Drought and Culture: From the Yard to the Farm

By Alfred Lopez, Yeng Vang, and Chong Vang, California State University, Fresno §

We hurriedly walked through a middle-class Fresno, California neighborhood. The City of Fresno and Fresno County are located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley: a major hub of industrial agriculture and one of the most drought-affected areas of the state. We wanted to ask residents in our region about the current drought: what do they think are the main causes and contributors of the drought? How is the drought affecting them?

Drought is not new to California, but the intensity of the current drought’s impacts is causing great concern and human suffering. In 2016, plentiful rains made all the plants and trees lusher and greener than they have been in years. Heavy irrigation of farmland also makes the drought invisible from an aerial view. Sadly, the green above ground is juxtaposed with severe depletion of groundwater and aquifers below. This year’s rainfall, rising lake and reservoir levels, some serious flash floods and mudslides, and an impressive snowpack in the Sierras do not mean that the drought has ended.

The answers we received regarding our neighbors’ and acquaintances’ perceptions of the drought in California’s Central San Joaquin Valley surprised us. They are diverse and complicated, reflecting a great diversity of people. The region is home to speakers of dozens of different languages from every continent, and is also a region wrought with grave economic and environmental disparities.

We found that there are tensions and disjunctures between the urban water conservation efforts of individual households and the grave water challenges facing immigrant and refugee small farmers and residents of rural unincorporated communities. Why, despite the crisis mode reactions from the state and the agricultural industries, did householders have such vague and disparate attitudes about the drought? How do these differences, then, shape people’s perceptions of and experiences with the drought?


Drought and Urban Households

We walked up to a corner house with patchy brown and green grass in Central Fresno. As we knocked on the door, we partly expected to get the same ambiguous answers we had received during conversations with three previous households:

“We all need to conserve.”

“We overuse water.”

“No, I do not know anyone that has been directly affected by the drought.”

Letting grass turn brown: one method of urban water conservation. Photo by Chong Vang

While adaptation to drought for rural peoples is often a fight for access to drinking and irrigation water, urban people’s responses to drought are more geared towards adapting to inconveniences: not watering lawns, taking less time in the shower, flushing the toilet less frequently, or reusing dirty dishwater or capturing rainwater for landscape irrigation. Urban residents’ efforts rarely extend beyond their households and property lines. Still, these changes in water use are not insignificant, culturally speaking. They are changing the look of urban landscapes, shifting priorities of state governance of water resources, and in some cities remaking relationships between neighbors.

One of our neighbors said he did not want to worry about keeping up with the watering schedule — so he took out all his grass and put in cement. We observed how other urban residents remodeled their lawns as well, such as this one, featuring small, glittery rocks in place of grass. Another neighbor completely remodeled their yard with artificial grass, wood chips, stones, and drought-tolerant flowers and succulents.

Shiny rocks replace grass. Photo by Chong Vang

Another method of water conservation a few residents used involved collecting rainwater in barrels. “When it rains I put out buckets to catch the rain. I use the water to water my plants later.” However, for some, watering the plants is not a choice. Some depend on rainfall and irrigation water for their livelihoods. We now turn to the drought experiences of rural residents and small farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.


Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?

Upon approaching yet another homeowner in Fresno, we asked: “What do you think is the biggest contributor to drought in California?”

“Agriculture,” she replied without hesitation.

Agricultural water use is getting more and more attention in Central Valley research and politics. Some agribusinesses are pushing back against regulation of their water usage. Seeing those “Is growing food wasting water?” signs visible from roadsides and highways throughout the San Joaquin Valley definitely makes one re-consider the critiques that have been lobbied at the agricultural industry by popular media outlets like Mother Jones and Vice. We need food as much as water to survive, right?

These signs are ubiquitous along Central Valley highways. Source: The Guardian

However, with further research into the inequitable water politics in California, it starts to become less confusing. Agriculture in California does indeed account for 80 percent of the state’s water usage (Polk 2015). Further, about half of that water is used by the dairy industry, to grow feed and to quench the thirst of millions of cows (Polk 2015). This means that almost 40 percent of California’s water is converted into cow milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream, as well as lots of poop, methane, nitrates, and ammonia, which threaten the quality of air and water, too.

Cash crops such as almonds, grapes, and walnuts are also a big part of California agriculture and water consumption (Polk 2015). These cash crops are known for being healthy and desirable, even super foods. Many advertisements pronounce the benefits of these nutritious foods. Specialty crop trade groups go to great lengths to dominate market shares. These crops are currently very profitable on the global market.

But the health of some San Joaquin Valley residents is sacrificed in the process of growing super foods like almonds. As anthropologist Polk states:  “California agribusiness serves more to satiate the desires of middle-class tastes than to meet the bare needs of the hungry” (Polk 2015: n.p.). These crops are shipped across the country and across the world, and the billions of dollars in profits generated from agriculture are not equitably distributed within farmworker and rural communities.

There are many complex understandings about the relationships between water and food. One Clovis mother, quoted in the Fresno Bee, is troubled by the emphasis on agriculture’s role in the statewide water shortage. She exclaimed, “Are we all supposed to eat Cheetos and Diet Pepsi?”. However, making processed foods like cheetos and softdrinks requires a lot of water, too: to grow the grains, to make the artificial cheese powder, to complete the bottling, to create the disposable packaging, to distribute products (water is used to extract the oil and gas that run the trucks), and to dispose of the waste: bottles, cans, packets, and other byproducts of production.

Indeed, an irony of the drought is that more low-income and food insecure communities are drinking more soda due to the costs of accessing clean drinking water: from driving into larger urban centers with grocery stores where bottled drinking water can be purchased. People who cannot afford to make grocery runs on a regular basis may end up buying less nutritious foods from corner stores and small-town markets.

Such issues and complexities are largely invisible to people like the Cheetos-averse Clovis woman, or homeowners who only see the drought from the edge of their lawn or fork. No one amongst the Fresno householders we interviewed mentioned poor rural populations or small-scale farmers.


Immigrant and Refugee Small Farmers and the Drought

The impacts of the drought on hinterlands communities are not merely the result of a so-called natural-disaster. As stated by Oliver-Smith and Hoffman (2002:9), “disasters unmask the nature of a society’s social structure.” Nor are these issues unique to the San Joaquin Valley. The late anthropologist Ananthakrishnan Aiyer describes how the privatization of water resources in India by companies like Coca Cola is devastating small farmers and intensifying poverty. Similarly, in the Central Valley, the political organization of water rights and ownership is making it harder for small farmers and rural landless communities to survive the drought.

Minorities and poor people in the San Joaquin Valley are bearing the brunt of the drought. This is, in part, poor rural communities, known as unincorporated communities, have been systematically excluded from accessing basic infrastructure, including municipal water supplies. We can see this by observing that “there is a pattern to the spread [of dry wells]: Poor, unincorporated, predominantly non-white communities are the ones struggling (Bliss 2015).  San Joaquin Valley cities intentionally “avoided [incorporating] the poorest communities” while annexing surrounding areas (Bliss 2015: n.p.).  Instead, the disparate impacts of the drought are the result of human decision making about water rights and access to resources and infrastructure.

While drought for urban middle and upper class populations is sometimes perceived merely as an aesthetic nuisance, drought for poor rural communities and small farmers in the Central Valley has been life altering and devastating. Still, California agriculture, while the largest consumer of water in the state, represents a diverse group of farmers. Some are trying to adapt to the drought by using new irrigation and water conservation methods while at the same time maintaining their production and sales. Some of these coping strategies include increasing reliance on local groundwater, temporarily transferring water rights amongst users, fallowing farmland, altering cropping patterns, and changing the types of crops cultivated to more drought tolerant varieties (Christian-Smith 2015).

We interviewed a Hmong farmer on the Westside of Fresno County. Shawn grows Asian specialty vegetables in a series of greenhouses, irrigated with drip tape. He previously used flooding techniques to irrigate his crops, but his farmer neighbors convinced him to convert to water-conserving drip irrigation. He also recently converted ten acres to almond trees, as his farming neighbors convinced him that he would make more money with almonds.

Both of these changes came at a price. Shawn needed a deeper well to pump more water to supply his greenhouses and the thirsty young almond trees. The new well is twice the size of his previous one and one hundred feet deeper. After all the digging and plastering, the well cost  $12,000, a large sum or a small-scale, resource-poor, refugee farmer.  

Shawn’s new $12,000 well. Photo by Yeng Vang

Shawn had heard the stories blaming almond farmers in the Central Valley for sucking all the water out of California. Groundwater is essential for farming in California, and 50 percent of groundwater depletion comes from Central Valley agriculture (Scanlon et al. 2012). Yet, Shawn does not believe that almond farmers are the only ones contributing to the water crisis. In fact, he feels they are the ones who are most affected. This may seem contradictory with our discussion above on the water intensiveness of almond farming, but as a small farmer, Shawn’s experiences differ from those of large-scale farmers who have the capital to dig deeper wells or hold on to historical water rights.

As a cash crop, almonds lure farmers in. Small farmers who have recently switched to almonds may be receiving undue criticism that should be directed more towards larger agribusiness that are monopolizing water rights. Small farmers from immigrant and refugee backgrounds have few other options for their economic livelihoods. They also possess a lot of yet untapped traditional ecological and agricultural knowledge that could help them adapt to the drought. But, as Shawn’s well troubles illustrate, not all change comes easily, especially for those with limited financial resources or social networks in agribusiness.

Micky is the daughter of second generation Hmong farmers. She and her family have experienced some of the drought’s harshest effects, both on their farm and within their household. The well for their house has run dry. They do not have the funds to dig a new well for their house. So instead, they connect a water hose from the farm well to the house. The hose is then moved from window to window to supply water to different rooms. She and her five siblings regularly fill five gallon buckets from the farm well and line them up in the restroom to help flush the toilets.

In some cases, some farmers are leaving their land and farmworkers are losing work and housing, while in other cases, some farmers are switching to crops that consume less water, using alternative growing methods, or investing in technology that conserves water (Zilberman et al. 2002). But not all farmers feel they can afford to make these shifts, if consumers don’t also support their efforts.

“What types of crop does your family grow? Have you ever thought of switching to crops that require less water?” we asked.

“We grow a variety of vegetables. There is a farmer’s market in San Jose we visit once a week to sell our vegetables. My parents have never thought of growing vegetables that require less water. We grow what the buyers want. We can’t adapt to change because change doesn’t exist,” replied Micky.


Cultural Changes in Our Communities

Many people are affected by the drought, some far more than others. Some are able to compensate while others are left helpless. The purpose of our project was to see how different people in our communities have been affected by the drought, what they have done to adapt, and how some have dealt with necessities over superficialities. What we have found is that how people perceive the drought is based upon where they live and how deeply their lives and livelihoods are tied to water. Residents in urban areas often focused on keeping their homes presentable and their bodies comfortable, while residents in rural areas and small farmers struggle for access to water for their everyday needs. Urban residents are struggling to make sense of new water laws and norms, and some are taking part in important cultural adaptations. Growing food is not inherently a waste of water, but specific water-intensive ways of growing food, in massive monocrops and feedlots, merits our scrutiny, as do our cultural obsessions with green grass and daily long hot showers. We may need to take a cue from indigenous communities, who are among the most vulnerable to the effects of global climate change (Crate 2011, Tanaka et al. 2006). They are faced with big questions about how to adapt to rising waters and changing seasonal variations that affect their traditional ways of life. We too, in the San Joaquin Valley, need to think about water beyond the property line and the dollar sign.

Works Cited

Aiyer, A. 2007. The Allure of the Transnational: Some Notes on the Political Economy of Water in India. Cultural Anthropology 22(4):640–658.
Bliss, L. (2015). California’s Drought is about Economic Inequality. Mother Jones.
Crate, A. S. (2010). Climate Change, Culture Change, and Human Rights in Northeastern Siberia. In B. R. Johnston (ed.) Life and Death Matters: Human Rights, Environment, and Social Justice (2nd edition), pp. 413-426. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Gleick, P. (2015). Maladaptation to Drought: A Case Report from California, USA. Sustainability Science 10(3):491-501.
Oliver-Smith, A.  and S.M. Hoffman (2002). Why Anthropologists Should Study Disasters. In A. Oliver-Smith and S.M Hoffman (eds.) Catastrophes & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.
Polk, D. 2015. The Politics and Ecology of Water: Notes on the Drought in California. Anthropology Now.
Scanlon, B. R., Faunt, C. C., Longuevergne, L., Reedy, R. C., Alley, W. M., Mcguire, V.L. & Mcmahon, P. B. (2012). Groundwater depletion and sustainability of irrigation in the US High Plains and Central Valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(24):9320-9325.
Tanaka, S., Zhu, T., Lund, J., Howitt, R., Jenkins, M., et al. (2006). Climate Warming and Water Management Adaptation for California. Climatic Change 76(3), 361-387.
Zilberman, D., Dinar, A., MacDougall, N., Khanna, M., Brown, C., & Castilo, F. 2002. Individual and Institutional responses the Drought: The Case of California Agriculture. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education 121(1):17-23.

Alfred Lopez graduated from California State University, Fresno with a B.A. in anthropology in May 2016. He wrote his senior thesis on neoliberalism in afterschool programs in the San Joaquin Valley. He would like to go to graduate school to become a teacher.

Chong Vang is a current anthropology student at California State University, Fresno. She recently completed an internship with Stone Soup, a community organization that serves Fresno’s Southeast Asian and Hmong communities. She built an impressive diorama of Lao Village life for Stone Soup’s new cultural museum.

Yeng Vang is a current anthropology student at California State University, Fresno. She wants to apply her anthropology degree to help the Hmong farming community in the Central Valley.

This post is part of the series: Student Environmental Ethnographic Journalism.