John Michelena: Farmers battle for survival, season at a time

columns@modbee.comJuly 16, 2014 

As a farmer, I’m constantly reminded that we reap what we sow. We should know shortly what the real declines in farm production will be as California farmers are valiantly attempting to grow food with irrigation water that is measured in inches instead of feet, if they have any water at all.

According to a report from UC Davis in May, only about 410,000 acres, or 7.5 percent, of California’s 7 million acres of Central Valley farmland will have been taken out of production this year. Losses are expected to be $738 million, or 2 percent of California’s farm revenue.

Do these numbers downplay the severity of the situation?

The massive water cuts seem to span the entire state, and only increased groundwater pumping has been saving California agriculture from complete ruin. As National Geographic reported earlier in the year, California will be pumping 5 million acre-feet of water from underground lakes while about 6 million acre-feet of surface water has been cut from reservoirs and the California Aqueduct.

I was told by a well driller, who’s working day and night, that his company is expecting to drill about 20 to 30 times more agricultural wells this year than their typical one, two or three. With state and federal water deliveries restricted to zero for some areas and curtailments imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board for others who have traditionally pumped from rivers and tributaries, what else could you expect but to see groundwater being pumped?

But how much longer will our groundwater last if agriculture gets even less water next year? We know that stringent pumping restrictions and new assessments levied on gallons pumped are on the way.

California’s water crisis has been mostly confined and limited to agriculture, but it is likely to spread and reverberate quickly throughout the rest of the economy. Consumers should expect to be sharing in the pain and paying a lot more for food as our aggregate food supplies shrink. Breitbart reported at the end of June that “annual U.S. food inflation is now running at 22 percent and rising.”

A trip to the grocery store validates this statement, as healthy produce is costing more and packaged food is being cleverly reduced into smaller and slimmer packages.

I think food prices will continue increasing to multiples of their current levels.

Farmers have been reduced to playing a cruel game of survival, one irrigation season at a time. Meanwhile, our state and federal governments have ignored California’s chronic water problems, despite having the ability to alleviate them by building more water storage.

The state’s agricultural production can be greatly increased by expanding water storage, which is long overdue. We cannot keep waiting and hoping for a wet El Niño to buy us one more year, as perennial procrastination is exhausting our underground water and destroying agriculture in our state. Otherwise, we will all pay the price in many ways.

Michelena is a Patterson-area farmer and occasional community columnist. Send questions or comments to

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service