Q&A with California Farmers: Cannon Michael and Brandon Morris

August 31, 2017 | Water in the West | Insights

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Fruit trees at B&D Morris Farms.

The scale of California’s agricultural production is staggering.  Farmers and ranchers in California generate ~$47 billion in direct annual revenue (roughly 2% of the state’s GDP) and produce over one third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts, including 99% of artichokes and walnuts, 71% of spinach, and 69% of carrots among others (depending on the year).  With the state’s population predicted to be 45 million by 2040, to say nothing of the predicted global population rise, agriculture’s ability to produce more food with less water—while maintaining productivity—is center stage.  

In the West, we’ve inherited a narrative that tells us that “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over,” and as demands to increase production and decrease water use mount, so too could tensions between water users.  However, as Executive Director Leon Szeptycki pointed out, this paradigm distracts from the real work of finding practical solutions and does little to illuminate a thoughtful path forward for Californians across the board who are struggling to do more, with less.  

We had the chance to visit with two farmers, Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming Company and Brandon Morris of B&D Morris Farms, about what it is like as farmers in California and what they wish the rest of us knew about water, food, and agriculture.

 

What do you wish the average Californian knew about water use and agriculture in the state?

Cannon Michael, Bowles Farming Company

CANNON MICHAEL: Water for food and fiber benefits a lot more than just the farmer. Aren’t we all responsible for “ag water use” – when we get dressed and eat three times or more a day? When we pick a steak or burger, doesn’t that decision mean something in terms of our water use? We know it takes a lot of water to produce food, but we have to eat. Shouldn’t food and fiber come from places like California with a high level of regulation to protect the environment, workers and consumers? Taking away ag will reduce water use, but those products will come from somewhere with likely lower standards since those required here are so high.

Water is an input and costs a farmer money so there is an inherent reason to not waste it. Too much or too little water will kill the crop – the farmer wants to only use as much as needed and wants to apply it in a way to get the best return on the expense.

BRANDON MORRIS: The winter of 2016/2017 highlighted California’s water infrastructure in both good and bad ways. It taught many who were once unfamiliar with our state’s water infrastructure exactly why water storage facilities are a wise investment for today and the future. It proved that well maintained water storage facilities are a necessity not only for agriculture but for the preservation of cities and towns in floodplains.

 

How does climate change factor in to your daily operations and long-term decision-making?

Brandon Morris, B&D Morris Farms

BRANDON: Most climate related decisions are made on a day-to-day basis. For example, irrigations are scheduled based on the latest, most reliable local weather information and knowledge of individual fields’ soils. As time goes on, we need to be certain that the crops we choose to farm remain productive if certain climatic data, like accumulation of chilling units or rainfall patterns, deviate largely from historical averages.

CANNON: Definitely in our minds as we look at crop rotations and future crops. All crops are sensitive to volatile weather and it is a big concern. Since water deliveries in much of the state are linked to the health of certain endangered fish that need cold water, it is concerning to think that more water will be dedicated to fish and supply for farms and cities can be impacted. If warming continues, it may be impossible to save certain fish, but that doesn’t seem to be part of the conversation right now.

 

How are you leading the way for thoughtful management in California?

CANNON: We actively manage 650 acres of wetland habitat and are working with NGO’s and California agencies to improve habitat across the farm. We believe there can be a healthy nexus between agriculture and the local environment.  We want our farm to be open and transparent and to share our story with the public. We have invested millions of dollars in water conservation and green energy to power those solutions. We use the highest technology available to grow our crops and see this as our only way to be competitive in the future. Our workers are treated with dignity and respect and have many benefits including health care, a defined benefit pension plan and affordable housing.

We view ourselves as stewards of our land and as 6th generation California farmers, we understand what it really means to be “sustainable”. We would never make a decision that would harm our soil, workers, surrounding environment or customers – we want to be farming for generations to come. Sacrificing our core values for short term profit is not a viable strategy.

BRANDON: Every farm and ranch has unique operational and economic challenges. Solutions found for our farm may not be practical for most others. We simply try to focus on becoming better growers and stewards every day by keeping an open mind and looking for ways to implement new technology that will make our operation more sustainable. There will always be room for improvement; we just need to recognize which areas need to be improved most quickly. We are currently prioritizing stricter maintenance standards on existing micro irrigation systems along with the implementation of remote monitoring of irrigation system efficiencies.

 

Do you feel that these efforts have good return on investment?

BRANDON: We are confident that efforts made to become better stewards pay off both economically and environmentally. One example of our dedication to this thesis is our commitment to improving the health of our soil. We aim to improve soil health by increasing organic matter, which improves our crop’s water use efficiency and makes our farm more productive.

CANNON: Some of our capital investments do provide a return – these investments only will pay off if we have water to run through them, so we have considerable risk tied up and if water availability is limited we will be at greater risk. The way Californians vote indicates that they care about the environment and people but they often purchase products that come from places that don’t share those values. California farmers are held to a high level of regulatory compliance that is backed up with enforceable penalties. I am proud to produce needed products with a high level of environmental and ethical standards, but I worry that the consumer doesn’t always seem to really care.

I also worry that California Agriculture is vilified by some groups that get a lot of press and by some legislators instead of being held up as the gold standard for food and fiber production.

It is rewarding on a fundamental level to farm in an ethical and environmentally friendly way, but it does make us less competitive with a world that does not share those same values.

True sustainability costs money and California has a very high cost of production. If the consumer, legislature, and others are just willing to get their products from anywhere while holding California to the highest standards, the outlook for farmers here is pretty bleak.

 

Are there changes to state or local policies or new technologies or tools that would better support your water management efforts?

BRANDON: The implementation of SGMA will lead to many changes in agricultural water management. Groundwater policy notwithstanding, we have been aiming to increase water use efficiency since water is such a large expense. We’ll continue to improve in areas like water management with the help of new technology. We are excited to vet new technology to increase water use efficiency further, however investments in new projects are often costly. New technology must become proven and cost effective before we can conclude on whether or not the technology is a formidable long-term investment.

CANNON: Programs and policies that incentivize farmers to adopt new tech and learn new methods have had a lot of success. Moreover, a less adversarial approach to regulation would be a positive step. Agriculturalists are intelligent people who fix problems every day – treating them as if they are the enemy doesn’t get much accomplished and continues the polarization in California water issues. Also, maintaining existing infrastructure (Oroville as an example) and looking at new solutions is critical. California relies on an engineered water system for almost all of its population. There is no shame in this fact, but we need to make intelligent decisions and investments.

 

What are the lessons from California for other western states struggling with competing demands from population, energy development, and agriculture in the context of a potentially hotter and drier future?

CANNON: Water is a divisive issue, but finding solutions takes collaboration and partnerships. I don’t know that California should be held up as an example to others – or maybe as an example of what happens when groups can’t work well together.

BRANDON: Living in the western U.S. has historically come with many climatic challenges. Whether inside or outside of California, water users’ common goal should be to use water most efficiently. Parties with conflicting viewpoints should also be willing to strive for achieving common goals. State and local policy makers should communicate with their constituents regularly to understand how policy implementation is affecting their constituent’s lives.

 

What is your biggest fear for the future in terms of water in California?

CANNON: I fear that the polarization in California water will continue and the outcome will be negative for all concerned. Returning flows to the environment without considering other stressors has not worked and currently ag and the environment are on a declining trajectory. Water management and ecosystem health are more than just dedicating more flow to the environment. Clearly water is a critical factor in the health of fish, but so are predation, invasive species, habitat, urban runoff and discharge, unscreened diversions, etc. We need to take a holistic approach to the improvement of fish species and find real solutions to promote recovery. Additional flows may be necessary, but there is much more that needs to be addressed. If we don’t take new more comprehensive approaches to these issues then the environment and agriculture will both suffer.

Currently there is a broad diversity in California agriculture (it is not the “Big Corporate Ag” that some profess). I fear that this will eventually not be the case as only large farms will be able to have the scale to handle the regulatory and cost pressures. Small family farms will not be able to survive and will eventually be sold. Large farms generally do lead the way in worker benefits and technology adoption, so they are not bad, but it seems that the public and environmental groups want diversity of farm size and criticize the larger scale operations.

I fear that consumers will continue to source products from farms outside of California that don’t have the same level of environmental and ethical standards that are required by our state. This will lead to the consolidation of farms in California and the eventual contraction of the industry. Production lost in California will go somewhere else and the odds are high that the standards in these new areas will be much lower than what is required in California.

BRANDON: A widening gap between urban and rural areas’ water policy ideals will be a challenge for Californians to deal with. I fear many whose livelihoods depend on well-balanced water policy will suffer since they may not represent a powerful voting bloc. But I remain confident that, over a long period of time, California agricultural producers will become more efficient with water as its costs continue to increase. California farmers have and will continue to face what, at times, may seem like an insurmountable challenge. Nevertheless, farmers and ranchers have found a way to solve challenging problems and evolve to produce more food with less inputs.

Secondarily, it’s important for stakeholders to realize that California’s water infrastructure must be improved to meet growing demands up and down the state. The Central Valley Project, State Water Project, and their components are examples of critical water delivery systems that must be maintained properly to ensure rural communities remain healthy throughout interior California. It may be easy for Californians to focus on other initiatives rather than maintaining and improving existing conveyance systems.

 

Orchards at B&D Morris Farms.

 

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