Agriculture is by far the biggest water user in the San Joaquin Valley, accounting for 89 percent of the region’s annual net water use. As such, the farm sector will have to play a crucial role in tackling the valley’s various water challenges―from sustainably managing groundwater resources to addressing a number of water-related environmental and public health concerns. Valley farms vary greatly in size, and broad regional solutions to the valley’s resource management challenges must take this into account.
Water Stress and a Changing San Joaquin Valley looked at the number of irrigated farms in the valley and their corresponding acreage over time. The valley is home to nearly 20,000 such farms, including some of California’s largest, but also numerous small and mid-size ones.
Today, the largest farms―those bigger than 1,000 acres―account for 60 percent of the valley’s total irrigated acreage. However, farms with less than 500 acres of irrigated cropland account for a quarter of total irrigated acreage. There is a geographical pattern to farm-size diversity as well. Relatively small farms and ranches still predominate in the eastern part of the valley, while large operations managing thousands of acres occupy much of the southern and western farmland.
Many of these large farms are already experimenting with water management practices that might help their operations adjust to water stress. Such efforts require significant investments of time and money—a challenge for most small farmers. And contrary to popular belief, the valley is still home to many small farms.
For instance, the smallest farms―those irrigating less than 10 acres―doubled in number from 1969 to 2012. This increase is partly due to the way the Census of Agriculture identifies farms as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold” during the census year. USDA interprets “normally would have been sold” broadly – which allows some large residential properties to be counted as farms.
But the census trends also reflect an influx of small immigrant farmers to the region. The first big increase in the number of small farms occurred between 1969 and 1982. This timing is consistent with the arrival of Southeast Asian refugee farmers (mainly Hmong and Mien) who escaped their war-torn countries and started farming in the valley. Many of these farms grow more than 100 varieties of Asian specialty produce on farms that are just 2–15 acres in size, and serve urban markets across state, from Stockton, to the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The revenue from farming is an important source of income for these immigrant communities. Although the smallest farms account for just 0.3 percent of the valley’s acreage, the contribution of Hmong and Mien farmers to California’s crop diversity is oversized.
The diversity of the San Joaquin Valley agricultural sector has policy implications. In addition to time and cost constraints, many small immigrant farmers have had difficulties navigating the complex regulatory landscape in California, sometimes due to language or cultural barriers. Creating lasting, equitable solutions to growing water stress and other problems will require coordination and cooperation between various actors in the valley—and broad participation from water users. An important step to getting there is recognizing and loosening the barriers that could hinder broad participation.