plant was built a few years ago as a coal-fired co-generation plant which burns high and low sulfur coals, tire derived fuel, and biomass such as trees to produce steam and electric energy. Last year when I visited, I saw through clouds of dust, trucks filled with corn lined up more than twenty deep to deliver Ogallala Aquifer irrigated corn for distillation into ethanol at this plant. This year, there were only a couple of trucks delivering corn and the main activity seemed to be the DDGS production pictured in the above photograph.

These rural farming regions grow more dependent upon fossil-fuels each passing year. Farmers and their spouses work in off-farm jobs, often an hour’s drive from home. Little towns such as Oakland are now referred to as “bedroom communities” for Omaha, which is seventy miles away. The small towns are often food deserts and many farms don’t have gardens, either. The nearest Walmart provides groceries and about everything else. The farming operations rely upon diesel, fossil-fuel derived fertilizers, and chemicals, as do the roads, infrastructure, and trucks which move the commodities. It’s all about fuel and machinery substitution for human labor in industrial farm country. What it’s not about is aesthetics.

The entire region looked horribly dry and the trees were suffering, like those you might see in West Texas. Alfalfa is a drought tolerant crop so fields of it are bright green, as compared to everything else. Though alfalfa quality has been good, the quantity was very low this drought year. Nebraska fared about the worst of all of the states in drought and heat conditions this year. My family farm has received about 65 percent of normal rainfall to date and had a corn yield of 43 bushels per acre. In agreement with other comments I’ve been seeing online, it was a mystery to this area’s farmers as to why yields were higher in one place, and lower in another, sometimes within the same field.

Glyphosate resistant marestail growing in soybeans on my family farm

Undermining industrial agriculture a huge problem is creeping up — superweeds. I witnessed it first hand in the above photograph. My family had problems with marestail in the soybeans this summer and had to hand-cultivate. Nature always wins.

Now, I will close this post with a final Cather quote from O Pioneers, which seems relevant for our time and for this summer of extreme drought and heat in Nebraska. “The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other.”

Agriculture News August 31 2012

Last Saturday the USA Pro Cycling Challenge raced through Boulder twice. It was fun to be a spectator and no event could have fit this town better. Our son took the above photo of the breakaway group entering Boulder canyon to begin their climb into the mountains to loop around Nederland to Lyons before returning through Boulder to finish on Flagstaff Mountain, just West of town.

On a personal note, my family farm in Northeastern Nebraska had a visit from the insurance adjuster a few days ago and their estimated corn yield is 45 bushels per acre. Thankfully, they had crop insurance. Now, their question is whether any of it is safe to store or feed to their cattle. Unfortunately, I won’t get there to visit until later in September, and though I’ve begged them to take photos, they have no desire to do so. I don’t think they want to remember this year. Last week continued to break heat records there (it was 100F yesterday) and rainfall continues to miss this region.

Next, is the Ag news for the week….

Eyes on planting in South America (DesMoines Register)

Wild rice gene gives yield boost (BBC)

A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They’ve tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel — specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline. (MIT)

Compared to other harvest seasons, a 30 to 40 percent shortage of skilled harvesters this year has been confirmed by California farming organizations, which note that peaches, cherries and other premium crops are going unpicked. … Roughly 60 to 70 percent of all fresh produce eaten in the U.S. is grown in Mexico, but production and transportation of these fruits and vegetables can be easily disrupted by climatic disasters, social conflicts, or national policy shifts. By Gary Nabhan (Civil Eats)

The World Bank said that drought in the US and Eastern Europe crop centers sent global food prices soaring by 10 percent last month, raising a food security threat to the world’s poorest people. (AFP)

Wheat producers are concerned about the high cost of fertilizer and don’t see it going down in the future due to global demand. (Southeastfarmpress)

Pork Industry Faces Record Losses (Farmdocdaily)

Increased rainfall and temperature due to climate change could bring benefits to South-East Asian agriculture, a study suggests, contradicting more common expectations that a warmer planet will reduce agricultural productivity in the region. (Scidev)

● This FT article describes the thin profit margins many UK farmers are dealing with and that three strategies are emerging: using sustainable “back to nature” methods that rely less on expensive bought-in feed and inputs; co-operative structures; and a move up the value chain or into exports. (FT)

Nestlé Official says agriculture needs to solve water issues, and that GMO’s aren’t necessary (Takepart)

The world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc has joined an alliance of other Fortune 500 companies, including Cargill and Kellogg Co, seeking to make agriculture more sustainable. (Reuters)

● Alternative fuels – Difference Engine: Competition at the pump (The Economist)

President misses mark on livestock aid (Capital Press)

Cocoa Hits 9-Month High (WSJ)

Insurers face big agriculture losses (FT)

Hog operations are going belly-up in China due to high feed costs (NYT)

Sapphire completes construction of the Green Crude Farm: algae biofuels heads for the next level (Biofuels Digest)

Avista investment to help Matrix strike oil in algae; Seattle-based Matrix Genetics is spinning out of Targeted Growth and launching its business of developing biofuels made from algae. (Seattle Times)

Ag commodity advisors like to say that it’s all about China. This article explains how a change in China’s policy of reduced taxes for farmers and increased subsidies have led to more prosperity and an eighth consecutive year of grain production growth last year. They have become nearly self-sufficient in rice and wheat. (xinhuanet)

● Syria’s rural economy adapts as conflict spreads (Reuters)

● Energy: 10 most expensive energy projects in the world (CNNMoney)

● Energy: The Real Reason Behind Oil Price Rises – An Interview with James Hamilton (

Weatherman predicts a wet fall in the corn belt. (Brownfield)

The costs of cheap water are far too high. (National Geographic)

Counting Your Cantaloupes – Amid volatile climate patterns, conversation at markets like the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction reveals the plight of regional farmers (Metroland)

● MACRO: The unintended consequences of QE: not what you think by Izabella Kaminska. (FT/Alphaville) What White seems to be saying is that if and when the QE ruse runs out and the time comes to influence markets through direct price level targeting, it could theoretically be too late. That’s to say there’s a good chance that the credibility of the central bank will have been damaged so much, that it will be impossible to sway markets through policy declaration alone. In short, the central bank will have lost control. And with the central bank not there to steer the economy, there’d be little stopping real-world deflationary forces — if they do exist — from running wild.

● MACRO: Finance is in need of a technological revolution (FT)

● MACRO: If Interest Rates Go Negative . . . Or, Be Careful What You Wish For by Kenneth Garbade and Jamie McAndrews. (Wonk Warning!) … The weak recovery has led some commentators to suggest that the Fed should push short-term rates even lower—below zero—so that borrowers receive, and creditors pay, interest. (Federal Reserve Bank of New York)


Crop Year 2012 Map: Primary and Contiguous Counties Designated for 2012 Crop Disaster Losses

Impressive, eh? Note that Hawaii is also “red”.

Observations From an Iowa Farm by Walter Falcon

Fertility, 1939 by Grant Wood; Lithograph. Spencer Museum of Art, Univ. of Kansas.

Note that the following writing (August 4, 2012) is by Walter P. Falcon, Farnsworth Professor of International Agricultural Policy (Emeritus); Deputy Director, Center on Food Security and the Environment, Stanford University. I asked Dr. Falcon if I could publish this here since it is rare to see an accomplished academic (Harvard and Stanford) write first hand observations about living in the real world farm life this drought year.

Field Notes From An Iowa Farm

My wife and I are spending the summer of 2012 at our farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It is a relatively small corn, soybean, and cow/calf operation in the east central part of the state. We are surrounded by other farmers, many of whom are getting on in years, who typically farm from 500-1000 acres. A few also feed cattle and there is one confined pork operation nearby.

For someone interested in agricultural price volatility, this summer has been a 3-month seminar in real time. There was an early spring in Iowa, and record acres of corn and beans were planted. Some of our neighbors even brought conservation-reserve land back into production. Plantings were fencerow to fencerow—although fewer fences line the landscape as farmers move out of the livestock business and fences are removed to accommodate the larger 12- and 16-row equipment that is now commonplace. Early commodity prices were good, but not spectacular in April and May, and with prospects for a large crop, many of our neighbors made forward contracts to deliver large quantities of corn and beans to local ethanol and bean-crushing plants.

The corn on sandy hills burned up first, but the crop on deeper, blacker soils soon followed. National corn prices followed the thermostat. Cash prices of corn went from about $6 per bushel in May to more than $8 in early August. And then came June and July. National reserve stocks of corn were very low, so price stability was dependent on average or better weather. Instead, extreme weather came in all forms. Average temperatures at the Cedar Rapids weather station for June, July and the first week of August were the highest in recorded history. Maximum temperatures for 22 of the past 70 days exceeded 90 degrees. Total rainfall was only 1.1 inch, compared to an historical average of 8.1 inches. It is the driest summer since 1936.

With the corn crop currently denting, and thus “fixed” (more rain would not now improve yields), all attention turned to soybeans. Beans have a resilient character to them, with the capacity to shed blossoms until growing conditions “are right.” Having lost much of the corn crop, our neighbors are busy reassuring each other that “the bean crop is made in August”—but only if rains arrive. Unfortunately, there is little moisture predicted in the medium-term forecasts.

Worst hit of all have been the livestock producers. Pastures are toast, and watering holes and rivers are drying up. The sizeable creek that runs through our farm is now the tiniest of trickles. The likelihood of having to move the cows and calves is growing daily, and the question of whether our farm well will have enough capacity to supply both the animals and us is now a critical issue. The problems of cattle feeders are even more dire. Prices for fed cattle are down, and the extreme heat is taking its toll—quite literally. Fat cattle weighing 1400-1500 pounds do not gain weight well, nor do they even breathe well. Farmers who own the two operations nearest us report that they dare not sort and ship steers to market because of the heat. They each report having lost two animals from heat-related respiration problems, each animal valued at about $1600. Moreover, even without heat losses, they are faced with extremely high feed costs. And high prices do not end with corn and soybean meal.

Forage and hay prices have been even more affected by climate variability. The large round bales that weigh upwards of a ton and typically sell for $60 are now selling for $250! The price is partly driven up by truckers from Missouri and Arkansas, locations hit earlier and even more severely, coming to eastern Iowa to purchase forage. So tight is the forage market that farmers are baling grass from the Conservation Reserve (recently permitted by the government), waterways, and even ditches. Plants with any sort of green tint to them are being mowed and baled.

The talk among farmers is, as always, most interesting. About four miles from home is the small town of Waubeek—a tiny berg in a part of Iowa made famous by Grant Wood. Each morning at about 8:30 am locals gather in a limestone building called (perhaps miscalled) a restaurant to have watery coffee and rolls, to trade stories, and to establish bragging rights on a variety of issues from yields, to prices, to number and sizes of tractors. Conversation over the years has always centered on the dreadful nature of weather, prices and the government, though this year there are nuances in the stories being told. They range from the very happy, “I sold a load of old-crop corn this morning for $8.14, the highest price in my whole life as a farmer;” to the “I walked my corn fields this morning. Where I got 220 bushels last year, I don’t think the crop will make 80 bushels this year.” No one at the table thought their corn crops would yield more than 120 bushels; and everyone noted that virtually all of those yields would be discounted in price because of low test weights.

Talk then turned to new seed varieties, mostly from Pioneer and Monsanto, which have transgenic drought resistance built into them. Bags (80,000 kernels) of seed—enough to plant about 2.5 aces—range in price from $300-400. There is hope, but not much confidence, that the new seeds will help compensate for the low rainfall. The farmers report that the companies, which are far from loved because their seed prices are perceived as being too high, are backing away from yield claims. The conversation also took up the pros and cons of “green” chopping the stalks and immature corn to make silage. It turns out that this strategy is fraught with nitrate problems arising mainly from this year’s weather. The laughing summary comment was “anyway, we have way too much standing corn and way too few cattle to make that solution work.” Laughter continued as they talked about those 10,000 “crazy folks” who were riding bicycles across Iowa in the heat as part of the annual ride across Iowa.

Most surprising to me is the fact that the conversations are not gloomier. What I had not realized was the increased role that crop insurance was playing in most farmers’ operations. Upon checking, I found that about 90 percent of the land is covered by a joint public/private insurance program, in which private companies offer insurance, with the government and farmers sharing in the premia. Many of these policies provide for both price and yield protection and cover losses in excess of 25 percent. For most crop farmers, therefore, the year 2012 will not be good, but it will be far from a disaster.

But there were also some truly downcast faces at morning coffee. Livestock producers curse the cost of corn and the fact that they are getting little program assistance from the government. They choose their words carefully, but the livestock producers would also be delighted if somehow the ethanol industry went away. Similarly, crop farmers who have no crop insurance, and /or who contracted forward to sell what they expected would be a large harvest at modest prices, now are facing the costly prospect of having to buy high priced corn on the market to fulfill their delivery contracts.

After more assurances to each other that “the bean crop is made in August,” conversations turned to the future. Will marketing be totally messed up because of low flows in the Mississippi River and disrupted barge traffic? What, they ask, will the heat and drought do to land prices? The local area has seen a rapid run-up in land prices, a 32 percent increase between 2011 and 2012, with land sales for the county now averaging $8000 per acre for medium quality land. And what will happen to cash rents for farmland now averaging $270 per acre? Most of all they ask, what will happen to weather in 2013? Most of them can see their way through one year of really difficult weather; their primary concern is what happens if there are two 2012s in a row. Opinion divides on whether next year will return to normal, or whether 2012 is a good predictor of many years to come.

One thing of course never changes: their views of the government that range from dismay to disgust. The fact that the current Congress seems unable to pass either a new farm bill or a special bill covering drought, especially for livestock producers, is the subject for special derision.

Meanwhile, everyone watches the markets, waits, and prays for rain.