By Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay Lund and Richard Howitt
Some of the most popular drought stories lately have been on the amount of what water needed to produce food from California, as a consumer sees it — a single almond, a head of lettuce or a glass of wine. The stories are often illustrated with pictures of common fruits, nuts and vegetables in one column and icons of gallon water jugs representing their water usage in the other.
But there are more than two columns to this story. The amount of water applied to crops also translates into dollars and jobs — the main reasons for agriculture’s existence in California.
Here are multiple columns of data to better understand California’s crop water use and the revenues and jobs it is intended to produce.
The charts below illustrate the data. A principal conclusion is that crops with the highest economic “pop per drop” — revenue per net unit of water — also usually have the highest employment per land area and water use.
Other observations from the data:
- As a global food basket for fruits, vegetables and nuts, California’s net crop water use in 2010 was about 20 million acre-feet on 9.4 million acres of irrigated land. Gross revenues were about $36.7 billion.
- The top 5 crop group in revenue per unit of water use are grown on about 25 percent of California’s irrigated cropland and account for 16.4 percent of all the net water use. Those crops are responsible for two-thirds of all crop-related employment.
- Grains, livestock forage and other field crops rank lower in revenue and jobs per drop because the farming is highly mechanized, requiring relatively little labor. These crop groups nonetheless are critical to the livestock industry. California’s dairy production is the largest in the country.
- Vegetables, horticulture, fruits and nuts account for more than 90 percent of employment directly related to crop production.
- Farm contractors, who provide bulk labor for growers, supply about half the labor force for most crop groups.
- California agriculture accounts for about 400,000 full-time jobs (or their equivalent), including 172,000 in crop production, 29,000 in livestock and dairies and 193,000 in agricultural support services (contract labor). Some studies suggest that many California farm jobs are part-time, with an average of two jobs for each full-time equivalent job.
California agriculture will use less water this year and in the long run. Several factors will lead to long-term reductions in farm water use in many areas of the state. Those include the state’s new groundwater legislation, ongoing salinization and urbanization of cropland, and increasing environmental water requirements.
The drought has raised understanding of these inevitable reductions. But the growing market value of California’s specialty crops and growing yields per acre and per gallon will keep California agriculture healthy in most cases.
Growing scarcity of water for agriculture is probably best managed using water markets and pricing so the industry and the state can make the most of limited supplies. Efforts to impose detailed arbitrary limits on crops and regions are unlikely to serve the economic and environmental interests of California, but rather distract from discussions needed for long-term progress.
Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay Lund and Richard Howitt are with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Medellín-Azuara is a research scientist, Howitt is a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics, and Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the center.
California Department of Water Resources. 2015. “Irrigated crop acres and water use.” Last visited April 24, 2015
Martin P. and Taylor E. 2013. “Ripe with Change: Evolving Farm Labor Markets int he United States, Mexico and Central America.” Migration Policy Institute, Washington, D.C. Last visited April 24, 2015
Medellin-Azuara J. and Lund J.R. 2015. “Dollars and drops per California crop.” California WaterBlog. April, 14, 2015
Sumner D. 2015. “Food prices and the California drought.” California WaterBlog. April 22, 2015