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California Drought

After more than two years of agonizingly dry weather, California’s unrelenting and historic drought persists, and more than 150 years after pioneers first flocked to the state in search of fortunes in gold, water seems to have become the Golden State’s most precious commodity.

We in water-rich Wisconsin might feel the urge to cast a bit of judgment on the millions of residents who have flocked to California’s artificial—and enormous—desert oases. But the truth of the matter is that even though cities like Los Angeles and San Diego require huge amounts of water diverted from stressed aquifers and river systems, the great majority of California’s water usage—38 billion gallons per day in 2010—goes toward the state’s enormous, and enormously thirsty, food production system. Wisconsin might call itself America’s Dairyland, but California’s dairy industry is by far the country’s largest, providing more than 20 percent of America’s milk.

Co-op shoppers might not have to depend on California milk, but we sure do eat a lot of California-grown fruits and vegetables for more than six months of each year. And many California staples, such as almonds, are a year-round indulgence for many a Co-op shopper.

Every eco-conscious foodie across America seems to know that it takes an awful lot of water to grow just one almond. The actual amount is contested (Mother Jones has provided an upper limit of 1.1 gallons of water per almond, though that figure is disputed by growers), but everyone agrees that almonds are a particularly thirsty crop.

That’s some bad news for almond-lovers who care about the environment and natural resource conservation, as farmers in bone-dry California grow an overwhelming percentage of the world’s almonds, and virtually all of the almonds sold in the United States.

The dilemma is not lost on many Willy Street Co-op Owners, many of whom have made their opposition to all forms of the high-fiber nut known.

But is it fair to single out the almond?
Consider this: between the months of November and May, virtually all of the Co-op’s fresh produce comes from California. That proportion is reversed in the summertime, when a vast majority of the Willy Street Co-op’s fresh produce is grown within 150 miles of the Capitol building. Still, that means that Co-op Owners in search of fresh broccoli, carrots, avocados, lettuce, spinach, peas, herbs and all sorts of other nutritious fruits and veggies rely on California farmers and their increasingly tenuous water supply from around Halloween through the depths of winter until Memorial Day.
“We depend on so much from (California),” said Megan Minnick, Willy Street Co-op’s Director of Purchasing. “That is the hard part about it. Literally in the winter almost everything (fresh produce) comes from California, with the exception of crops that really like hot weather like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.” Those crops usually come from Mexico, Minnick said. With more than 80 percent of California’s water going toward agriculture that feeds much of the rest of the nation throughout the winter, it’s no small problem.

And yet, Minnick believes the Co-op is “uniquely positioned” among local groceries to survive the drought. For starters, as a former California resident with personal connections to the state’s agricultural sector, Minnick is keenly aware of the situation, as are the distributors who work closely with Willy Street Co-op. Additionally, driven by the Co-op’s core mission to favor local and organic farmers wherever possible, Minnick said the Co-op is already way ahead of conventional grocers in the area.

“We’re trying to gauge where people are at, and it seems to me that the industry as a whole—especially the conventional side—is pretty much still in denial about (the drought),” Minnick said. “That’s really kind of scary. You would think that being rational beings, that we would all try to plan for it, but it doesn’t seem to me that the industry as a whole is really trying to plan for it, which is concerning.”

The Co-op works with more local growersthan any other grocery stores in the Madison area, and Minnick encourages growers to think creatively and take advantage of techniques like hydroponics and aquaponics that can expand both their range of offerings and their seasons of productivity.

Hydroponics and aquaponics
Hydroponics is a farming method that utilizes nutrient-rich water to grow produce such as tomatoes, leafy greens and herbs, usually within a greenhouse. Aquaponics is similar, but involves raising fish such as tilapia or freshwater lobsters in addition to the produce. The fish waste provides nutrients to the plants, which in turn filter the water for the fish. Both methods have become more popular among environmentally conscious and urban-based producers in recent years as they often seek to minimize waste and land usage. A few urban farmers have gone so far as to set up hydroponics and aquaponics systems in multi-story warehouses using artificial lighting systems for photosynthesis, but those systems raise their own set of concerns surrounding energy and water usage.

In Wisconsin, producers utilizing those methods have done so on usually a much smaller scale.

“There are definitely some local people who are looking into doing more aquaponics or that type of thing in the winter,” Minnick said. “I think that’s a place where there’s some real potential growth. I try to point all of our new farmers in that direction.” Minnick said there is a glutof local produce like zucchinis and tomatoes for a couple months in the summer, and she would like to see more farmers move away from traditional methods that contribute to it.

“If we can really get people thinking about what they could do in the winter…do they have the capacity to put up a greenhouse or do aquaponics, or whatever it is? That’s the direction I try to push people,” Minnick said.

Those conversations are leading to some success, though Minnick said making the expensive switch to a food production system such as aquaponics is often a tough sell for local producers. “It takes more money upfront to start something like that, but that’s really where the growth is,” Minnick said.

In theory, producers using methods like hydroponics and aquaponics could provide year-round local fresh herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables to Co-op Owners.

Innovation Kitchen
But what about the glut of locally grown summer produce? Minnick said an exciting new partnership between the Co-op and a local venture might help Owners take advantage of that surplus and more throughout the winter.

Willy Street Co-op is in the beginning stages of what could become a very cool partnership that would bring Wisconsin’s summer produce to the Co-op’s shelves and freezers throughout the winter. Located less than 60 miles southwest of Madison in Mineral Point, Innovation Kitchens is on the forefront of the eat local movement. The commercial kitchen offers light processing that stabilizes produce—via freezing, canning and pickling —which Minnick said will provide another avenue for Owners to minimize their winter dependence on California produce.

The partnership actually began in 2014, when all of the Co-op’s pumpkin pies were baked with local pumpkins puréed at Innovation Kitchens. This year, the partnership will bring locally grown broccoli to the Co-op’s freezers after it is prepared and frozen at the Mineral Point facility.

Minnick said the frozen broccoli —resulting from a local surplus of the crop—is hopefully just the first step toward bringing Wisconsin produce to the Co-op’s shelves year round.

“It’s in the inception stage right now,” Minnick said. “A lot depends on how this broccoli deal goes, which was kind of our toe in the water.”

Ideally, Minnick said, if the frozen broccoli goes well, the Co-op will partner with Innovation Kitchens to bring a few other products onto Co-op shelves yet this winter. If that goes well,Minnick foresees a much more coordinated effort in future years that would greatly expand the Co-op’s Wisconsin produce offerings during winter.

“Every year we meet with our local growers in the winter and scope out the year to come,” Minnick said. “Hopefully, if these things work out the way we hope they will, we’ll be able to talk to our growers this winter and say, ‘Hey, can you plant two acres of tomatoes just for this?’” If all goes well, the partnership could bring new growers into the fold simply for winter-use contracts. “Ideally, we’d be actually contracting for large quantities,” Minnick said.

Innovation Kitchens CEO and founder Rick Terrein said the kitchen’s business model is the first he is aware of in the United States. “We’re a small, regionally-based co-packing facility,” Terrein said. “We can focus on imbounding and sourcing local produce from local farms, and processing it minimally.” In addition to its work with Willy Street Co-op, Terrein said Innovation Kitchens contracts with some area schools and hospitals, as well as local food producers like RP’s Pasta.

There is much to be excited about with the prospective partnership, Minnick said, but it still cannot replace the fresh produce that Co-op Owners—and Americans in general—have come to expect even when the wind chill dips below zero wherever they might live.

That’s why the Co-op partners with knowledgeable distributors, like Ryne Case of J&J Produce, who share our Owners’ desire for more sustainable options. “Ryne is very dedicated to searching for growers for things like broccoli and lettuce outside of California,” Minnick said. “That would usually mean Oregon, further up the coast where there is more water.” Case also seeks out growers within California who are known to use water responsibly.

“Working with distributors that are particularly looking out for that is really important for us,” Minnick said. “There are people doing good stuff out there.” For instance, Minnick said some farmers in arid regions such as California utilize water-saving techniques that collectively go by the moniker “dryland farming.” She said that the techniques allow for non-irrigated production of a number of crops including, surprisingly, watermelon. The methods produce intensely flavorful crops because the lack of water reduces growth, packing more flavor into smaller yields. And while the methods hold benefits for consumers and the environment, Minnick said most producers would prefer irrigating because, “if you get paid by the pound, a reduced yield might not be very attractive.”

Other winter produce regions in southeastern states provide another potential alternative to California-grown food, but Minnick said the arable land in places like Georgia and Florida is fairly limited, and the vast majority that is produced there winds up in the food chains of the densely populated northeast. It’s often difficult to even score produce from those areas, she said.  

And so, for much of the year, California is the Co-op’s only option for many fresh fruits and vegetables —and nuts. Alas, those pesky, water-chugging almonds.

“We’ve talked a lot about (almonds),” Minnick said. “We’ve gotten a lot of customer comments that are anti-almond. That is really tricky for us because then we look at the sales of almonds and we’re like, ‘Well we can’t really stop selling almonds because obviously Owners want them. We exist to serve our Owners. If our Owners want almonds, then we feel it’s our duty to carry them.”

For Owners who feel strongly about almonds—or about reducing dependence on all of California’s product—Minnick suggested that they vote with their wallets. “If you think we should stop selling almonds then be vocal about it and tell your friends, and if sales go down or if we get quite a few more customer comments, then we would,” she said. “Stuff like that is really hard.”

In the end, Minnick said,almonds are far from the only culprit in the ongoing saga of the California drought and our increasingly entrenched expectations of year round fresh produce. “I think maybe part of what needs to happen is, yeah, we need to try to grow more here, but I think we’ve all grown up with this expectation that fresh produce is just always available and always in season,” Minnick said. “I can just go to the store and buy fresh broccoli whenever I want it. Maybe that’s not always going to be, or maybe that shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s just not sustainable, which is terrible for me to say as a Produce manager, but maybe we should be buying frozen broccoli in the winter instead of trying to ship it. It’s only very recently that people have had that expectation. When my grandparents were kids, it wasn’t that way.”

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