Can we continue to grow crops in the desert?

Californian farmers are becoming increasingly stressed about water in a parched state, but struggle with the balance between conserving water and feeding the nation.

A crew digs a well in a alfalfa field in Dos Palos, Calif., Thursday Nov. 19, 2009.

Julie Behneman has been working at her family farm in Valley Center, California for about 40 years. She prides herself on growing juicy citrus and lush avocados, and sells her produce and fresh juices every Sunday at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Main Street.

She said the secret to growing juicy citrus is lots of water, but as climate change exacerbates the drought, water is becoming scarce and is threatening the future of farming in the American Southwest.

“A lot of citrus and avocado growers are just letting their groves dry out down where we are,” Behneman said. “If you have a well, you can continue to get by. But even the wells have saltwater in it, and the avocados can’t take that much salt.”

Salvador Hernandez Flores, who works at family-owned GB Farms in Fresno, said it has become risky to grow fruit because of the drought. “There’s no rain,” Flores said. “You’re paying for water. It’s more expensive.”

Many farmers including Benheman have said that they have been forced to increase the prices of their produce every year because of rising water costs. “We would try to conserve as much as we can, but the trees still need water to be juicy, for the fruit to be juicy. So for farmers, that’s difficult,” she said.

In the past few decades, many farms turned towards private wells to reduce their use of expensive government-supplied water. This practice has now exhausted groundwater supplies and aquifers, forcing farmers to turn back to government suppliers. Ashley Chavara, who works as a seller for GB Farms, said that customers have started to complain about the rising costs of produce.

The agricultural industry uses around 80% of the water available in California. Most of the water in Southern California comes from the Colorado River, which has seen an unprecedented decrease in water levels in the past few decades, according to data from the U.S. Interior Bureau of Reclamation. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was signed into law by President Biden in August 2022, includes a number of provisions to reduce water use, including a $4 billion provision to reduce the impacts of the drought in the Southwest.

The provision allocates $550 million for water programs in disadvantaged communities and $12.5 million to provide emergency drought funding to tribes. It also allocates funds to provide compensation to those who voluntarily reduce their water usage. This has been aimed at farmers to get them to reduce their operations or even shut down their farms.

Small farms like Behneman’s are also trying to become more sustainable in their practices and water use. However, California’s agricultural industry is massive. While the government has passed several plans for water use reduction like the Water Conservation Act of 2009, many of these rely on the farmers to suggest changes for water reduction, including the drought resilience provision in the IRA.

Jarvez Turnage, owner of family-owned farm Barons Microgreens, says that many farmers are reluctant to make their practices sustainable due to concerns about initial equipment costs and the time it would take to switch.

“I think farmers could do little things that conserve their water usage, but a lot of times, they are so worried about their time and are just trying to get the job done,” Turnage said.

Konrad Fisher, Director of the Water Climate Trust, said that water systems will continue to be exploited as long as the agricultural industry is prioritized over our natural environment. He believes that farms need to take more responsibility for their water use.

Feeding the nation

The agriculture industry in California brings in more than $50 billion in revenue every year. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the state grows more than a third of the country’s vegetables and more than 75% of the country’s fruit and nuts. California’s most profitable agricultural commodity, however, is dairy and cattle.

California and other southwestern states have an ideal climate for growing crops and rearing livestock, which makes agriculture economically viable. But dwindling water supplies have now become a major limiting factor.

Cattle and livestock in California primarily subsist on alfalfa, a water-intensive crop that was brought to California from Chile in the mid-19th century. Alfalfa is one of the largest consumers of water among all crops and occupies an average of about a million acres of land in California.

According to data by the California Department of Water Resources, pastures are the most water-intensive crop in California. “If we can manage the grass well, we don’t need as much water for the grass, which is very different than alfalfa and hay,” said Patrick Soule, who sells produce and meat for Casitas Valley Pastures in Ojai and other small farms. Alfalfa is usually watered using flood irrigation where fields are flooded with water. Most of this water evaporates or runs off the field, resulting in wasted water.

Soule has worked on many farms for the last 25 years and has seen the effects of drought and climate change firsthand. “The reservoir in our area was at 33% when I last checked,” he said. “Things are really dry. I’ve seen fruit trees that are stressed even though they’re on irrigation.”

He said most farmers know about the water issues and that “heavy limitations” might be put on water use if farmers don’t make voluntary cuts. “Right now, there’s a little bit of denial where some people are just tiptoeing around and not really talking about and getting into the meat of the issue.”

But he also acknowledges that water reduction can only be possible to a certain extent, given the numerous large farms that cover Californian soil and their importance within the nation. “We just want to grow all of our own pasture and grass and those animals tied to that land, and hopefully make a restorative practice,” he said.

Turnage believes there is a culture of being wasteful among farmers in the United States. “People aren’t conscientious of water usage because it free flows so easily,” he said. “Even in the process of feeding alfalfa, the runoff that we receive, are we conserving that?”

Crops for California's livestock are among the thirstiest.


When Jarvez Turnage bought his farmland for Baron Microgreens more than 20 years ago, it was covered with orchards of apricot, apple and pomegranate trees and some grapevines. But when Turnage took over, he was forced to remove most of those trees because of their higher water demands. Instead, he decided to grow microgreens.

He said he doesn’t need to use as much water anymore, so his private well is filling up with water again. “Microgreens are the future of food,” Turnage said. “Not only can you grow it vertically in a smaller space, but it also doesn’t require as much water to get the full nutritional value of the plants you’re growing.”

One of the touted solutions for the drought would be to stop growing crops in the Southwestern U.S. “But that doesn’t really make sense either. That has negative implications for food security,” said Elizabeth Koebele, an environmental policy expert at the University of Reno, Nevada.

“It’s thinking about switching crops to more water efficient plants so that we can potentially grow higher market value crops, moving away from alfalfa to other crops,” she said.

Katherine Hayden started her indoor urban farm Radicle Roots in 2020 right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Like Turnage, she grows microgreens and also grows mushrooms, which do not require much water. Vertical and hydroponic farming are at the core of her agricultural practices. “The plants only drink the water that they need and nothing is wasted,” Hayden said.

She believes having local farms is critical. “Keeping things local is going to be one of the keys to keeping costs low for everybody all over the country,” she said. “There are some farms that could do more about water waste, but I definitely think that the farmers should stay.”

“We need to start talking about what we actually need,” Fisher said. “If we limited waste and focused on crops that can actually feed people, we could easily prevent extinction, stop harming tribes and feed everybody.”

Fisher said the production of alfalfa doesn’t need to completely stop, but needs to be reduced by a considerable amount. “What’s more important? Salmon extinction or continuing to eat a bunch of hamburgers?”

Koebele thinks the lack of more stringent water preservation laws stem from a lack of a centralized governance structure on the Colorado River system. All of the upper and lower basin states control water rights in the Colorado River, in what Koebele calls a “polycentric governance structure.”

“There are so many different players who have a say in how water is used and managed in the Basin,” she said. “And I think that makes it really complicated. There’s not one major law that could change everything in the Colorado River basin and all at once.”

Agriculture has the oldest and most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin. Koebele said a lot of big farms have been involved in discussions about cutting water usage, especially in the Imperial irrigation district, Coachella Valley and other parts of Southern California. But they do not want to give up their political rights to the water.

“If they say they don’t actually need as much water as they’re using, there is a potential to have those rights taken away from them in the future,” she said. “I think that users don’t want to give up too much in the short term because it’s a risk in the long term.”

But the Colorado basin states have adopted a more collaborative approach over the last couple of decades. “People are willing to work together to try to find creative solutions,” Koebele said. “But I do think we’re just so pressed with the drought impacts that it’s getting harder and harder to collaborate and also to voluntarily give up water even though it’s a drought emergency.”

When asked if they would stop farming operations and receive compensation in return, Behneman, Flores, Soule, Turnage and Hayden said no.

“Water is our biggest issue and concern,” said Behneman. “But I would like to keep continuing to farm.”