California agriculture ripe for innovation
November 15, 2012
If you think last week's election was ugly, just wait a decade or so. That's when the real fighting will begin, and it won't be over something like same-sex marriage or a woman's right to choose.

"Water rights will be as politically charged as gay rights and abortion were a decade ago," says W. Andrew Beckstoffer, chairman and chief executive officer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, one of California's leading producers of wine grapes.

The fight over who gets the water, how it is used and where it comes from is going to be a huge battle, according to the panelists at a session on California agriculture and innovation.

And the outcome of this battle will be critical for the world since California farmers are among the nation's top producers of everything from artichokes and pistachios to rice, says Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Agriculture. Last year, the value of the state's agricultural production was $42.5 billion, up from $38 billion the previous year. Exports played a major role in that increase.

Water is just one of the challenges facing the state's farmers. Others include food safety concerns, increased regulation, climate change and rising land prices due in part to competition from industries like mining and solar energy.

But water scarcity looms large because it will impact production globally, says Jay Famiglietti, professor and director of the U.S. Center for Hydrologic Modeling at UC Irvine. Using satellites, his researchers have found rapidly depleting water levels in every agricultural region in the world.

Mechanization of production and improved water management are critical, says Jeffrey Dunn, president and chief executive officer of Bolthouse Farms, creator of the pre-packaged "baby" carrot. His farm is automated from planting to packaging, and he can monitor soil moisture levels from a computer in his truck. The result: Bolthouse has reduced the cost of producing a pound of carrots to 25 cents from 37.5 cents a decade ago. Investors like those numbers. Three months ago, Campbell Soup Co. bought Bolthouse for $1.6 billion.

Technology offers huge potential, from strawberry-picking robots to drip irrigation systems capable of delivering water precisely to a plant's root, no matter how deep. However, many critical issues surrounding water resources remain unresolved, says Vernon Crowder, senior vice president and agricultural economist with Rabobank, a Dutch bank that has invested $100 billion in food and agricultural assets globally, $30 billion in the U.S. alone.

"What is a water right and who holds them?" he asked. "The farmer? The water district? Or even the public?"