Categories
Agriculture & the West Infographics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world.

By Geoff McGhee

Throughout the West, agricultural management and water management are closely intertwined, perhaps nowhere more so than in California. During much of its growing season, the weather turns bone-dry. The state has nearly 40 million residents, yet the Department of Water Resources’ biggest client is agriculture – irrigation claims as much as 80 percent of all water used for businesses and homes. It is DWR that holds the taps of dams and aqueducts delivering that water.

Stockton, We have a Problem: Groundwater Overuse

But during the historic drought of 2011-15, water deliveries turned to a trickle, and in some years stopped entirely. To keep their crops growing and livestock watered, farmers and ranchers pumped record quantities of groundwater instead.

In 2014, as aquifers dropped precipitously, legislators enacted the state’s first-ever groundwater regulation. While DWR has always considered groundwater use, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) would require a much closer eye on groundwater pumping. One of the best ways to know how much water farmers need? Know what they grow.

An Extremely Detailed Map of California Crops

The water resources department had done regional crop surveys in the past, and the federal Department of Agriculture publishes some general land use data, but these had limited utility in figuring demand for water. “We had our ongoing land use program and our efforts for the water plan,” said Curtis Anderson, a regional head for DWR, “but it was really the drought and SGMA coming together that pushed it over the edge and we said, ‘ok, let’s do this.’”

By “this,” Anderson means the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world.


California Crops in June-July 2014

Categories   Click to filter. Zoom in to see individual fields.
Show All
Misc./Berries
Citrus & Olives
Fruits and Nuts
Field Crops
Grain
Idle
Vegetation
Pasture
Rice
Urban
Vineyard
Perennials

Enable scroll-to-zoom


Click to view in a new window.


How Did They Do It?

It takes a lot of technology to survey millions of acres spread over thousands of square miles. To assemble this portrait of California’s agricultural patchwork, DWR and their consultants, LandIQ, made extensive use of satellite and aerial imagery, aka “remote sensing.” “It’s the first time that remote sensing was used to this extent in one of our base maps,” said Muffet Wilkerson, who works in DWR’s integrated water management unit.

Wilkerson said surveyors began by traveling around the state collecting “ground truth” samples, which they fed into a software system – “there’s a big broad-brush that classifies [crops] in a sort of automated way.” Part of the ground truth data served to “train” the classification system, and another part was used to validate the results.

The map is “pretty darn good,” said Wilkerson, “but it is only a model of reality. And it is also based on people having visited these spots, and sometimes on maps that are already available,” she added.

A Moving Target – Year to Year, and Month to Month

This map is based on a single snapshot of California’s agriculture, in June and July of 2014. So the Imperial Valley’s winter lettuce has already given way to other cash crops, and strawberry fields around Salinas and Watsonville may already have been be winding down. Also, land marked here as “idle,” said Wilkerson, “doesn’t mean that it was completely taken out of production. It could have been just temporarily fallowed between two crop rotations.”

Which brings us to a central limitation of the data: it can’t tell you what crops are on the rise (like almonds and other tree nuts), or on the wane (such as crops on land where saltwater has seeped into the groundwater). But after starting out as a one-off in 2014, the crop survey was given dedicated funding by the passage of the 2018 state water bond, Proposition 68. Currently, DWR is working on a map of 2016 data, which they say should be ready by mid-2019. And, said Wilkerson, “the ground-truthing portion of the 2018 survey is happening now.” She added, “2018 will be the first one that includes a multi-season picture of the year.”

 

How California’s Land Was Planted in June-July 2014

Here are the categories of crops growing on the 9.6 million acres surveyed over June and July, 2014.

What do these categories mean?
Move over the graphic at left to learn more
Sources: California Department of Water Resources, MapBox, Open Street Map     Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University

 

Read Next in …& the West

Migratory Honeybees, and What California’s Agriculture Can Learn From Almonds

The growth of almond orchards has made the Central Valley the new center of gravity for migratory beekeeping. With this shift has come new concerns over the health and safety of bee colonies, both on the road, and while they forage in California’s crops.

Back to main page

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Shankar Athreya UK

Responding to Where California Grows Its Food

Given California produces most of the lettuce and nuts (barring pecans) for domestic consumption and exports, are there other states, which can take up the growth given increasing water challenges in California?

Newsletter

Sign up to keep up with our latest articles, sent no more than once per week (see an example).

Your information will not be shared.


Staff and Contributors

Felicity Barringer

Lead writer

A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

Geoff McGhee

Associate editor

Geoff McGhee specializes in interactive data visualization and multimedia storytelling. He is a veteran of the multimedia and infographics staffs at The New York Times, Le Monde and ABCNews.com. MORE »

Xavier Martinez

Xavier Martinez

Editorial Assistant

Xavier graduated from Stanford in 2023 with a degree in economics and is currently a master’s student in Stanford’s journalism program. He has written about the high phone call costs faced by U.S. inmates, temporary Mexican workers’ interactions with the labor market and the efficacy of government healthcare assistance programs. A lifelong lover of charts and maps, he enjoys combining data journalism with narrative-style reporting. 

‘& the West’ is published by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, which is dedicated to research, teaching, and journalism about the past, present, and future of the North American West.

Bruce E. Cain

Faculty Director

Kate Gibson

Associate Director

west.stanford.edu

Past Contributors

Rani Chor
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2024
rchor@stanford.edu
@chorrani
 
Syler Peralta-Ramos
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2022
sylerpr@stanford.edu
 
Anna McNulty
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2021
annam23@stanford.edu
 
Melina Walling
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2021
mwalling@stanford.edu
 
Benek Robertson
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2021
benekrobertson@stanford.edu
 
Maya Burke
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020
mburke3@stanford.edu
 
Kate Selig
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2020

 
Francisco L. Nodarse
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2020
fnodarse@stanford.edu
 
Devon R. Burger
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2020
devonburger@stanford.edu
 
Madison Pobis
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2019
mpobis@stanford.edu
 
Sierra Garcia
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2019

 
Danielle Nguyen
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2019
Carolyn P. Rice
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2019
carolyn4@stanford.edu
 
Rebecca Nelson
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2018
rnelson3@stanford.edu
 
Emily Wilder
Editorial Assistant, Summer 2018
ewilder2@stanford.edu
 
Alessandro Hall
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2018
ahall2@stanford.edu 
Josh Lappen
Editorial Assistant, Fall 2017
@jlappen1
jlappen@stanford.edu 
Natasha Mmonatau
Editorial Assistant, Spring 2017
@NatashaMmonatau
 
Alan Propp
Editorial Assistant, Winter 2017
@alanpropp

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

css.php