California’s conservative farmers tackle climate change, in their own way

As California transitions from devastating drought into one of the wettest periods in decades, farmers are seeking new ways to protect their fields from whipsaw weather extremes.

Published April 4, 2017

— Like all California farmers, Don Cameron is used to long dry spells interrupted by wet years. Drought and flood, he says, have always been a way of life in the Golden State.

But in 36 years of farming, Mr. Cameron says he’s never experienced anything like the swings of the past six years.

“We’ve never seen a drought that long or that intense,” says Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch, a 7,000-acre farm in Helm, Calif. “And we’ve never seen a change overnight from absolutely nothing in the reservoirs to now, they’re spilling water.”

In response, Cameron and his crew have been partially submerging their fields in rainwater. It’s a relatively new tactic to capture excess flow during wet years to recharge the diminishing underground aquifer that farmers in the region rely on to irrigate their crop. It’s also used to reduce the risk of flooding downstream.

“We want to take as much floodwater [as possible] to take pressure off the system,” Cameron says.

The very welcome news is that severe drought conditions in California are easing or ending. But a sequence of extremes – a record-setting five-year drought, followed by what’s shaping up to be the wettest year in decades – is serving as an alert for officials and residents alike. And it’s pushing change among some of the state’s most politically conservative citizens: farmers. Call it taking care of the land. Call it good business sense. Just don’t call it climate change.

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