Tulare, U.S.—— Cody Baker’s family originated in Tulare County, the center of California’s dairy industry, and its history can be traced back nearly 100 years. After the sandstorm and drought swept through Arkansas during the Great Depression, his mother’s family emigrated from the Azores in Portugal and engaged in dairy cattle breeding, while his father moved to California to engage in beef cattle breeding.

Baker has inherited the family’s tradition of working in agriculture, and his resume covers everything from animal husbandry and farm management to crop science and processing.

Three years ago, he founded his own feed distribution company California Livestock Services, which sells hay and alfalfa and other dairy cow foods to dairy farmers and livestock producers, and provides consulting services. Even according to an industry standard that no two days are the same, recent business feels uncertain.

“Last year there were a lot of ups and downs, but for now, we have had a pretty good year,” Baker told Al Jazeera. “But as fuel prices rise, we see fewer and fewer returns.”

The price of gasoline is Up to 41.8% Beginning at this time last year, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index showed that although part of the increase can be attributed to the so-called base effect, because of the sharp drop in oil demand when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Farmers who rely on Baker forage are also feeling the pressure. Soaring global commodity prices have increased the cost of corn and soybeans sold by dealers like Baker as feed for dairy cows, as well as the fuel farmers need to keep their businesses running.

If the inflation spike is not bad enough, droughts are becoming more common and severe due to climate change, which adds to the challenges faced by dairy farmers in California and other parts of the western United States.

Now, as California struggles to deal with drought This led to the declaration of a state of emergency in 50 of the 58 counties in the state, and the rekindling of the controversial debate on the state’s water supply, including its dairy farms.

Water battle

In August, California announced new restrictions on water use in areas of the state’s predominantly agricultural sector. As climate change makes droughts more frequent and severe, such restrictions may become more routine.

“This year’s drought has made it harder for farmers to drink water,” said Tom Tucker, the Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner, which produced more than $1.6 billion in dairy products in 2019.

Cows graze in a field in California, USA, where the ongoing drought has made agriculture more difficult [File: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg]

“As water supply and energy costs rise, this puts real pressure on the farms that live on every day,” Tucker told Al Jazeera.

Farmers and feed producers also regret what they think are restrictive regulations surrounding water withdrawal, which makes agricultural operations more difficult, especially for small farms.

The roads through California’s Central Valley, where agricultural production is concentrated, are covered with slogans reprimanding politicians, with slogans such as “end this man-made drought” and “build more dam reservoirs.”

“For my business, one of my biggest concerns is water supply,” said Joey Airoso, whose family owns a farm with approximately 2,900 dairy cows in Tulare County. “The regulatory environment makes it increasingly difficult to do business in California.”

But Michael Clayburn, an attorney for the Justice and Accountability Leadership Advisor who focuses on inequality in rural California, said the dairy industry has consumed most of the state’s water resources, with serious consequences for others.

“This argument is a distraction,” Clayburn told Al Jazeera. “They are the most important water users in the state. Throughout the Central Valley, we have seen drinking water wells dry up because [agriculture] Overburden groundwater resources. As surface water flow continues to decrease, this problem will only get worse. “

Claiborne also pointed out that dairy farming requires a lot of water.

“Dairy farms are huge water consumers, because in addition to the water needed to grow feed like alfalfa, you also need water from the cow itself, which consumes a lot of water,” he explained.

One of the areas that I care about most about my business is water supply. The regulatory environment makes it increasingly difficult to conduct business in California.

Joey Airoso, dairy farmer

But Baker countered that the industry has taken measures to adapt, innovating around water irrigation control and expenditure use to improve efficiency.

According to the California Institute of Public Policy, the institute receives funding from a number of agricultural advocacy groups, and agricultural production accounts for Approximately 80% of the state uses water Used in businesses and households, accounting for about 40% of their total water consumption. In California, agricultural production and food processing account for approximately 2% of the state’s gross production.

High feed prices

Dairy farmers like Airoso also have to deal with rising feed prices. Due to the drought, local producers have reduced the supply of commodities such as hay and silage, including corn stalks preserved for livestock.

In addition to the drought, California dairy farmers have to deal with rising livestock feed prices. [File: Patrick T Fallon/Bloomberg]

Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, told Al Jazeera: “Drought is slowing the supply of hay and silage and increasing the price of feed mainly from California.”

“The most important thing is that because of high milk prices and large government subsidies, dairy farms have expanded their milk production, and you have a lot of demand,” he said.

Another factor of high feed prices emphasizes the global nature of the supply chain for the production of dairy products.

In 2018 and 2019, a deadly disease was called African swine fever Cut China’s pig herd in half.

Now, in order to rebuild, China’s demand for soybeans and other feed products has surged, causing prices for American farmers to rise.

Optimism in uncertainty

These are just some of the factors, and the need to purchase and update expensive equipment, these factors have caused many small farmers to sell to large companies.The industry has been consolidating over the years: between 2002 and 2019, the number of licensed U.S. dairy herds was Cut in half, According to the USDA, even if the total number of cows continues to grow.

“Dairy cow farming is an economically challenging business. Some farms are always on the verge of exiting, so there is always pressure for some farms, but this year is a pretty good year for the income of dairy farms. “Sumner pointed out.

Dairy farms are a huge water source, because in addition to growing water-consuming feeds like alfalfa, they also need to drink water for the cows.

Michael Claiborne, leadership consultant to judicial and accountability lawyers

Nevertheless, the uncertainty of the future is still an obstacle for some people, including the younger generation, who may see the unstable lives of farmers and decide not to enter the industry, especially when the challenges seem destined to grow.

“If you are a young person who pays attention to this industry, and you think you can have a more stable career while doing other things, then you might think this is a better choice,” Sumner said.

However, some farmers believe that uncertainty is only part of life, and livelihoods are closely related to fluctuations in nature.

“In general, I have full confidence in the future of this industry in California,” Baker said. This includes the people who work in it.

On the website of his feed company, he briefly summarized the life in the California dairy country: “Over the years, I have seen people who work hard in this industry. It is people like them that make me proud to call this place. For home.”





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