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Burning & Eating California

California Feeds the World

Oakland Museum of California, Gallery of California History. Photo by the author.

There are eight active fires burning in California right now, and temperatures inland will be over 100 degrees, not just for the upcoming weekend, but for the foreseeable future. Here in the Golden State extremes are a way of life going back hundreds of thousands of years – we’ve had ice, glaciers, cold temperatures and lower sea levels followed by the current warming period we are now in, called the Holocene, with cool winters and hot, intense summers. There are droughts and there are floods. Mix in earthquakes and it’s easy to see why so many of my friends and former neighbors from Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. ask, Why would anyone want to live in California? This sentiment is almost always prefaced by a compliment, You’re from California? What a beautiful place. Followed by, But I could never live there. Then a self-satisfied nod of the head and expression that says, I’m not so dumb as to live in a place like California. Well, I get it. But don’t be so smug. California matters, not just to the 39 million people living here, but it matters even if you don’t live here. Snow melts into water, water grows food and you eat food. Food from California. Let’s start with the water.

Water Studies cited in B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam’s terrific book The West Without Water show a ten percent decrease in the amount of snowpack in the Sierra in the last century. For the 21st century, it looks grim – forecasts show decreases between 40 to 80 percent. Less rain, less snow means things are drying up. Too bad, the skiing industry will probably suffer, I hear from concerned people outside the West. Skiing is just one human activity impacted by warmer temperatures. Showering, washing the car and eating are a few others. For snowpack is where California’s drinking and irrigation water come from. Less snow means less water for everybody.

California Cornucopia

Oakland Museum of California, Gallery of California History. Photo by the author.

Fire Of California’s 20 most destructive fires since record keeping began, five of them were in 2017: the Tubbs, Atlas, Nunns, and Redwood Valley fires in the Northern San Francisco Bay Area and the Thomas Fire in Southern California. Between them, some 10,000 structures were lost and 43 people died. In terms of number of acres burned, the number one slot, not just in 2017, but of all time, went to the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, which started shortly after the deadly North Bay fires. The Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres, or an area larger than Newark, Queens, and Brooklyn, all the way to Hempstead, Long Island combined. What produces such disasters? Less snow and less rain means trees dry out – millions of them, along with the bushes and brush that cover our hills and mountains. Get a good dry day and add in high wind speeds and a spark, and you have wildfires taking off with fury. I won’t lie – watching them burn is one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, scary experiences you’ll ever have. The colors, the heat, the magnificent sunsets as a result, and the heroism of humanity – the hotshots, the air tanker pilots, the sleepless Cal Fire and US Forest Service personnel – are on full display. It’s an all-out war between nature and humans, and the humans aren’t as fast as a wall of fire jumping from treetop to treetop. People lose everything – their homes, their dogs, horses, cats and guinea pigs, every pair of underwear, every shoe, every dish, every toy and book, all their wedding pictures, their land holdings, their stability.

Drought Monitor for 7-5-18

U.S. Drought Monitor, California. Author: Richard Tinker. Red means extreme drought. All that yellow? Abnormally dry conditions. Things don’t look great for the state. The U.S. Drought Monitor is jointly produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Map courtesy of NDMC-UNL.

Still Hungry Everyone enjoys fresh lettuce in winter and milk with their cookies. Less snow falling from the sky isn’t just a California problem, or a Western concern. It’s global. Here’s why:

  • You eat. A lot of your food comes from California. No other state comes close to the output of California, which is a $46 Billion behemoth in crop cash receipts. Not even Idaho, which comes in second behind California, at $26 Billion.
  • The Golden State produces two-thirds of all your fruits and nuts.
  • California produces half of your vegetables.
  • California is the sole producer, at 99 percent or more, of all of the United States’ pomegranates, olives, clingstone peaches, kiwi fruit, figs, dates, artichokes, sweet rice, garlic, pistachios and grapes
  • Gracias Mexico! Mexico is the largest importer of California’s milk.
  • More than one-quarter of California’s agricultural products go outside the United States. Here are the top importers of California produce and the top products they rely upon for food and well-being:
  1. European Union – imports almonds, wine and walnuts.
  2. Canada – imports wine, processed tomatoes and almonds.
  3. China and Hong Kong – import almonds, pistachios and dairy products.
  4. Japan – imports rice, almonds, hay and beef.
  5. Mexico – imports dairy products, tomatoes, almonds and grapes.

There’s no mistaking that the world relies on California’s farms and ranches. In 2016 California’s 77,500 farms produced 400 commodities. Those cattle, almonds, grapes, pomegranates, strawberries,  walnuts, pistachios and rice need water. Start paying attention to the weather, to climate, to heat, to fires, to the animals, plants and people. All need water. When you eat a California fruit, vegetable, piece of meat or dairy item, think of me and my beautiful state. Help us understand and protect our water. Food may yet bring all of us to the table, no matter our political differences. In the end, water is the tie that binds humanity’s shared future. And stomachs.

Food Needs Water

My sister and I snapped this pic at Shasta Dam’s visitor center, which has an excellent exhibit on water use.


2 comments on “Burning & Eating California

  1. No one should be smug – wildfires are affecting more and more regions of the U.S. including the east coast! also remember Tennessee November 2016

  2. Vy says:

    Excellent article. One if the reasons I try to be vegetarian and non dairy. Almond milk occasionally. Super hard to give up cheese though. I hope lots and lots of Non Californians read this.

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