The milk that you think is organic, isn't. Not really.
Blame the California drought, which has dried up the grass that gives farmers the right to slap the label “organic” on their meat and milk. It's not hard to win that label from the US department of agriculture: farmers just have to make sure that their cows graze on local grass, at least four months out of the year.
Since the drought, there's no grass, so the old definition of “organic” no longer applies. Grass can't stay alive, leaving cows little to munch on. In fact, the secretary of agriculture declared 53 out of 58 California counties natural disaster areas.
So, for February and March, the USDA is giving milk and meat producers a break: their cows “are not required to graze or provide dry matter intake from pasture during this time period.” That makes your organic milk – produced after cows graze on green, rich grass – not quite the same.
Albert Straus, the proprietor of the Straus Family Creamery, oversees 15,000 gallons of milk per day from eight smaller family farms. He started seeing the effects of the drought in December as grass dried up.
“It's huge because we still don't have pasture for cows to graze on; we lost at least a month to a month-and-a-half of pasture,” says Straus.
Since then, the farmers have resorted to supplementing their cows' feed with organic hay and alfalfa. The cows are still producing milk, but Straus is afraid the increased cost and the different type of their feed will affect the quality of the milk.
President Obama recently visited Northern California to announce a $183 million aid package. But Straus says he's not relying on government assistance. “As far as I know it's not fast enough or enough money to help the farmers,” says Straus. “I don't think it will touch the losses that farmers will have.” He plans on increasing milk prices to offset the costs for farmers.
Others are just wondering if business has dried up altogether.
Just after noon on a recent breezy Sunday, vendors at the Inner Sunset Farmers Market in Northern California began packing up their stalls.
Despite the sunny weather, the year-round Sunday market has seen a smaller crowd than usual. That's lucky, because there's less to sell. A produce vendor walked over to a local honey seller and asked if he could trade some of his leftover avocados for a small jar of honey.
“Depends on if I have any left over,” Robert MacKimmie says as he scrapes the bottom of a barrel.
MacKimmie, 57, started his honey business, CityBees as a hobby 18 years ago. After the economic downturn, he found himself unemployed and turned his hobby into a job, borrowing against his 401k to buy beehive equipment and start 24 colonies. He currently runs 100 hives and is hoping to reach 150 colonies all over San Francisco by year's end. A pound of McKimmie's honey sells for prices in between $24 and $32 a pound.
But the money – and the honey – is drying up because of California's drought. The lack of rain last year meant a shortage of nectar, limiting expansion. In 2013 MacKimmie was only able to harvest 35% of the previous year's production, the lowest amount of honey in CityBees history. He has been able to balance his crop by increasing his number of bees and giving them the bee equivalent of Soylent Green: feeding the new startup hives with protein patties and sugar water since mid-June just so they would survive.
“Essentially it's life support and keeps them going until the nectar flow returns,” says MacKimmie.
There are some people whose businesses aren't hurting. Tom Bressan, 64, opened 'The Urban Farmer Store' in San Francisco in 1983. He now has three landscape hardware stores with a staff of 30 people. He says this winter he has seen record sales every month. The reason: farmers and San Franciscans are looking to upgrade to more efficient irrigation and gardening systems to save water.
Experts on alternative uses of water, in fact, are becoming celebrities in California. Brad Lancaster, the country's leading expert on reusing water, sprinted onto a stage in an auditorium at Golden Gate Park to whoops, whistles and cheers. The audience, packed with over 100 gardeners, landscapers and water conservationists, was excited to hear his thoughts on the advances of “greywater.”
Greywater is the water from bathroom sinks, baths or showers and washing machines. It does not include water that touches bodily fluids or rotting foods, like that from the kitchen sink or toilet.
Greywater, with the proper piping, can be funneled into outdoor landscaping. Lancaster thinks the drought will evangelize the public in learning where their water comes from.
“Drought is always an opportunity. It's just how we look to different waters as opposed to dwindling wells or dwindling rivers, how can we tap greywater, how can we tap condensate,” says Lancaster.
It's hardly a comfort that all of this happened before, according to patterns noticed by some scientists. B Lynn Ingram, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, recently co-wrote the book 'The West Without Water' which highlights California's long history of droughts. She says that recent weather patterns appear to be fairly consistent with that of past ages, although we could potentially be experiencing the driest year in 500 years.
Ingram sees the drought as a predictor. This, California's third consecutive year of drought, could indicate another El Nino is heading to the West Coast.
“In the 20th century, there were other examples of severe droughts followed by strong El Ninos,” says Ingram. The drought of 1976-77 was followed by El Nino in 1978, and the 1987-92 drought was following by El Nino in 1993.
That's not good. Her biggest concern is that we are at the beginning of a mega-drought and history has shown that extreme drought can lead to mega-floods. With warmer winter weather, more precipitation in the mountains falls as rain instead of snow. This translates to runoff – one big rush – rather than the gentler pacing of snow melting throughout the spring and summer.
In Ingram's view, another major fear is the possibility of running out of groundwater, which is often the last, reliable source for water during a drought. In the drought of 1976, the water table dropped 9.1 metres (30 feet), or the height of 5 grown, tall men standing on each other's shoulders. “It's like using all the money in the bank,” says Ingram.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk