Thursday, September 22, 2011

Californication: the rural version

What I am trying to do here is to bring together a few strands of thought that I have brought up at various times. The first is that as population increases, and there becomes a general need for more food and water, it is not the rural agricultural interests that will necessarily win the water wars. In fact it is far more likely that it will be urban interests (in whatever form they take) that will win.

The second strand of thought is that the rural areas are undergoing a slow decline that is not generally recognized. This decline brings to the rural areas many of the same problems seen previously in urban inner city environments.

Finally, the idea that the countryside is inherently a safer place to be in times of trouble. In some situations it may very well be. But it is all a matter of time-and-place rather than concrete rules.

I have a weakness for Victor Davis Hanson because he brings a fair amount of historically relevant materials into his arguments. In my estimation, and somewhat mis-paraphrasing Twain, if history does not exactly repeat, it certainly rhymes. Where Hanson aggravates me is that he starts for with some very sharp observations, and then veers off into the conservative version of political correctness rather than taking them to their logical conclusion.

The California Corridor: Some Lessons on Government Largesse From the New Frontier
Victor Davis Hanson, Pajamas Media, 12 September 2011 (hat tip: WRSA).

This summer it has been a softer, modern version of living in a cabin on the Great Warpath circa 1740 near Albany or Montreal (in this regard, take a look at Eliot Cohen’s new book Conquered into Liberty on the origins of the American way of war), readying oneself for the next break-in — so our inland “California Corridor” has become from Bakersfield to Sacramento. 

More specifically, I have been on the lookout around my farm for a predatory, nearly new, grey/silver Toyota truck that drives in and then speeds out — always a day or so before the nocturnal theft. He’s clever, this caser — and audacious too, like a wily Sherman tank prowling through the hedgerows. (Why, if poor, is he not home growing a tomato garden or scouring the roadside for the ubiquitous tossed aluminum cans and plastic bottles?)

On three separate occasions from June to August, I have had copper wire stripped out of pumps, the barn ransacked, and the two locks pried off the shop and various things stolen. (Why did they steal buckets of 1900 antique bolts and square nails and leave alone a drill press and grinder? Ease of recycling? Ignorance?)

Two Californias
Victor Davis Hanson, National Review Online, 15 December 2010

There has been a general depression in farming — to such an extent that the 20- to-100-acre tree and vine farmer, the erstwhile backbone of the old rural California, for all practical purposes has ceased to exist.

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed.

Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards.

Many of the rented-out rural shacks and stationary Winnebagos are on former small farms — the vineyards overgrown with weeds, or torn out with the ground lying fallow. I pass on the cultural consequences to communities from the loss of thousands of small farming families. I don’t think I can remember another time when so many acres in the eastern part of the valley have gone out of production, even though farm prices have recently rebounded. Apparently it is simply not worth the gamble of investing $7,000 to $10,000 an acre in a new orchard or vineyard.

Note that he blames water wars and environmentalists in particular about the lack of water that is killing parts of the Central California farmland. In his own piece he notes that the area used to be dry scrubland before it was “ingeniously irrigated”. Of course he does not address that it was government decisions that brought in and paid for the water into the area in the first place. The whole settelement of the West was pretty much dependent on government support. But never mind, I am getting distracted in the way that I accuse Hanson.

The Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean.

From Wikepedia:

The last stream gauge is at the Southerly International Boundary (SIB), where the river leaves the United States altogether. Although the river flows about 76 miles from the SIB to its mouth, no discharge data has been collected since 1983. The amount of water that reaches the mouth of the Colorado River is not known. It is often estimated to be similar to that recorded at the SIB even though this is probably inaccurate. Accounts of flow below the SIB range from zero to a level equal to that recorded at the SIB. The average annual discharge at the SIB from 1975 to 2004 was 1,928,000 acre feet...There has been no measurable flow at all at the SIB for extended periods during many years. In 1996 no flow was recorded on any day of the entire year. Nonetheless, a small amount of water flows into the Colorado River below the SIB, mostly from irrigation returns, the Hardy River, and effluent from the cities of San Luis Río Colorado and Mexicali.

I don't know if the Colorado Rivers is one of the bodies of water that irrigates Mr. Hanson's area. It seems like it might be a little too far south. But I think it is a pretty good indicator of the water problems the West is having. What is important to note is that they are willing to sacrifice the farmland before they are willing to sacrifice the urban areas. Regardless of the need for food, and potential shortages, the urban areas have  more votes, and more money. So it is a very clear indication of where the priorities can expect to be laid.

Because Mr. Hanson's observations are region specific, they only show a specific instance of rural economic decline. However, the general tone of his article I would hope would be a wakeup call to people who somehow view agricultural areas as populated with safe little cozy hamlets. The safest rural hamlets I have seen are the ones geared toward urban big city folks weekend get always (see Washington, Connecticut) , and tend to have more in the way of knick knack, or arts shops, than farming supply stores.

Dovetailing into our final point, there is no obvious security to be had in this rural area. One or two guys do quick snatch and grabs out of their pickup truck; likely to avoid the potential of a gun toting landowner. But if they were desperate enough there is nothing to keep them from bringing more people with them. American farms are not fortified against Indian attacks, and cost saving mechanical devices generally mean there are not enough people around on the farm to still make a go out of defending them. Most small towns around here only have a couple of police officers, or if unincorporated, the local sheriff’s office. In North Carolina they are still a force to be reckoned with; In other areas maybe not as much, as local departments are shut down by budget cuts. We do not have Mexico's rural problems, but we are potentially shading closer in that direction.


iolite said...

Californication is the release of the business of the Chili Peppers' most successful studio. To date, has sold over 16 million copies worldwide, with more than 5 million copies sold in the United States alone.

Anne said...

Brilliant post.
Water, and the rights to water in that area is a frightening concern. It is an odd concept for someone in the East that the rain that falls on your roof.. doesn't belong to you. That is the case in the water restricted West, where rain barrels are in many areas illegal.
You are right in that they place urban above agriculture. Water is life.. and it feeds urban life.
When someone jumped our fence and stole things out of the garden, I was floored. It makes you look at where you are, what you are doing.. and the reality of how well you can actually maintain your security.
The upside to farming in arid locations is that generally you deal with less bugs, less fungal issues, etc. Still needs amendments as arid locations are usually high pH soils.
To grow in such locations, without irrigation.. that takes major soil adjustments. Compost like crazy to hold moisture, mulch to minimize evaporation, shade to mitigate evaporation from the plant itself, sculpting the soil to direct water flow should it rain.. it goes on and on.
At least in CO, they count on the snowpack, hoping each winter they get enough, hedging bets and one community buying from the reservoir of another area. They don't really restrict building.. they restrict appliances allowed, when you can water or wash your car, etc. Meanwhile.. the local shopping mall sprinkler systems go off religiously, even during a rain.
When some think to garden, many take water for granted or it just doesn't enter their mind. That's a big flaw I see in the gimmicky seed banks.. I haven't seen any really select for zone.
The storage system you'd need just for a garden.. not even a farm.. would be massive. Tap water there as well tends to run very high in pH (which is why I collected as much rainwater as I could.. which is generally neutral to slightly acidic, as well has some nitrogen in it.) Totally illegal to do that where I was.
GMO are pushing for drought resistant strains, as they are banking on not just needing significantly higher yields, but are expecting drought to seriously be an issue in the future.
Water is an issue there already.. although it always looms over them. Less fear of a few thousand farmers.. vs what can happen in urban insanity.. where they don't have a real grip on crime as it is now.

russell1200 said...

iolite: Yes, the refrain from the most popular song on the album had the line "dream of Californication." It was intended to be sartiracle and the view of Californian culture was Dystopian.

Anne: People are always worrying about post apocalyptic marauders. But a hungery 7 year old little girl eating up your vegitible garden can cause a lot of problems. With all the military style commando type advise out there for your p-a environment, I have not seen to many people willing to take on an 7 year old little girl.

I have absolutely no faith in gardening as a short term solution. In the long term yes- but you have to get past the short term to reach the long term.

The best cheap storage/cistern method I have had suggested to me was using a septic tank for your storage. It is large, and the big bonus is that there is a competitive market for their purchase and installation. Obviously you don't need the field portion of the system. I was not aware it was illegal in some areas to have rain barrels: interesting: on our coast it is usually the HOA that will complain.