Into Uncharted Waters

Editor’s Note: We’ve heard about the “tragedy of the commons” – wherein individuals acting in their own self-interest, overdraw a shared resource. As the drought deepens, Californians are struggling to avoid this tragedy at home.

Farmers sit at an uncomfortable nexus of resource management – we act in the interest of our community of eaters, as much as ourselves; we use a common resource to serve a specific group of people. What is the right amount to take? How do we feed ourselves, our workers, our communities; while also keeping the water flowing for the wildlife and for future generations?  This week, Jeff Main wrestles with these questions. This piece originally appeared in the Good Humus Newsletter.

We are treading gingerly into spring. This whole drought thing keeps running through my mind. Since we
probably use as much water as all of our CSA members combined, I have to ask myself what is my task? It is a brand
new question, the very latest in questions about the long line of renewable natural resources that we thought were endless.

Until last year, I had never entertained the notion that our deep well full of the best water that I ever tasted could ever be at risk. We are way out in the country, on the edge of the agriculture of the Central Valley and isolated by hill on all sides. But the fear of never-ending drought, and the invasion of a massive agricultural development in the previously unirrigated hills around us has made a believer of me. I should have known, of course, should have seen it, but you know how it is…there is only so much time or so much energy or whatever.

So, given that our water table and the level of our well is going to continue to drop even if I stopped pumping tomorrow, what is my responsibility? If I continue to pump as I always have, dependent on something I know is diminishing, and rationalizing that it’s not my fault, it’s those big new wells all around, then I am most certainly not paying attention to reality or to the need for all to share in the response, just as we have all shared in the creation of the problem.

Here are some pretty reliable facts. If I am going to grow summer fruit and vegetables organically for our friends in the region, then I will be using water. On our farm, the only water available is from our well. But when we use well water in the middle of a historic drought, then our use will contribute to the lowering of the water levels of our neighbors, even influencing the drying of wells they depend on for drinking. As we sit here in our 4th decade of farming, we still need income every month to survive. The people who work for us depend on constant work to support their families. The farm is absolutely, stunningly beautiful, thanks to a never-ending faucet coming out of the ground under the olive tree by the driveway. There will be a good crop of peaches and a good crop of apricots and plums and grapes, and later citrus and persimmons but only with enough water.

I can grow organically because I can grow cover crops that transmute the nitrogen of the air into the nitrates used as fertilizer by the plants. The life of the soil, the plants, their decomposition into the organic material that makes the humus that forms the basis of our soil life and organic component is entirely dependent on water. No water, no plants, no organic matter, no life in the soil, no food grown.

These are my considerations: the needs of my family and workers, the needs of my neighbors, the needs of our community of supporters, the needs of the wild plants and animals that call our diverse farm home, the needs of the soil, and the needs of the rebalancing of the environment around us. What this is teaching me is that there is no solution that assumes unlimited any resource. The difficulty in making sense of, or finding direction in all this tells me how difficult a resolution is going to be for me, for my communities and for all of us. Like other “big issues”, I guess it will bring out all the colors of the rainbow, all the fears and strengths near and dear to us, and in the end, a statement about us all.

Jeff Main, Good Humus Farm

Photo: “CV4” by Peter McCarthy is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


We are a network of over 40 small, family farms that offers 100% local, seasonal food.


Our pick-up locations.
We currently serve the San Francisco Bay Area through public and private pick-up sites. Our public sites include: San Francisco Avedano's and Cheese Plus, Palo Alto Calafia Cafe, Redwood City The Grind.