Western Drought and Sustainable Food Systems

Drought and FoodBy Gary Huxel

The drought in California is stretching into Texas leaving much of the country’s prime agricultural areas in dire need of water and declining production of vegetables and fruit. This drought and the drought over the past decade have shown us that our food production system cannot be sustainable as our climate changes. Western agricultural areas are mostly in arid and semi-arid grasslands that need water for sustained production given their limited rainfall. This means that water resources for growing populations and economic sources are getting tighter and as snowpack and glaciers are reduced upstream in the origins of Western rivers. Lake Mead on the Colorado River is rapidly declining due to sustained drought over the last 14 years in Arizona and is nearly the critical level of 1,000 feet above sea level when pumping will no longer be viable. In the Bravos River valley, oil companies are purchasing older water rights for first use in their facilities leaving agriculture and populations thirsty. Thus our major Western agricultural regions are rapidly drying strongly impacting food production. Predictions of climate models strongly suggest that the southwest US will experience increased drought further reducing water availability in the coming years.

Do we rebuild a sustainable food system such as our grandparents or great-grandparents had or do we rely on Kroger’s and Wal-Mart? Kroger’s and Wal-Mart both rely heavily on mass production areas of food resources such as the vegetable and fruit fields of California. Where do they go when shortages in this area arises? Probably from international sources including evermore stripped rainforest ecosystems turned into large-scale agricultural fields that quickly loss nutrients and soil resources. This leads to new areas having to be stripped and burned out for more agricultural fields which will in turn rapidly be depleted of soil and nutrients.

So if we do not want to see all of our key carbon absorbing, oxygen-producing rainforests lost, we must rethink and rebuild our food production system. We need to look inside our communities and nearby farms for a more sustainable system that does not require so much carbon and energy inputs. We need to reduce large-scale mechanized truck farming with locally produced goods. Some parts of the country have long realized this and placed a priority on maintaining farmland and not turning it into more gas-guzzling and energy hungry suburbs. The heavy dependence on carbon-based fuels is further impacting our climate leading to greater greenhouse emissions and higher temperatures across the US and the world. This further acerbates drought conditions in the southwest.

In Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville has shown some movement in this direction with allowing chickens, bee hives, and now goats (though only mini-goats, why?). We need to find a balance between high-density housing and allowing more garden space. Our suburbs have some room for some gardens in which we could grow some of our own vegetables and fruit. With higher density housing, we could set aside some property for community gardens especially on old farms within or near to city limits. Several good examples of this being accomplished include Portland; Davis, California; and Sacramento, California.

We also can rely on some of our areas farmers as we support them at several venues for farmers’ markets in the region. This reduces transportation costs, includes green space, and provides for economic opportunities for farmers and their employees and market managers. Our local food coop, Ozark Food Co-op, could increase stocking of local food products. Wal-Mart has pledged to increase its purchasing of local food resources, but needs to put in a plan to aid some farmers to increase production or for more farmers to start in the business. Across the country the number of people farming is indeed increasing, especially on small farms. This has provided many families with a steady income particularly needed as jobs above minimum wage are declining due to the move from manufacturing to service industries. Additionally, low income families and individuals who qualify for food stamps now have the opportunity to purchase at farmers’ markets with their SNAP benefits increasing their access of higher quality fresh produce and meat.

A number of farmers’ markets and vegetable stands have been established in Northwest Arkansas in addition to the long-running Fayetteville Farmers’ Market in the Square. Farmers’ Markets are spreading across the week (not just on Saturdays anymore) and across the region. A list of other farmers’ markets and times are available on Ozark Slow Food website which has a wealth of information on food sources, recipes, events and other news (the farmers’ markets are listed at www.ozarkslowfood.org/northwest-arkansas-farmers-markets/).

For backyard gardeners and small farmers there are a number of good local sources for seeds, plants, trees, and soil amendments. These include Chicken Holler in Farmington, Fayetteville Farmers Coop, Ozark Natural Foods (chicken feed – go to the back of ONF), White River Nursery, Westwood Gardens, Ozark Gardens and Nursery, Berries Unlimited (in Prairie Grove – great trees and prices) and Lowes (for a big box example). Check with the University of Arkansas Extension Service for selection of varieties and species of plants for this area.

As a country, we need to reduce our alliance on carbon based energy including fuels for food transportation and fuel for large-scale farming. We could make strong inroads on this by moving towards a more local food production system and provide more economic opportunities for small-scale farming and other food production entrepreneurs. This will enable us to reduce our carbon emissions by reducing large-scale farm fuel expenditures, food processing, and shipping. Local food production then will help lower the impact of climate change and provide better economic opportunities for local farmers and markets. So start by learning more about the farmers and farmers’ markets of our region and go see (and purchase) their wonderful, sustainable, healthy products.

Gary Huxel is an environmental scientist and ecologist with a strong interest in climate change and energy policy. His minimal blog is at garyhuxel.org.


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