Residents of California are starting to get a little worried about where all their rain has been. The state is beginning to capture headlines around the world with news of a drought so serious that it may be the worst in 500 years, and that could have a huge effect on the state’s agriculture, communities and manufacturing. As more and more days have passed without rain, the state is dry as a tinderbox, and it could be in serious economic trouble, while people outside California may be missing out on popular exports like wine and Haas avocados.
One area where the drought is particularly acute is in cattle farming and ranching in general, where farmers count on winter rains to nourish lush pastures. California cows are typically turned out to graze so they can enjoy the outdoors, produce milk that meets organic standards, and eat a rich, varied diet. Furthermore, grazing from natural pasture is much more cost-effective, as it’s totally free.
Unfortunately, those spacious hills, which should be covered in fresh greenery, are dry as a bone across the state, and that means farmers are having to turn to hay and alternate fodder. That’s bad news for cows and farmers alike. Hay prices are going up, and there are some concerns that suppliers may start to run dry in a few months. This could force farmers into tough choices, including culling herds to get them down to manageable levels rather than watching their cattle starve for lack of healthy fodder.
It also poses a problem for organic certification. Farmers working to produce organic milk and products like cheese, butter and yogurt would prefer to keep their herds organic, but they may not have much of a choice. Marin County, known for its large organic herds, has already requested a USDA waiver to relax the pasturing requirements for organic certification so herds can stay certified, but still eat (normally, organic herds must graze on pasture for at least 120 days). Of course, if farmers are supplementing with hay, that needs to be organic too, and supplies of organic hay are thin on the ground, and getting thinner.
To compensate for the low available pasture, farmers are trucking in water (talk about watering the lawn…but in this case, it’s necessary) and scrambling to find hay sources. Ultimately, though, it may not be enough, which leaves them with the next obvious choice: reducing demand for hay by reducing the size of the herd. This could be devastating for farmers, who count on the diversity and size of their herds to produce high volumes of milk.
Meanwhile, prices for meat and milk alike will be going up in response to production pressures, which have to be passed on to consumers. Even with subsidies and other government assistance, it may not be possible to control pricing and keep it affordable for all Californians.
This issue raises some important questions about agriculture in California and whether the state should be so heavily invested in agriculture as we head towards a potentially drier future. It also challenges the consumption of animal products. While a decline in customer demand would hurt farmers, Californians wouldn’t be in this position in the first place if they’d cut down on their meat and dairy-eating ways: and I say this as a die-hard California cheese lover.
Photo credit: Matt.