Jonathan Foley is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. He is sure Twitter. These views are his.
California is in the midst of an epic drought, possibly the worst the region has seen in 1,200 years. Now is the time for Californians to think differently about water — and about agriculture, which consumes nearly 80% of all water used in the state.
Use mulches and organic matter to retain moisture near the roots. Organic farms are more drought resistant than conventional farms.
There are many ways to satisfy the thirst for agriculture. We can fallow some irrigated land, leaving more water for cities, nature and other farms. We can grow less thirsty crops and try to get more food value per gallon of water. And we can improve the efficiency of our irrigation systems. Fortunately, all of this is already starting across the state.
But we must also seek to use alternative agricultural methods, in particular techniques borrowed from organic farming and “permaculture”, to help crops make the most of their water. These methods include using thick mulches, which reduce evaporation from the soil surface, and increasing soil organic matter, which naturally retains moisture in the soil root zone and helps plants grow. . It also includes a better soil contour, which reduces unintended runoff and also helps reduce erosion. And that includes the use of artificial swales, small depressions in the ground designed to capture runoff and increase water infiltration.
While organic methods aren’t a silver bullet to California’s agriculture and water problems, they can help our farms use water more efficiently. Long-term trials conducted by the Rodale Institute have repeatedly shown that organic farms can withstand periods of drought better than conventional farms. Additionally, these techniques can produce other win-win benefits for the environment, such as improving water quality, maintaining greater on-farm biodiversity, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in the ground.
In this water crisis, everything has to be on the table, including how we farm in California. Fortunately, many methods – including ideas borrowed from organic farms – can help us get more harvest per drop of precious water in these trying times.
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