California Farmer Seeks Greater Efficiency with Drip Irrigation

Original article by San Jose Mercury News (Pete Aiello)

There has been a lot of finger pointing as California endures a drought, and most of it seems to be directed toward agriculture. Well, here’s how I see it: Plants need water to grow.

Letters to the editor in this paper have criticized agriculture for our water use, as community members use words and phrases like “excess” and “water-intensive farming methods.” One letter writer went so far as to call farmers “the greatest wasters of water in California.”

When farmers “use” water, they are growing healthy, affordable local food. Agricultural products not only require water to grow, but they also offer water when consumed. Mushrooms are 94 percent water, and when you eat Santa Clara County grown mushrooms (the county’s No. 2 crop), you are recouping some of the water used to grow them.

It doesn’t make sense to criticize farmers for using water to grow food any more than it makes sense to criticize homebuilders for using wood to build our houses. The consumer drives demand for inputs as much as for end products.

California farmers do our best to make every drop of water count. My family’s farm started installing drip irrigation systems in 1985. Local experts estimate that 80 percent of Santa Clara County’s irrigation is done through low-volume irrigation such as drip tape and micro sprinklers.

While some people decry farmers’ resistance to adopting more efficient irrigation practices, farmers have in fact readily adopted new technologies. California grows twice as much food as it did 40 years ago using the same amount of water. If doubling our output using the same level of input isn’t an example of water use efficiency, I don’t know what is.

As business people, we are always seeking greater efficiency, and drip irrigation has made us more efficient across the board.

When we use subsurface drip irrigation in our bell pepper fields, we reduce the amount of labor used to irrigate and weed those fields, we reduce our electricity costs to pump water because we lose less water to evaporation, and we improve our quality by reducing mold and disease that can result when irrigation water comes into contact with the peppers. All of these efficiencies result in cost savings and improve our bottom line.

California agriculture had an on-farm value of $45 billion in 2012. The total direct impact of the agricultural value chain is much larger at $340 billion. About 2.5 million jobs are tied to agriculture, including off-farm jobs in sectors such as transportation, canning, sales, import/export and supply industries.

My family also farms in the Central Valley, where jobs tied to agriculture generate 22 percent of private sector employment. Entire towns can be harmed by drought, as was the farming town of Mendota in 2009 when unemployment reached nearly 50 percent. Some Bay Area residents are calling for “more pressure on farmers.” I assure you, farmers like me are conserving water in times of plenty and we are doing all we can to conserve even more in a drought like this. We conserve to protect our bottom line and because it is the right thing to do.

Plants will always require water. California’s farmers and ranchers will continue to transform our water use into a secure, locally grown supply of food, on- and off-farm jobs and 50 percent of the nation’s fruit, veggies and nuts.

Pete Aiello, a second generation farmer, is owner and general manager of Uesugi Farms in Gilroy and president of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. He wrote this [op-ed for San Jose Mercury News].