Get a group of farmers and ranchers together and they will tell you without hesitation California’s historic drought is driving up the cost of food.
The Center for Land-Based Learning, a non-profit teaching people how to farm, held its annual fundraiser at the Oracle Conference Center in Redwood City this weekend. In the glossy lobby, Matt Byrne of SunFed Ranch cut an incongruous figure in his cowboy hat and boots. SunFed is based in Woodland, west of Sacramento. The beef is sold all over the state.
Byrne says the company is trimming its herd because there simply isn’t enough water.
“Ranchers usually feel the effects of drought early because each season we count on winter rains to provide the base for our feed for the entire year,” Byrne says. “Our operation, especially as a grass-fed operation, is based on raising cattle on grass, not on grain.”
That means importing more expensive hay and reducing the number of cattle.
“As it stands today we’re probably down a little bit. Maybe 3,500 instead of the 5,000 we would normally be. And we’ve had to move those animals further afield, not quite so close to home to find the grass, just because we’ve had to go to where the pasture’s available.”
The USDA has predicted the price of meat, dairy and vegetables will continue to rise, overall by up to 3.5% this year over last, because of the drought, but the impacts vary according to which crop you’re talking about.
A farmer who grows tree fruit can’t switch crops from season to season, but a farmer who grows produce has more flexibility in which fields to fallow and what kind of produce to grow. Thaddeus Barsotti, co-owner of Capay Organic in Yolo County, explains.
“Farmers have set aside their lowest yielding crops, their lowest dollar crops, and planted their higher value crops,” Barsotti says. “So maybe I’m not growing grain or safflower or silage crops for animals, but I am making sure to fill all my acres with lettuces and fresh vegetables. So we’ll see what happens next year. If we get to a point where the fresh produce crops aren’t going to be able to be produced that we want, prices are bound to go up.”
For now many farmers and ranchers are using smart water practices and changing their crop practices to survive. But if the drought drags on into another year there will be far more damage to their businesses.