Don Curlee: Agriculture statistics fill the glass half way

Don Curlee

August 23, 2010

Visalia Times-Delta

Crop reports for 2009 from the leading agricultural counties in California challenge readers to decide whether the farming glass is half full or half empty.

For example, the lack of water for irrigation resulted in the fallowing of perhaps 250,000 acres in Fresno County alone.

But as California's highest-agricultural-producing county, the decrease in production amounted to less than 5 percent, dropping from $5.8 billion in 2008 to about $5.4 billion.

Optimists will see that as a glass half full.

Those making a case for increased farm water supplies might look at that small reduction in output as leaving the glass half empty.

They reason that a greater reduction in crop value would have made a stronger case for increased water storage and improved water conveyance.

In neighboring Kings County, agricultural values were severely reduced by almost 25 percent.

Some loss occurred because acres were fallowed, but production suffered most because of downturns in the dairy and row-crop industries.

The value of agriculture in Tulare County, the state's second largest agricultural producer, was seriously affected by dairy industry losses, resulting in a reduction of $971.5 million from 2008, about 19 percent.

From this columnist's point of view, the almost incidental loss of production in Fresno County and the solid performance of agriculture in other leading counties such as Monterey and Kern underscore the powerful economic strength of agriculture throughout the Golden State.

Farming, even when it is severely handicapped by the lack of sufficient irrigation water or other impediments, seems to find a way to shore up the state's sagging economy.

Admittedly, the farm industry needs help in making its case for additional water.

If that means cooperation from the weather by sending a dry year or series of them, count on it. Dry years will occur; they have occurred.

It's because winters that produce less-than-adequate amounts of rain and snow recur that the water issue has risen to such prominence.

What seemed like excessive rain and snow in 2010 was merely ample moisture, a good rain year for farmers.

Another year like it might be several seasons down the road.

Helping bridge the gaps between years of adequate rainfall is at least part of what the $11.1 billion water bond issue is all about.

Even if it is withdrawn from this year's ballot, its purpose and intent are likely to be just as clear two years from now.

That's when political manipulators suggest it should be put back on the ballot.

Rationale for the bond issue surpasses political and economic interests. Weather records maintained by the University of California predict that naturally occurring water supplies in the state will decline by 24 percent to 30 percent during this century.

Better utilization of the shrinking supply becomes a matter of survival for farmers and non-farmers alike.

If fish, tadpoles and endangered species are included as non-farmers, the need for improved distribution and utilization of precious water supplies is intensified.

In California's highest-producing agricultural counties, rainfall is practically nonexistent from May through September, the time when most of the state's 350 commercial crops grow the most and are harvested and shipped. Only with irrigation water can the production cycle be sustained.

Residents of the Midwest and several other parts of the country who depend on summer rains to keep their lawns green have trouble accepting that climatological phenomenon. Several radical environmentalists and climate jockeys don't seem to get it, either.

So, whether you perceive the glass as half full or half empty, the strategic and economic importance of farming in California is indisputable.

Just as undeniable is farming's dependence on a reliable supply of water for irrigation.

The state's voters might have a couple of years to ponder those conclusions.

> Don Curlee is a freelance writer who specializes in agricultural issues. Write to him at Don Curlee-Public Relations, 457 Armstrong Ave., Clovis, CA 93612.