In the early hours of a cold fall morning, thousands of birds sat in the puddles of empty rice paddies just outside the Sacramento Valley.
In many of these fields this year not a single bird can be seen. It is because there is no water. There are no plants. The fields are empty and dry. They have become fallow. Streams that once flowed to provide food and water for beavers and deer have disappeared. The floor looks like cracked concrete slabs.
Economists and farmers warn that there could be serious environmental and economic consequences that extend beyond these arid fields that farmers face.
California is currently experiencing the driest three-year period since the late 1800s. Even with recent rains and snowfall along the Sierra Nevada mountains, farmers are not holding their breath for this winter and the rainy season to end the drought.
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“I don’t know if I’ve seen this before, it’s unprecedented,” rice farmer Sean Doherty said as he looked down at his empty rice paddies. In a normal year, Doherty would typically cultivate about 5,000 acres of rice. He was only able to farm about 700 acres this year because he didn’t have enough water.
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Doherty also begins to notice the ecological impacts of the drought. He said he would see the birds, deer and other animals on his farm every morning. Now, it’s rare if he even sees one.
In a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, irrigated farmland in the state has shrunk by 752,000 acres of farmland, or nearly 10%. Doherty is one of many farmers who have been forced to downsize.
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“You hope for the best and you plan for the worst,” Doherty said.
Over the past two years, a combined $3 billion has been lost in revenue due to crop failures. $1.7 billion was lost in 2022 alone, or about 4.3% of GDP.
Other sectors of the agricultural industry also suffered significant losses. In 2022, $3.5 billion was lost in gross revenue for the processing and purchase of agricultural products.
“Everything from the dairy industry to almonds has been affected,” said Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. Sumner helped prepare the report for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. He says consumers may soon see prices rise in stores for certain products, such as Doherty-grown rice.
The rice harvest in California was only about halfway through a normal harvest season. Two hundred and seventy thousand acres were harvested compared to the usual 550 thousand.
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“It also has effects on the rest of the economy, it’s not just the farmers or the farm workers. It’s the grocery stores, right down to the economy,” Sumner said.
For farmers like Doherty planning next year’s harvest, some wonder if it’s even worth growing again because of the drought.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know if anyone knows, obviously mother nature knows, but she’s not talking,” he said.
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