12 Thought-Provoking California Agriculture Scenes

Last March (2018) we had a wonderful guest lecture at the University of Manchester from Professor Michael Hanemann. It included discussion of the very complicated water policy, legal and regulatory situation in California, USA. Prof. Hannemann stressed matters are particularly acute around water and agriculture there (this video linked here covers many issues). Groundwater and other water sources are strained by legacy water rights and choices to grow water-intensive crops, some representing a high proportion of global production, at times with fairly basic technology considerations. Think not only almonds, apricots, dates, figs, kiwis, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts, but also  avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries (some top crops are listed here and here).

I’ve heard about upstream water rights leaving downstream farmers deprived of water to grow crops. I’ve listened to talks on climate change resilience challenges around growing water-intensive foods in a drought-prone US state. Still I found it remarkable actually to see the breathtaking scale of California’s agricultural industry for myself. This was in the Summer of 2018 (NB. all pics below are taken by my significant other from a moving vehicle, apologies for any blurring/exposure issues).

Scene 1: Agricultural farmed fields as far as the eye can see in California, USA.

Driving for hours through hundreds of miles of agricultural land was an unique experience for me. I had seen 100 miles of cornfields South of Chicago. But it did not prepare me for seeing farmed fields stretching to the horizon in all directions whilst I was on the road in a rental/hire car. My partial route map is shown below:

Map of part of my driving route across CA, USA during 2018. Source: Google.

I skirted some expansive growing areas North West of Los Angeles, CA. I didn’t get to drive through Fresno and Bakersfield – or to see wine growing areas North of San Francisco. Nevertheless my limited route starkly illuminated abstract points and perspectives I’ve come across during my academic water policy career over the years.

Scene 2: Transport for agricultural day labourers in CA, USA.

A prominent aspect was the potentially precarious and unpleasant conditions of day labourers working the many miles of fields. A common site on the roads was what looked like a converted school or prison buses, towing portable toilets. Here I presume day labourers get transported to work fields from their accommodations.

Scene 3: Labourers working Californian fields.

The scale of fields these people were working was breathtaking, especially in high temperatures and no shade from the Summer sun (sadly I can’t comment on their pay and benefit conditions but this is likely to be an issue of concern too):

Scene 4: At work in the fields.

Sometimes workers were active alone, standing out amongst vast areas of land. At other times groups were working or taking breaks together:

Scene 5: A group of workers.

There was evidence of basic agricultural automation using farm machinery along the route:

Scene 6: Some examples of farm machinery.

Still it was hard to comprehend the scale of landscape being worked by these vehicles:

Scene 7: Parked farm equipment along the route.

Endless lines of large trucks, some covered, others open were darting along the freeways, transporting freshly picked produce:

Scene 8: Truck transporting produce from the fields.

The many varieties of foodstuffs being grown along these hundreds of miles was staggering. Fields changed in planting geometry, colours, shapes and sizes frequently:

Scene 9: Planting schemes for some foods along the route.

At speed, and with my basic knowledge, it was difficult to identify some crops:

Scene 10: Crops stretching up a hillside.

There were informal and more formal shops set up along the roadside of many of the growing areas to sell freshly picked produce. For example this was a garlic outlet near Gilroy, CA:

Scene 11: Garlic outlet shop along the route.

Sometimes the fields turned brown, dusty and barren. Water politics went from being hidden (like the water sources, which were invisible along the route) to surface in vocal and visceral roadside signs:

Scene 12: Water shortage protest signs by empty fields along the route.

Behind the bush here was a sign, ‘Congress caused the dustbowl!’ This was a reminder of the contested, multi-stakeholder context, intertwining water availability, jobs, food security, climate change, resilience, rights and usage issues underpinning these many miles of green and brown agricultural scenery.

Overall, I wish I had more time to engage with the people and technology issues thrown up by driving these routes. Still I found it priceless to have seen for myself the scale and significance of (some) California agriculture on the ground. It’s hard to beat first hand experience. These images and memories I expect to stick with me for many, many years to come…

Duncan Thomas


  1. Many thanks for this …
    You are describing here some of the effects of the anthropogenic ‘Half Water Cycle’, described first by Viktor Schauberger ( https://waterstink.com/2018/01/25/stephen-colbert-raw-water-and-living-water/ ) . Where land management practices (normally farming) disrupts the cycle we all learned about at Primary School; evaporation, transpiration, precipitation, infiltration, etc – and apparently then forget about as we become older. Hence widespread droughts, floods and much of what we describe as Climate Change.
    Agrochemicals are simply the latest ‘Slash & Burn’ method.

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