Extreme drought forces American farmers and ranchers to make difficult and painful choices due to over 60% of the West, Southwest, and Central Plains, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) recent study. Notably, in 2022, farmers’ reports of tilling under crops increased from 24 to 37% from the year before. Similarly, in 2021, over 80% of surveyed ranchers said the extreme drought would likely compel them to sell off portions of their herds or flocks.
The current level of drought in this region is categorized as D3 on a scale of zero to four, which reflects significant crop or pasture losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions. Based on this ranking system, America is teetering between D3 and D4: Under the latter, the water shortages create emergencies, and crop loss is exceptional and widespread.
For example, a water emergency prompted Oregon’s Bureau of Reclamation to announce it would shut off Klamath Basin farmers’ water for the rest of the irrigation season, according to OPB’s Aug. 19, 2022 report. The Bureau allotted 62,000 acre-feet of water for the season, which is only about 20% of the farmers’ needs, explained Paul Simmons, Klamath Water Users Association executive director.
Decreased access to water and reduced aquifers affect the entire food supply chain, from farm to table. For example, for every acre left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, it is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that will not be available to consumers, explained Bill Diedrich, owner of Diedrich Farms in California, during a Republican forum earlier this year.
In July 2021, 50 of California’s 58 counties were under a drought state of emergency. While Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order asking residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 15%, doing so is impossible for farmers and ranchers. California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson explained they could not simply reduce water usage without sacrificing productivity and people’s livelihoods in farming communities.
While water demand can be decreased, there is one thing that will not — the public’s demand for food.
Johansson noted that one-quarter of California’s irrigated farmland expected water supplies to be reduced by 95%. And that more than half of those farms do not have access to surface water.
Another of the Republican forum’s panel, 5th-generation Texas farmer and rancher Ross Copeland, said: “There have been many factors over the years making it increasingly difficult to continue farming and ranching.” However, extreme drought is one of the most prominent issues they face when he and his family farm and raise livestock.
Copeland explained they often plant winter wheat in September or October, then move their herds onto the fields to graze in late winter or early spring. But, the worsening drought conditions compelled them to re-evaluate the plan over the last two years since growing wheat without adequate water is impossible. As a result, “we have been forced to buy feed for cattle and even sell some of their herd to make ends meet.”
The AFBF survey, conducted from June 8 to July 20, 2022, covered 15 states in extreme drought regions, from Texas to North Dakota to California. These regions produce nearly 50% of America’s agricultural products. Even if the water crisis could be resolved, farmers, ranchers, and consumers continue to feel the effects of climate crisis-induced food shortages.
Written by Cathy Milne-Ware
CNN: American farmers are killing their own crops and selling cows because of extreme drought; by Vanessa Yurkevich
OPB: Feds cut water off to Klamath farmers for remainder of season; by Erik Neuman
American Farm Bureau Federation: New AFBF Survey Shows Drought’s Increasing Toll on Farmers and Ranchers
House Committee on Natural Resources: How Western Drought Affects Every American; Press Release
U.S. Drought Monitor: Drought Classification