California’s San Joaquin valley is one of America’s most valuable agricultural regions. Home to the baby carrot, the valley supplies much of America’s tomatoes, stone fruit, almonds and countless other crops. Name any large food company, and its supply chain extends into this area nestled between the Sierra Nevada mountains and California Coast Ranges. All of these crops require massive amounts of water, most of which is hauled in from other parts of the Golden State. Much of this region, where the soil rivals the Nile valley as the richest in the world, suffers from a dearth of fresh water.
While the demand for water will continue to roil passions and politics in central California, the changes occurring within the San Joaquin valley’s ecology brings new business opportunities in this nascent “blue technology” hub, from water recycling to groundwater remediation and even biofuels.
The valley’s cities such as Fresno and Bakersfield are surging in population while the global demand for food rises, leaving the region facing many challenges: depleted groundwater reserves; deposits of toxins such as selenium that contaminate valuable farmland; and a controversial Endangered Species Act ruling that diverted water from thousands of farmers and rendered 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of valuable farms and orchards dry.
More farmers now find opportunity in the valley’s changing ecology: some high-value crops are able to grow in brackish water and soil negatively affected by decades of irrigation and erosion. Pomegranates, once sparsely grown because of the difficulty in eating them, have more than doubled in acreage over the past decade because of the popularity of the fruit’s juice and consumer demand for foods loaded with antioxidants. Pistachios have become another viable and financially lucrative option because the trees require relatively little water.
Biofuels are another long-term business prospect. While much of the eastern valley’s soil has become too saline for many crops, sugar beets are able to grow and can even be irrigated with saline water. A large sugar processing plant in the town of Mendota closed in 2008 and devastated growers who had depended on it for over 100 years. After the plant’s closure, however, some farmers organised a co-operative and developed plans to build a biorefinery scheduled to launch commercial production of ethanol in 2016. The Beet Energy plans for the plant include a wastewater treatment process that could also add up to 490,000 cubic metres of recycled water for irrigation purposes. Additional crops that can grow in tough conditions and could become feedstock for biofuels include canola, mustard and even the bitter white pith from pomegranates.
But not all crops grown here can thrive off of tainted or brackish water, and even the farmers that benefit from these crops need new tools and technology to help them not just survive, but flourish. Farmers have also got to ramp up their investment in drip technologies for both irrigation and fertilisers so that the valley can continue to feed America for the long term. For independent farmers who live on thin margins, however, such investment is not always the reality.
Helle Petersen, manager of the Water, Energy and Technology Center, said that drip technologies are only the beginning. Petersen explained that farmers need new tools to manage their farms more effectively and give a “big picture” of their operations without becoming buried in data related to moisture weather, soil and water quality and pesticides. Furthermore, with the constant worries over water quality, farmers also demand technologies that can gauge water safety in real time. Currently farmers can only take samples, process them in the lab, and learn results days later. But when a quality issue arises, farmers must be able to tackle the problem immediately.
Hence new water technologies, next generation biofuels and ICT can lend a hand to farmers as they strive to grow more food with diminished resources and even tainted water. While talent still flocks to the “digital coast” of southern California and the Bay Area’s Silicon valley, more professionals from elsewhere in the US and abroad see opportunities here.
Leon Kaye is founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com
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