Sunday, July 29, 2007
New York Times
By MIKE MADISON
THERE is no better year for farming in California than the first year of a drought. The lakes and reservoirs still hold ample water from the year before, and the farmer can go about his chores without inconvenient rains confounding his schedule. Sunlight pours down from a cloudless sky. The crops prosper. Life is good.
That’s our situation in the Sacramento Valley at the moment. We’ve had an unusually dry year, and I had to start irrigating in January — ordinarily our rainiest month — and I’ve kept at it all through the spring and summer.
Even if I were housebound and someone else was doing the irrigating, I would know from one glance at the electric bill. It takes a lot of power to move that water around, and it’s the single biggest expense on my farm. Some of my neighbors, who farm on a bigger scale than I do, have electric bills in the summer of $8,000 a month.
This year I’m converting my irrigation to solar power, installing silicon panels that turn sunlight into electricity. This will drive the pumps that lift water from underground and push it through the eight miles of plastic pipes that make up my irrigation system. Even though the panels are expensive, the return on my investment is about 12 percent, better than almost any stock or bond fund I could buy.
I’m not alone in the conversion to solar-powered irrigation. Drive the back roads around here and you will see solar panels on the roofs of barns and sheds or simply mounted on racks out in the open. If we keep at this long enough, we may reach the day when we can take down the miles of poles and wires that bring electricity from afar, and sell them for scrap.
In my neighborhood, walnuts are the preferred crop; they’re reliably profitable every year. But walnut trees are thirsty, and their irrigation has an urgency about it that will keep the walnut farmer awake at night. I didn’t want that particular worry in my life, and so I chose crops — apricots, olives, quince — that will tolerate a drought. I could skip irrigation for a year, and the trees would sulk, but they wouldn’t die.
Growing trees has a slower pace to it than farming row crops. The farmer of row crops — tomatoes, cucumbers, corn — believes that the future will arrive in about 110 days, maybe sooner. But the orchardist thinks in decades. He plants an orchard at great expense, and then waits six years for his first harvest. And it takes a decade after that to pay off his investment and start making money. To one who thinks in these terms, the year 2030 doesn’t seem far off.
As I mentioned, the first year of a drought is a gift to the farmer. Our apricot trees flowered under clear skies, the bees did their job, and in June we harvested a record crop. I sold fresh apricots, I dried apricots, and my wife put up 800 jars of apricot jam: straight apricot, apricot with lime, apricot with saffron. The other crops in the district — olives, walnuts, almonds, plums — are on the same track, heading for a record harvest.
But there is a dark side to this. If the first year of a drought is a gift, the second year is a worry, and the third year is a crisis. That crisis has a twist to it. In the third year, the lakes and reservoirs are empty, and not only is water in short supply, but so is electricity, for with empty reservoirs there is no flowing water to turn the hydroelectric turbines. We get power failures that frustrate irrigation and every other sort of industry. The farmers age a lot in those years.
Of course, the weather is undependable; it always has been, and our best guesses about it, like scientists’ predictions that a climate shift means that the West has many more years of drought ahead, are still guesses. But another observation, which 20 years ago would have seemed preposterous, is that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company is also not entirely dependable, and so we make our own arrangements for electricity.
We won’t know until next year whether this is the first year of a drought, or merely a lucky dry year sandwiched between two wet ones. Either way, we’re enjoying our gift year, and preparing for whatever might follow.
Mike Madison is a farmer and the author, most recently, of "Blithe Tomato."
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