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Three Things: California Carrot Cataclysm

[NB: check the byline, thanks./~Rayne]

You probably recognize this packaging and its contents.

Depending on the store at which you shop and location in the U.S., you might be more familiar with a different brand but similar contents.

Or perhaps you prefer regular or cooking carrots — the companies which produce them here in the U.S. are quite popular across the country.

Carrots, including “baby-style” or “baby-cut” carrots, are the fourth most popular vegetable in the U.S., with 51% of Americans surveyed acknowledging they’ve eaten them. Only potatoes, tomatoes, and onions are eaten more widely and they’re found in many dishes which aren’t potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. Carrots, though, are often eaten plain as snacks and in salads.

What’s weird about carrots for all their popularity and straightforward consumption, is how little the average American knows about them.

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It’s worth your time to read this essay, Where do carrots come from? by gardening columnist Jill Severn in The Journal of Olympia, Lacey, & Tumwater (JOLT).

You may think she’ll tell where they come from, but instead she introduces you to a critical problem with and for U.S. agriculture:

Many years ago, a young woman from New York City came to visit on Bainbridge Island, brought by mutual friends who lived in Seattle. The Island amazed her; she said she had never seen so many trees.

She had also never seen a vegetable garden. As we walked the garden paths, she could identify tomatoes and cabbages, but pointed at a row of carrots and asked what they were. I pulled one up and showed her. A look of horror came over her face. “Carrots grow in the dirt?” She was horrified. “That’s so unsanitary!” Her feelings were hurt when we laughed.

Really, do go read it, because the scale and depth of the problem become more obvious. It’s not a laughing matter which Severn acknowledges.

I admit to being shocked when I first read those two grafs; I’ve had my hands in garden soil since I was eight or nine years old, growing strawberries and vegetables with the rest of my family. I know carrots not only grow in dirt but they can be a pain in the ass with the wrong soil or growing conditions, or pests. I know carrots straight out of the garden, once rinsed, are heaven to eat and need no adornment.

But as a parent I had a revelation when my oldest was tested for a gifted education program. She was encouraged not to jump into kindergarten but spend a year in a pre-K program because she didn’t know what peas were.

Admittedly, it wasn’t just peas — the other barrier was her ignorance about skipping. At age four when tested, she didn’t recognize it, didn’t know how to do it.

The one thing both peas and skipping had in common was that her parents and caregivers didn’t pass this knowledge onto her. Both parents being full-time white collar workers with schedules in excess of 40 hours a week, neither parent had spent time skipping with her. We took her to playgrounds, parks, taught her how to ride a bike with training wheels, but apparently skipping never made our agenda in the few waking hours we had together every week.

Same thing with peas, only perhaps worse: my spouse hated peas. I’d never cooked them by themselves  unless as pea pods, but the test my daughter took showed her a plate with podless peas. She had no idea what they were. I wish all these years later I’d asked what she thought they were — edible beads? odd candies? alien eggs?

This is how easily Americans become ignorant, by exclusion of information. In the case of carrots and peas, they’ve become ignorant about the very foods they eat every day, and at scale about U.S. agriculture.

~ 2 ~

This is Bakersfield, California:

The grey-blueish area is the city itself, all of its residential and businesses on either side of the Kern River which bisects Kern County. The squares of different shades of green and brown to the south and north of the city are farms.

Note how the city and farms nestle in a flat area surrounded by higher uneven terrain, and how by comparison the entire area is rather arid compared to a similar-sized area in the middle-to-eastern U.S.

Kern County’s average annual rainfall is roughly 6-9 inches, depending on the source consulted; there can be wide swings in this figure from year to year as 2023 will prove. But this average rainfall figure is less than a third of that in Lansing, Michigan or Evansville, Indiana, about an eighth of that in Columbus, Ohio.

The entire county’s native plant life is chaparral – the kind of plants which thrive in a Mediterranean climate with damp cool winters and baking hot summers. Farming anything but chaparral-type plants requires more water.

Farmers have not only used as much surface water as the local ecosystem provides but pumped for more. This has destabilized areas like that beneath the Friant-Kern Canal which serves water to Kern County’s agricultural businesses.

Meanwhile, water managers on the southern end of the Friant system are watching those flows with more than a little frustration.

They are being denied the same largess because the Friant-Kern Canal is out of commission in southern Tulare County as repair work continues there to fix a “sag” along a 33-mile section caused by excessive groundwater pumping that sank the land beneath the canal.

Because of the canal repair work not scheduled for completion until 2024, increased water from this month’s storms isn’t making its way down from Friant to Kern as it would if the canal were fully operational. While rains have increased over Kern County, the groundwater isn’t being recharged if any pumping continues during or after January rains.

This is the Friant-Kern Canal’s path, diverting water from below Millerton Lake from along the base of the Sierra Nevada range to Bakersfield:

Map: Friant-Kern Canal, central California, by Kent Kuehl-The Californian

In spite of much greater rainwater received at the northern source end of the canal, drought based on technicalities – un-recharged groundwater and unfilled reservoirs — and long-term water deficits may remain at the south end.

Snow melt from the Sierra Nevada may help, but there are potential geological threats in the wake of this month’s precipitation.

This is Kern County:

Map: Kern County, California via Google Maps

To say that there may still not be enough water even after all this massive flooding is saying something. The county is the third largest in California and roughly the size of New Jersey.

I won’t even begin to address the other issues related to water quality here, including oil waste fluid and soil fumigant TCP, let alone what water stores in Kern County have meant to other parts of California south of the county.

~ 1 ~

All of which brings me back to the question Jill Severn posed: Where do carrots come from?

85% of U.S. carrot crop is produced in California.

Three of the country’s largest carrot producers — Bolthouse Farms, Grimmway Farms, and AndrewsAgemploy roughly 8000 persons in the Bakersfield area, a number close to 2% of Bakersfield’s population.

This is where our nation’s carrots come from.

Chances are good the carrot crop has been affected in some way by this month’s rainfall in California, even if Kern County hasn’t borne the brunt of it the way other portions of the state have, like central coast, or the Sierra Nevada range with its massive snow pack.

I haven’t even mentioned the challenge of transporting these carrots and other produce. You can see from the city and county maps above the highways which enter and exit Kern County, limited in part by the geography since cutting roads through hills and mountains isn’t a minor undertaking.

This map shows recent landslides which may have affected highways over which produce has been transported:

Map: Landslides in California, January 1-16, 2023, via CA Geological Survey.

Even when the rains stop and the snow melt has finished, instability along some highways will continue.

But carrots aren’t the only produce grown in California and trucked across the U.S.

Where does our garlic comes from? Mostly Santa Clara and Fresno counties – the former badly hammered by this month’s rain – producing roughly half of all garlic consumed in the U.S.

Where do our strawberries come from? Monterey, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz counties, all along central coastal California and all savaged horribly by this month’s storms. Around 90% of strawberries consumed in the U.S. come from this region.

Lettuce is much the same as is celery. I’ve had both romaine and celery in my refrigerator recently which was grown by Tanimura & Antle Farms in California, in the San Joaquin Valley. The same valley has been flooded.

Unlike competitor Bolthouse Farms, Tanimura & Antle is an employee-owned farming business. It also owns farming operations in Arizona and Tennessee, but the latter is particularly interesting as it’s a hydroponic greenhouse facility for lettuce production located between Nashville and Knoxville.

It doesn’t look like much from the air:

Satellite photo: Greenhouse lettuce facility, Tanimura & Antle, Livingston TN via Google Maps

But it’s much more like the most productive fresh produce farms – those in the Netherlands serving Europe.

The Washington Post ran a marvelous piece about farming in the Netherlands this past November. It’s worth the effort to read because this small country 1.5 times the size of Maryland has become a super producer, the “world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products by value behind the United States” according to the WaPo’s article.

Thinking about water and land use, we could learn a lot from the Dutch:

The Netherlands produces 4 million cows, 13 million pigs and 104 million chickens annually and is Europe’s biggest meat exporter. But it also provides vegetables to much of Western Europe. The country has nearly 24,000 acres — almost twice the size of Manhattan — of crops growing in greenhouses. These greenhouses, with less fertilizer and water, can grow in a single acre what would take 10 acres of traditional dirt farming to achieve. Dutch farms use only a half-gallon of water to grow about a pound of tomatoes, while the global average is more than 28 gallons.

How much less water would growers need in California if they used similar technologies? How much less oil would we need to ship produce if we had more smaller produce farms spread out across the U.S., copying Dutch vertical farming under LEDs in greenhouses?

How much less risk would there be to the nation’s food supply if produce wasn’t so heavily concentrated in a single state, one vulnerable to more extremes in weather, wildfire, and earthquakes?

Disruptions to power for protracted periods?

Not to mention the ongoing problems of long-term water availability and its contamination, or other challenges like food-borne illness (ex. E. coli in romaine lettuce from Salinas County, CA).

This isn’t a problem confined to California alone. The celery I bought most recently was from either California or Arizona.

The same Arizona where unincorporated municipality Rio Verde had its water supply cut off by neighboring Scottsdale due to drought. The long-term outlook doesn’t look good, either.

The heavy rain and snow battering California and other parts of the Mountain West over the past two weeks is helping to refill some reservoirs and soak dried-out soil. But water experts say that one streak of wet weather will not undo a 20-year drought that has practically emptied Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, and has strained the overburdened Colorado River, which supplies about 35 percent of Arizona’s water. The rest comes from the state’s own rivers or from aquifers in the ground.

Where does our next celery come from?

We need to learn about our nation’s agriculture in a hurry.

A Growing Problem: Agriculture, Climate, and Trump

[NB: Check the byline, please, thanks! /~Rayne]

I’ve been thinking about the Green New Deal and how policy will meet the turf when it comes to agriculture.

Fortunately I have a farmer in the family I could ask about one issue in particular — that of tillage.

Average Americans munching away on their toasted bagel at breakfast, their grilled cheese sandwich at lunch, and their crispy nachos at dinner don’t think about the amount of soil preparation — tillage — which goes into the crops they consume over the course of three square meals. They not only don’t think about all the fuel and oil soil prep requires, they don’t think about the additional passes over a field for seeding, weed control, and harvest to follow, all of which require more fuel and oil, and chemicals derived from or with oil in the case of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer.

There’s been an increasing amount of interest in low-till and no-till farming as part of conservation farming because of the amount of oil required along with concerns that tilling may do more harm than not when turned-up top soil is washed or blown away.

An equally important benefit is carbon sequestration. In the simplest terms, plants are carbon capture mechanisms. They take in carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and nutrients to build tissues. The produce we harvest is carbohydrate — carbon, hydrogen, and water stitched together in a compound we consume. What’s left in the field after our harvest, all that plant waste matter, is mostly carbon compounds lying on the surface of the soil.

When left undisturbed, plant waste matter left to decay releases nutrients, provides mulch to reduce moisture evaporation, stabilizes top soil against erosion by wind and water, while acting as a carbon sink. The more carbon we can sequester in organic material, the less carbon there is in the air in the form of CO2. No-till farming allows the carbon sink to accumulate rather than disturbing it with cultivation which prevents its accumulation.

Not to mention the soil develops a more complex microbiome freeing additional nutrients from the earth and the compost mixture above, potentially increasing nutrient value in crops.

No-till sounds like the method we should already be using as widely as possible, yes? Sadly, we aren’t.

The rate of no-till’s adoption has been problematic. It’s used more frequently in the U.S. than in Europe, but studies in Europe have been used to shape the approach to no-till’s adoption.

One issue affecting farmers attitudes is weed control. They end up using more herbicides on no-till which may offset any environmental gains made by reducing oil consumption. It’s not clear from the studies I’ve read whether the problem is weeds reducing crop yields — in the case of wheat, no-till results in a 5% reduction and in corn, 7.6% reduction — or if it is in part a long-held bias against weeds and for action to eliminate them.

The bias has been documented in research and appears to be based in education. Farmers with a higher level of education are less reluctant to adopt no-till, but these same farmers may be more efficient and not experience the same level of output reductions as less educated farmers.

There remain concerns about crop yields which could be mitigated with use of methods like allelopathic cover crops — like planting rye to winter over before planting another crop over it in the spring. Rye inhibits the growth of broadleaf weeds. Unfortunately, rye also interferes with corn productivity depending on when the corn is planted. A season like 2019 makes it very difficult to manage when planting will happen due to the amount of moisture from snow melt and rain.

There aren’t many identified alternative allelopathic crops either, for use as cover or not. It’s an area ripe for research but we all know how the Trump administration is toward any science which may affect corporate donors like Big Ag and Big Pharma (the latter has strong overlap with the former).

All this brings me to that conversation I had with the farmer in the family.

They grow one fairly simple crop: hay. That’s it. That’s their specialty, that’s all they’ve done on their small farm for decades. The entire family pitches in some way and they earn enough to pay the property taxes on the small farm and the family home along with covering home heating, electricity, and maintenance. Not big money but subsistence level.

I asked about no-till and if they could use it on their farm. They explained the type of soil they had — gave me a name for it which I won’t share because it can too easily be used to identify a part of the country. This type of soil didn’t do well with no-till, they explained, while looking at me skeptically because I’m a suburbanite.

This set me off researching soil types. I didn’t know there were more than 20 in my own county and they were all different from the soil types in the subject farmer’s county

Look for a soil survey of your own home county; it’s highly educational and may even explain somethings you might never have noticed or attributed to something else. Like the layout of towns and cities and their relative organization compared to soil types; I had NO idea that the location of my town wasn’t dictated solely by a couple rivers’ paths but by the adjacent soil. Some areas that remain heavily wooded also happen to be near soil which is difficult to farm and/or in flood plains; other areas which have great soil remain wide open, undeveloped, and under cultivation. Still other areas which have crappy soil according to old maps were built up with businesses and residential developments.

But in the course of researching soil I learned something unfortunate: the farmer in my family was wrong about the type of soil on which they farm, or they were misled/misinformed about the type of soil on which they farmed, or they didn’t want to answer truthfully about the soil because I was some lefty suburbanite nosing around about no-till farming.

I don’t think I want to ask any more questions of them for fear of stirring up a rat’s nest in the family. But I do want to stir the pot a bit here, because this has proven to be a far more complex topic than the average American realizes yet depends on every day and agriculture policy will be critical to the Green New Deal.

Just looking into soil preparation to grow crops opened up a huge can of worms, touching on so many different issues.

Like culture — is some of the bias against no-till based in cultural identity which may prove resistant to change whether about farming techniques, agricultural policy, or the Green New Deal?

Like education — how will we ever develop more and better approaches to efficient, fossil fuel-free crop production without more and better education?

Like economics — can we provide enough incentives to pay farmers an offset for their reduced yields until they become practiced at no-till and other conservation farming techniques? Can we do it with carbon offsets?

Like politics — can we push back against Big Ag and Big Pharma so that farmers can migrate toward more aggressive conservation farming without corporate-captured policy working against them?

The worst part of this dive — which is by no means comprehensive and probably shot through with errors of my own understanding — is that the clock is ticking. We don’t have much time, like a handful of years. We don’t have enough research and we’re fighting the highly toxic combination of ignorance, bias, corporatism, and corruption to overcome this insufficiency.

The worst case could already be upon us if we look at the mid-section of this country. 51% percent of corn is late for planting, and with the rain expected from Texas through Iowa this week, the percentage may not shift much. This past week only saw 5% of the corn crop planted, while only 19% of the country’s soybeans have been sown.

Imagine a couple years of this, combined with the additional pressure Trump has placed on farmers by fomenting a trade war with China. What crops they’ve grown, especially soybeans, earmarked for export have gone unpurchased. In some cases they spoiled in this spring’s floods. Farmers who might have been on the bubble before and during the tariffs might not be able to swing the cost of late planting if it cuts into yields. How do farmers budget when the season is so out of whack that forecasting pricing let alone yields seems impossible?

Not to mention the cost of capital equipment like tractors. Farmers must already have slowed or halted their orders because tractor manufacturer John Deere is cutting production by 20%.

At what point do we begin to worry about global food shortages due to crop failures here in the U.S.? The U.S. is the largest producer of maize, which may take a particular beating this year due to the wet planting season.

What really gets my goat after reading about all the challenges farmers face trying to make a living using traditional or conservation farming techniques in the face of now-unavoidable climate emergency and unnecessary political hassles: that Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf course draws $80,000 in tax credits for farmers because his course keeps a handful of goats and a small hay patch within the course’s property. His “farm” may even receive more credits post-tariffs since it’s small scale and I’m not certain anyone is looking to see if Bedminster qualifies or not.

Enjoy those nachos while you can, folks.

This is an open thread. Bring all your non-Trump-Russia issues to this thread.

The United States of Monsanto

Last night, I was on BlogTalkRadio with former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell talking about WikiLeaks, secrecy, and democracy. As a way to illustrate how the secrecy of diplomatic cables hides a great deal of undemocratic ideas, I raised the emphasis State Department Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy placed in a hearing on WikiLeaks on State’s role in pitching US business.

This formal channel between Washington and our overseas posts provides the Department and other U.S. Government agencies crucial information about the context in which we collectively advance our national interests on a variety of issues. For example, these communications may contain information about promoting American export opportunities, protecting American citizens overseas, and supporting military operations.

I pointed out that WikiLeaks had revealed that our diplomats had proposed a “military-style trade war” to force Europeans to adopt Monsanto’s controversial products.

The US embassy in Paris advised Washington to start a military-style trade war against any European Union country which opposed genetically modified (GM) crops, newly released WikiLeaks cables show.

In response to moves by France to ban a Monsanto GM corn variety in late 2007, the ambassador, Craig Stapleton, a friend and business partner of former US president George Bush, asked Washington to penalise the EU and particularly countries which did not support the use of GM crops.

“Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits.

“The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices,” said Stapleton, who with Bush co-owned the St Louis-based Texas Rangers baseball team in the 1990s.

Here’s another example of how our government bureaucracy has decided that Monsanto and highly subsidized American cotton growers are more important than things like funding heating oil for the poor or teachers. {h/t Raj Patel)

On February 18, Republicans in the House of Representatives defeated an obscure amendment to the House Appropriations bill by a 2-to-1 margin. The Kind Amendment would have eliminated $147 million dollars that the federal government pays every year directly to Brazilian cotton farmers. In an era of nationwide belt tightening, with funding for things like education and the U.S. Farm Bill on the chopping block, defending payments to Brazilian farmers may seem curious.

These subsidies are the compromise the US and Brazil have concocted to resolve a trade dispute: Brazilian cotton growers won a case against US cotton subsidies. In response, Brazil proposed suspending its Intellectual Property obligations. Instead, our government effectively agreed to subsidize Brazilian growers to make sure we can continue to pay silly cotton subsidies here in the US without endangering Monsanto’s royalties in Brazil.

In WTO language, Brazil was allowed to suspend its obligations to U.S. companies under the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. This constituted a major threat to the profits of U.S. agribusiness giants Monsanto and Pioneer, since Brazil is the second largest grower of biotech crops in the world. Fifty percent of Brazil’s corn harvest is engineered to produce the pesticide Bt, and Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Pro is a popular product among Brazilian corn farmers. By targeting the profits of major U.S. corporations, the Brazilian government put the U.S. in a tough spot: either let the subsidies stand and allow Brazilian farmers to plant Monsanto and Pioneer seeds without paying royalties, or substantially reform the cotton program. In essence, Brazil was pitting the interests of Big Agribusiness against those of Big Cotton, and the U.S. government was caught in the middle.

The two governments, however, managed to come up with a creative solution. In a 2009 WTO “framework agreement,” the U.S. created the Commodity Conservation Corporation (CCC), and Brazil created the Brazilian Cotton Institute (BCI). Rather than eliminating or substantially reforming cotton subsidies, the CCC pays the BCI $147 million dollars a year in “technical assistance,” which happens to be the same amount the WTO authorized for trade retaliation specifically for cotton payments. In essence, then, the U.S. government pays a subsidy to Brazilian cotton farmers every year to protect the U.S. cotton program—and the profits of companies like Monsanto and Pioneer.

Now, how did our country decide this kind of insanity is really in the “national interest”? Who decided Monsanto was a more worthy American “citizen” than the poor and the children?