Farming A Warming Planet: An Interview Nathanael Johnson

AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Craig Kohlruss

California avocados are, for the moment, one of America’s most popular foods. Yet some experts predict that climate change could cut California’s avocado production in half by 2050. New weather patterns will also affect the state’s other tree crops, including citrus, almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. But even if rising sea levels flood many coastal cities, many Golden State farmers still plan on growing food for a living.

At Grist, food writer Nathaneal Johnson shows how California farmers are planning ahead for climate change while balancing their immediate economic concerns. Farming is a matter of long-term planning: Just because there was a drought for a nearly six years doesn’t mean farmers can remove their thirsty nut trees and plant strawberries. Fortunately, scientists are studying crop varieties to find ones that could perform well under new weather patterns. California farmers are currently experimenting with cover crops to hold water and improve soil, and testing ways to recharge aquifers before the new state law bans excessive groundwater pumping. Will this all be enough to save them, and the food we rely on?

***

After the state’s recent drought, farmers who grow tree crops have a lot at stake when it comes to using water. While reporting your story, were most farmers forthcoming about their fears or concerns? Or were some hesitant about disclosing too much about their trade?

The farmers I talked to were happy to chat. These guys were all just people running small businesses. I wasn’t talking to the massive ranchers who are working the political angles (with the exemption of thepeople on the Almond Board, who are certainly politically savvy). For the most part, it seems to me that farmers feel misunderstood, so they are happy to try to set those misconceptions right.

I sensed some hesitation from certain farmers in talking about climate change and water—it didn’t seem like they were worried about pushing a particular angle, but they may have been worried about saying the wrong thing and looking like rubes, or attracting a lot of hate mail. I have a little bit of a track record of listening to farmers and taking them seriously, rather than using them to retrench the popular narrative, and that may have been worth something.

During the drought, almond farmers got a lot of flak for growing a seemingly thirsty crop when there was little to no surface water, but avocados need even more water than nuts. Why do you think avocados were spared the same wrath in the arena of public opinion? Is our love of guacamole that strong?

Well, our love for guac is indeed a powerful force, but I fear the answer is simpler and more boring. There just aren’t that many avocado orchards in California relative to other crops. Meanwhile, the market for almonds is booming, so you can drive around the Central Valley and see mile after mile of new almond groves. During the drought, when the hive mind became convinced that California was about to turn into an anarchic desert hellscape, the sight of all these new trees going in was dissonant.

As you said, most of us don’t really understand everything that goes into farming, so farmers can sometimes inform the public and correct misconceptions when they speak on record. But despite the hive mind’s concerns about thirsty farmers, does the public understands that that family farmer avocado groves and big almond orchards also keep urbanization at bay? 

The way we think about food production tends to be moralistic rather than pragmatic.  Even as I’m asking people to take the time to understand how farmers think, we also should take the time to understand how humans think. It’s normal and probably healthy to feel some moral outrage when we see people profiting off necessities of life like food, water, and housing. It the job of journalists to tap into that outrage and channel it toward a fuller understanding of the system and how it might be altered. When motivating moralism is paired with a pragmatic understanding of the way a system works, there’s the potential for truly positive change. If you just have the moralism you end up treating the symptoms rather than the disease, and punishing the people who are just playing by the rules we’ve set up in the system—you’ll end up trying to ban almonds, and you’ll be surprised when orchards turn into suburban sprawl.

As someone who frequently reports on agriculture, how much does a reporter need to understand the mechanics and economics of agriculture to write about? And how did you learn about it?

Every time I visit a farmer I learn something new. For instance, Chris Sayer showed me how he’d planted a few Haas avocado trees between his lemons, when he was experimenting with avocados as a crop. Haas trees have a lazy habit of draping their limbs down on the ground, but because these trees were competing with the lemons for light they grew up toward the sun ─ a happy accidental discovery from planting trees “too close.” That’s fascinating, or me at least, but way too arcane to include in the story.

I don’t think you need to know all those factoids to be write about farming, but you do need to follow the basic rules of journalism and seek out nonpartisan experts to help you figure out what you are looking at. It’s strange, but when journalists write about food and agriculture they will often call up experts who work for advocacy organizations, rather than seeking out more impartial experts at universities. There’s this thing called an “agricultural economist” who can cut through all the moralizing and show a reporter which policy solutions are most likely to work and why. There are thousands of ag scientists that we pay with our tax dollars who are happy to show journalists the evidence to determine which food arguments have merit and which are BS.  I do find it strange that I see so many stories published that basically perpetrate myths about food and farming. Why not just call up an academic or two for a gut check? If health reporters only called medical schools for comments on half their stories they’d be in trouble.

You live in Berkley, a land of farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants. Do locals understand the profound ways that climate change will affect not only California agriculture but their lives as shoppers and diners? 

There’s certainly ample concern. And people talked a lot about it, especially during the drought. But just like the farmers we are trapped within our own systems, we could just as soon switch to eating prickly pears as ask farmers to start growing them Our diets are determined by tradition, prices, availability, the recipes that we learned to cook, the meaning we learned to ascribe to different foods. Markets and culture are more salient than climate change for the farmers, and that’s also true for the eaters. Even in Berkeley.

You wrote a fantastic book called Unseen City, about introducing your daughter to the wonders of nature by helping make nature less abstract to her. Do you and your wife think you’ll speak with your daughter about climate change?

We have two daughters now, and my older kid, Josephine, is 6, which is old enough to understand climate change. I’ve talked through the science with her both in the context of the Earth and in thinking about terraforming other planets—which was a much more exciting proposition for her. She liked the analogy of a puffy jacket getting thicker and thicker and warming up a planet. It doesn’t feel any more abstract than the notion of pollution—she can’t see that the car exhaust is dirty, but she understands that it is, and that it also contains gases that make the Earth’s atmospheric jacket thicker. She doesn’t understand the collective action problem, or the various policy prescriptions, and she hasn’t mastered the levers of international political economics. But wait until she’s 12.