My Grist Op-Ed

Grist.org has been covering climate change news since 1999, and I’m glad to have contributed a farmer’s perspective on climate change and solutions to it.

If ripened green beans aren’t picked, the whole bean plant begins to wither. In 2014, as a farm intern in Northern California’s Mendocino County, I went to harvest beans, despite the thick smoke from a fire 10 miles away. The farm couldn’t afford to lose the plants for the rest of the season; we needed to get the produce to the farmers market where the farm earned a third of its revenue.

I wet a handkerchief and tied it around my nose and mouth, donned my hat and gloves, and began picking. The last thing I remember was a haze thicker than smoke before my coworkers found me slumped over a bucket half-full of beans.

Farmers are experiencing climate change in our fields, our communities, and our lungs. The increasingly long periods between rains force greater reliance on a lowering water table that hardly replenishes our wells. And a drier climate means more fires. This year, our eyes sting and chests ache, not only from the smoke of the Mendocino Complex, Camp, and Woolsey Fires but also because of what our California neighbors have lost.

You can find the published article here, where you’ll see how you can take action.

I was, understandably, limited to a narrow aspect of addressing the fires, but my original text included observations about settlement, how we generate and distribute energy, and an alarm call for the rest of the nation.

Many of us farm close to or amidst logging forests and conservation land because farmland is not affordable near cities or towns (the cost of leasing farmland has doubled in 10 years, from $500/acre to $1,000/acre). But private logging companies often leave dead, undesirable trees on their land, adding to the fuel load for a potential fire.  And, despite meetings with residents and fire chiefs, the public had no recourse. (It’s worth examining the links between the logging industry and who ends up directing CalFire–our state department of forestry and fire.) We must reconsider how private landholder decisions have public consequences. In a shared ecosystem, our communities need democratic decision-making processes that are accountable to all residents—loggers, farmers, and residents.

Overhead power lines from clusters of development constitute another serious fire hazard for farmers living further out and near the forests. Those power lines break in gusts of wind and cause fires, as they did in the Redwood, Sulphur, Atlas, and Nuns fires among others. The centralization of power generation to provide electricity across wide expanses of landscapes under varying degrees of ecological management continues to pose a threat. We should also ask why we are spreading out these lines far afield. I encounter people isolated in the depths of forests who reside there to “escape society” (aka avoid taxes), though remain connected by power-lines, and who want nothing to do with government…until a fire comes and they expect to be rescued. We must ask ourselves about power utility concentration and about where it is sensible to inhabit and develop infrastructure.

The physical and emotional toll is real, and the rest of the nation has yet to feel the financial cost. California is one of the wealthiest states and we have relied on cheap prison labor ($1 a day) to fight these fires, thus mitigating costs for the rest of the country. But the home and fire insurance companies have gone bankrupt from these relentless fires, we should and will one day compensate all firefighters fairly, and it is only more likely that we will have more fires. In short, fires are expensive. Climate change is expensive. Let’s invest in fighting climate change and staying alive rather than paying for our funerals.