Michael Ableman - sustainable agriculture, organic farming

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Less Is More
A California Farmer and Author Reflects on the Water Crisis
by Michael Ableman

The Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2002, B11

None of the recent public debates over southern California's share of the Colorado river have mentioned the simple fact that none of us are living within the ecological limitations of where we live. The discussion covers urban versus rural entitlements, surpluses, allotments, agreements among states and water districts, and who is priviledged to consume more. We have forgotten that southern California is essentially a desert and that we're all using water like it's the tropics.

As a small farmer I have never had that luxury. I don't get government-subsidized water, so by necessity our farming systems have evolved in ways that do more with less. This is not just a financial issue, but also my responsibility to the other people who share this desert, and to an ecosystem that is essential to all of us. And ultimately, it is also a creative and rewarding endeavor.

Each year thousands of people come through our southern California farm to see how it is possible to feed hundreds of families with the harvest from only twelve and a half acres. They see efficient drip irrigation tapes and recycled hay mulch, and taste sweet dry-farmed tomatoes grown with only the remains of the rainfall we get from November to March. They also see composting toilets that use no water, showers that also irrigate orchards, and tractors that run on french fry oil.

As long as farmers grow thirsty crops like alfalfa or lettuce and city dwellers worship green lawns, tropical landscapes, and car washes, the struggle will continue to be over who gets more of a shrinking resource. As populations increase, water resources -- whether aquifers or rivers -- will continue to decrease. Drought conditions will stress over-drafted systems that are expected to yield at a far greater rate than they can replenish themselves.

Wars have been (and may still be) fought over oil, in the future they may be fought over fresh water.

Rather than responding as we always seem to do by grasping and grappling for "more", why not seek out solutions that are based on conservation and efficiency?

Farmers could continue to farm with a fraction of the water they use now by selecting crops and varieties that better fit within the desert climate, using time honored dry-farming techniques, replacing inefficient sprinkler systems with drip, and improving soils so they better absorb and retain moisture. Urban dwellers could re-think their landscapes to eliminate irrigation, install "waterless toilets", reduce shower and sink flows, and recycle grey-water. Policy makers could provide incentives for conservation rather than the subsidies now available for those who use more.

When Cuba lost access to Soviet-produced agricultural fertilizers and pesticides its people faced starvation. Instead of seeking out more of the same, they applied all of their creativity and knowledge to creating an agriculture based on self-reliance and on natural systems that did not require outside inputs. The "greening" of Cuba's agriculture has become a model to the world.

I am not so naïve as to believe that we will change without a crisis. If the imperial water district continues to refuse a deal, and the federal government does as it says and cuts southern California off from surplus Colorado river water, we will be forced to find another way to farm and to live. Perhaps only then will we learn to view fresh water not as ours to use and abuse, but as the sacred and precious resource that it is.

Michael Ableman is a farmer, educator, and founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, based on one of the oldest organic farms in California. He is the author of "On Good Land" (Chronicle Books, 1998).


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