Farms in California turn to new methods to conserve water amidst worst drought on record

Lettuce and other starters growing at the Growing Experience Urban Farm in Long Beach, California. (Photo Credit: Lena Nozizwe)

California remains in the midst of its worst drought on record. As the  crisis persists, attempts to improve resource management are hampered by what some researchers say is an inadequate inventory of the state’s water resources. According to a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California, the state lags behind its western counterparts in accounting for its surface and groundwater supplies as a single resource.  Lacking a unified water inventory  is one of what the report calls  “serious gaps” in how the state measures what water it does have.

Accurate accounting of available water is vital to policy makers, who decide who can use how much. In June, mandatory restrictions on the state’s water use were relaxed.  Still, Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order last year had mandated a 25-percent reduction in urban consumption with some water agencies ordered to cut as much as 36 percent.

But the most conservative estimates say agriculture accounts for more than 40 percent of water use leading to calls for farms to use water more efficiently. FSRN’s Lena Nozizwe reports on an urban farm outside Long Beach which is trying to set an example.

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The sounds of chirping birds and cars zooming by on a busy street blend into the background at the Growing Experience Urban Farm in Long Beach, California, about an hour’s drive south from Los Angeles. What you won’t hear is a heavy duty sprinkler system.

That’s because along with a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and yes, even chickens, the seven-acre farm also cultivates water conservation methods. In some cases that means dry farming – relying on rainfall rather than irrigation.

“We have some kale and beets here,” points out Holly Carpenter, the farm’s program manager. She says she’s especially proud of a section she calls the food forest. It highlights the fact that drought tolerant plants go far beyond cactus and succulents.

“So everything we see in here has an edible or herbal value. And we have all sorts of herbs in here,” Carpenter explains. “We have rosemary, peppermint, geranium, yarrow, lavender, different varieties of thyme.

She says there 75 different varieties of plants in this one-acre section.

Carpenter says the plants here will get about a year’s worth of watering – via drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is what it sounds like – rather than gushing water, small droplets are gradually applied from through a network of snaking plastic tubing. That in turn pulls moisture out of the air when temperatures are cooler – usually dawn or dusk – which then helps irrigate crops without losing so much to evaporation.

California has been experiencing a severe drought for the last five consecutive years, leading Governor Jerry Brown to call for statewide cuts in water consumption last year.

“We’re in an historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” says Brown. “For that reason I am issuing an executive order mandating a substantial water reduction across our state”

A recent report from the state’s Water Control Board says the situation is improving, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the long-term drought is likely to have a major impact on California – a major agricultural producer.

It’s debatable whether dry farming is practical for large-scale agriculture, but it’s certainly been working out well at the Growing Experience Urban Farm in Southern California since 2009. Condensation from the morning ocean fog has helped the farm cut back on its water use.

“Not only are we providing an example of water conservation and being sustainable, but we are looking to propagate and maintain drought tolerant plants as well,” Carpenter explains.

Nestled within a public housing development operated by the Los Angeles Housing Authority, the farm uses some traditional methods of conserving water.

Holly Carpenter shows off the rainwater catchment system built onto the roofs of the farm’s office building and greenhouse. Why let rainwater empty into storm drains when it can be stored for later use?

Then there’s the vertical garden using aquaponics. Carpenter explains it’s a mash up between aquaculture, where fish are raised, and agriculture, growing plants.

“So essentially we’re using the waste from fish and that natural fertilizer that’s in that waste to support plants and to grow them,” says Carpenter. “So Aquaponics is a great drought technique especially in urban environments, because as you can imagine in a lot of urban there are not a lot of green open spaces to grow in ground even if you wanted to.”

There are 175 of these vertical grow towers planted with basil, garlic, chives and lettuce.

Three full-time employees keep the farm going—and that workforce is supplemented by volunteers, including Cynthia who lives nearby. She’s here not for the technical wizardry but rather to get back to basics.

“I have respect for farmers people who grow food,” says Cynthia. “Instead of me being on the outside looking in, I actually know that there is a lot of love and a lot of hard work put into this. I have respect for anybody that grows food.”

Area residents are the beneficiaries of the farm’s harvests and Carpenter says their water conservation methods intensify the taste of those harvests. There is a weekly farm stand and the Growing Experience also has a Community Supported Agriculture program that offers residents subscriptions to a weekly allotment of produce.

In that way this community surrounding the Long Beach urban farm will reap the fruits – and vegetables – of the labor of volunteers and staff members.

Locally-grown produce doesn’t need to travel as far, so it also conserves another type of liquid: gasoline.

But perhaps its biggest impact is showing just how far a drop of water can go in a state that’s coming to terms with what may be a new, long-term reality of water scarcity. Small as it may be, urban farms like these can set an example for ways to grow food for communities without the usual environmental costs.

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