Farming in the Time of Climate Catastrophe

Facing wild weather and dwindling water resources, a pepper grower says it's time to rethink agriculture

3880400014_6f2dfaa21e_b_wide.jpg It is spring, and I am kneeling with a few friends in front of the composted soil of the hillside terraces in my orchard-garden in the desert borderlands of Arizona. It is planting day, and as we place each variety of pepper plant into the moistened earth, we say its name aloud, as if reciting a prayer in the face of uncertainty: Chiltepin, Chile del Arbol, Tabasco, Jimmy Nardello, Datil, Beaver Dam, Yellow Hot Banana, Chimayó, Sweet Chocolate, and Sheepsnose. We hand-water each member of this tribe of peppers, place a frost-resistant row cover over it like a monk's hood, and move on to the next, hoping for the best.

If you have farmed or gardened in the desert for any length of time, you sooner or later learn—in a thousand humbling ways, as I have—that you are not in control of even half of the most essential variables that most converge if you are to return in late summer to harvest a crop. In the face of accelerating climate change, my capacity to control critical factors and predict the outcome of my labors seems ever more limited.

Farmers, too, will need to cut their water use, but that means that their reductions in water use per acre will need to be twice the reductions that they've made over the last quarter century.

When I moved to Patagonia, Arizona, in 2009, the land was suffering from the shock of severe drought. During my first summer season back in the borderlands after a decade away, virtually no rain fell between June 5 and September 15. There was the driest summer on record in 100 years. The rangelands around my home never greened up and neighboring ranchers sold off much of their cattle herds. But then the El Niño/La Niña transition began to happen, so that winter rains came late but storms continued into the spring. We ended up the cool season with the best spring wildflower show and most productive gardens that that had been seen in years. Last summer's monsoons dumped 14 inches of rains on my five acres in a matter of two months, allowing my fruit trees and pepper plants to flourish.

But since September 15, 2010, we've received less than 5 percent of the average seasonal rainfall and were hit with the worst freeze in 54 years. On top of that, many of Arizona's reservoirs hit an all-time low last fall. At Lake Mead, irrigation engineers recorded the lowest water levels since 1938, and feared that a lowering of just eight additional feet would force water rationing over much of Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.

Here in the desert, we live close to the edge.

And yet, most of the residents of the Southwest don't much behave as if that were the case in terms of food and water security. In December 2010, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that "the capacity for water to support cities, industry, agriculture and ecosystems in the U.S. West is near its limit," without even factoring in impacts from future climate change. The 15 distinguished scientists authoring the report suggested that the metropolitan areas of the Sun Belt where I live may now have the highest water "footprints" of any place in the world, and that they will need to cut their water use to a target level of 60 percent of what it is today.

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Gary Paul Nabhan is an author, plant conservationist, and sustainable-agriculture advocate, and coauthor of the recently released Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail (Chelsea Green, 2011).

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