Spring arrives with the first warm breezes and fogless mornings in our Valley. On our 80-acre organic farm south of Fresno, I disk our soil, breaking winter's crust. The peaches and nectarines awaken with blossoms, initially revealing their pink buds, then blooming into a glorious canopy. Millions of pink dots blanket the landscape. A new year has begun.
But harsh memories of a cold, bitter winter linger because it rarely rained. Welcome to a new climate age; massive swings in weather have become the rule.
Every spring, I plow the earth and something is plowed into me. Usually it's the spirit of the land, a sense of renewal, a bonding of family with the earth and now it includes our daughter who has come back home to work the farm.
But this year that something is a new realization: Change, especially with the weather, is the new normal.
The lack of rain troubles me the most. We'll get very little surface water due to a limited snowpack in the Sierra. I can pump from my wells, but water tables will quickly drop; wells can go dry. Most of the Central Valley has received less than half of normal rainfall. This may change with a late March miracle, but long-range forecasts are not optimistic.
Of course, what is normal? Typical weather models are based on 30-year increments, counted by decades. So if you were born in the 1960s or earlier, your weather memories don't count. (Lending credence to my claim, that as I get older, the weather just isn't what it used to be.)
Droughts are common, occurring in 1976-77, 1987-92 and recently in 2007-09. We farmers live with risk; a lack of rain has been fairly common in the last century. Old-timers remember the Great Depression, including California's decade-long drought from 1928-37.
But we have been spoiled we're ending a century of abnormally consistent weather years. We developed farming systems built on a culture of expectation. When considering much longer timelines, the relatively wet periods in the 20th century have been the exception rather than the rule in California. Our few dry years have typically been followed by extremely wet seasons.
We're entering a new "weirding time." Much more volatility is to be expected, with extremes in weather part of the new norm. There's still debate concerning how much is a direct result from global warming, but it's clear: something is changing.
This past year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its climate zone guide. Nationwide, a warming trend has advanced northward. Planting guides suggest gardeners can experiment with new plants typically grown in warmer regions. That doesn't mean I'll plant bananas and pineapples on my farm. It may simply mean spring comes sooner and lasts longer with more erratic weather.
I know change comes slow to a farm and farmers. But I do recognize a few years of severe drought demands immediate actions.
In San Diego, some farmers are stumping their avocado trees, cutting them in half to save water; they lose a few years of crop but try to keep their investment alive. Other farmers are switching from lower value row crops, like vegetables and other annuals, to higher value tree crops, hoping to earn more from their limited supply of water. These farmers will quickly learn a new reality: perennial crops mean they can't be uprooted and transplanted; you plant with a future expectation.
Even on our small farm, we've begun a gradual process of change. One of the best acts I did years ago was to fallow 15 acres, much to the chagrin of my father. He grew up with the premise you farm every precious acre you had.
I rationalized: why fight these swings of weather, not to mention poor prices (for raisins a decade ago)? With a new pioneer spirit, I pulled out old vines and, among other benefits, created a new avenue that splits the farm. What a joy every spring as I rediscover the new short-cut on the farm. Who wouldn't jump at such an opportunity in life?
Major shifts in weather point to a new challenge: Survival in agriculture will be based on the ability to change. I can imagine a two-tier strategy. One is based on the very large model: economies of scale benefiting the largest and most efficient operations. The other works for us small operators who are adept at the culture of change; we easily accept, adapt and adopt, finding our niche in the new food chain.
What I'm not so confident about is policy and technology. We don't have policies in place that are equipped to cope with the new normal. For example, we are still fighting over water as if we're clans locked in tribal warfare. We cling to a myopic sense of time: What happens when we have a 30-year drought?
Also, many believe that we can invent our way out of problems. Technology has created miracles; productivity increased, labor-saving machines introduced and are now part of the landscape. But efficiencies can only reach a certain level before there's a decline on a return of investment. Have we begun to max out technological benefits?
I'm an optimist who has faith in a new creative human spirit that will foster hope on the farm. I believe in the art of farming. Great farmers will balance the forces of economics and productivity with the forces of nature, we will respond to weather as opposed to the fallacy of controlling nature. I don't seek solutions, thinking I have all the answers. Farming in the future is more like a mystery to live; I accept that I won't (and can't) farm the same way every year.
Recently, farm timelines have changed for me. Our daughter, Nikiko, has returned home after college and graduate school, and is taking over the farm. I watch her struggle with learning curves and witness her response to new challenges. I also bite my tongue, knowing my way of doing things may not fit this new age of agriculture.
She's better equipped to handle change: She doesn't expect to, nor want to, do it all my way. She's young. She's naive. She's full of enthusiasm. All that's exactly required for future springs.
But perhaps this isn't much different from when I came back to farm after running away for college. Or when my father took a huge risk following World War II and the tragic uprooting and evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. He returned to the Valley, gambled and bought a farm, and planted family roots.
Likewise, is this any more dramatic than my grandparents who left Japan, sailed across an ocean to farm and work in a new, very foreign land? They struggled but stayed a shared story by many whose ancestors who came to California from other places.
Spring does this to me: I think a lot about what is and what is to be. At the same time, plowing the earth is an ancient rite, a renewal of the past, a ritual others have done for centuries and hopefully will do for many more. Like many, I'm reborn every spring.
CALIFORNIA AUTHORS SERIES
To read other installments of the California Authors series written by John Lescroart, Georgeanne Brennan, Gerald Haslam, Belle Yang, Dale Maharidge and Eva Rutland, go to www.sacbee.com/CAauthors