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Economy & Business

California Farmers Bet On Voluntary Water Cuts To Save Their Businesses


The next couple of months are critical for farmers in California. Water is limited, and many are desperately hoping they will have enough water to last the summer. There is one group of farmers though, near Sacramento, that's found a solution. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast has this story.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Here is the greatest fear for California farmers, the modern day bogeyman. One minute you're tending your crops. You're running your business. And the next minute the government swoops in and cuts off your water - no more water. Paula Desneyer is a dairy farmer in Lodi.

PAULA DESNEYER: I just heard today in Tracey, a dairy farmer, his feed is 5 feet high. And they said no more, no more water.

SMITH: The government cut this farmer's water off. And he had to watch his half-grown corn die in the field. As the summer drags on and the drought gets worse, more farmers are getting their water cut off.


SMITH: Desneyer started this dairy with her husband more than 20 years ago. She walks me around her farm. Hundreds of black and white Holstein cows are ambling toward the barn to be milked.

DESNEYER: Slowly over the years you keep making improvements to make everything as cow-comfortable as possible, and...

SMITH: As cow-comfortable?

DESNEYER: Yeah, cow-comfortable. That's because the more comfortable you make the cows, the more milk they can produce.

SMITH: Desneyer uses water to grow corn to feed her cows. For her, water is money. If she can't grow corn, she has to buy it. And that is a lot more expensive. George Hartmann is a water rights lawyer in the area. And he has been listening to all of this worry from all of these farmers for months. And he got an idea.

GEORGE HARTMANN: Let's try and put together a project and get the farmers working with each other instead of the state having to exercise dominion and control.

SMITH: Hartmann thought, what if a group of farmers volunteers to cut its water use? If they did that, would the government agree not to jump in and cut their water off? The state said OK. It agreed. So Hartmann got 500 farmers together in this big meeting hall in Stockton and said to them, if you will cut your water use by 25 percent, you won't have to worry about the bogeyman this summer.

HARTMANN: You get certainty. You know what you can do. You can plan your survival.

SMITH: There were a lot of skeptics. Twenty-five percent is brutal. Imagine taking a 25 percent pay cut. But hundreds of farmers, including Paula Desneyer, took him up on it. Desneyer left a quarter of her fields empty, planted 25 percent less corn. She'll have to buy a lot of corn. And she told me she'll be lucky to break even this year.

DESNEYER: This way I know for sure that I'll have a good crop on my other acres, and I have to miss out on the other 25 percent.

SMITH: She tells me she's sure of her decision. But she has had a lot of trouble sleeping.

DESNEYER: There's a lot of stress. There's a lot of stress, you know, 'cause this is your livelihood.

SMITH: Desneyer and the other farmers are making a bet. If the government does end up cutting off her neighbors' water, the neighbors who did not make the voluntary cuts like she did, Desneyer is a genius. She just saved her business. But if the government doesn't cut her neighbors' water, Desneyer just gave up a quarter of her water for nothing. If that's the case, there are going to be a lot of people who are mad at George Hartmann, the water rights lawyer who organized this plan.

HARTMANN: I don't know. I think the answer is you pays your money; you takes your chances. That's really what it is. And if it turns out that you would have done better not being in the program, OK. But do you want to bet the farm on it?

SMITH: But there is something bigger than the farm riding on this. If Hartmann's plan works, if farmers can voluntarily cut their own water usage and protect themselves at the same time, it could encourage farmers in other parts of California to find their own solutions and make their own bets. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.