Heesun Wee’s CNBC feature, including video, looking at how the demand of Chinese consumers is playing an increasingly critical role for California farmers.
In an increasingly export driven market, California farmers are proving quite adaptable. And more of their decisions hinge on China and the growing role it’s playing in shaping agriculture, water and food production in the American West.
“The overseas market is extremely important,” says Jesus Ramos, a farmer who owns 140 acres of mostly citrus trees in Terra Bella in Tulare County. “That dictates whether you can keep a crop going or not.”
Chinese housewives with more income covet select, imported U.S. food, but halfway around the world, back in California, some of the state’s roughly 78,000 farms and ranches are producing more agricultural products that can require a lot of water to produce, scarce California water. There’s frustration about how the U.S. is exporting water through agricultural products to China.
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Born in Mexico, Ramos came to America as a young crew picker. During harvest, the work pace is furious. Pickers scurry up ladders with palm-sized clippers to cut oranges off stems. Nearly all oranges in the world are cut by hand this way. Snip, snip, snip. A landowner and grandfather now, Ramos fully grasps the gamble that is farming. “You can lose your life savings in just a couple of years.”
Walking around one of his six ranches in August, blocks of citrus trees behind him, Ramos’ young picking days seem simple compared to the global demands of modern farming. The water bill for one 10-acre ranch, for example, jumped to $33,000 in 2014 from $3,200 in 2013. His total water bill for all his ranches has soared to more than $200,000, compared to roughly $17,000 just a few years ago. Beyond managing water costs, an export-focused citrus crop can trigger food production changes mandated by overseas markets. China, for example, requires controlling and documenting the Fuller rose beetle as a condition of receiving imports there. While not a major threat, the beetle is common in Tulare County citrus.
Pest control? Check. Water costs? Check, check. Then Ramos worries about how his perfect round orbs of fruit will travel on shipping containers to key Asian markets, including South Korea and China. Skins that peel easily are preferred, but not so thin they’ll get bruised and crushed during the weekslong transportation journey. “I prioritize firmer fruits that can withstand the shipping time,” Ramos explained.