Over the course of seven years,Florencia Ramirez journeyed across the United States to visit forward-thinking farmers, cattle ranchers, fishermen, a chocolatier and many other key players in our food system to learn about their water-sustainable strategies. Once the owner of a successful small business that sold shower timers, Ramirez discovered through her research at the University of Chicago that while saving water in the bathroom is important, the amount of water we all consume "virtually" in our food presents even bigger opportunities to protect water resources. This presented the author and activist with an idea for her next project: to learn firsthand about how water is consumed in the food system, and then to show people how they can make water-friendly food choices. We recently spoke with Ramirez (who maintains anactive events calendar) about her long-standing passion for water conservation, how farmers are also water managers and why it's not always possible to make the "best" food choices.
In the beginning of your book, you describe how you had started a business producing water timers for the shower, but you soon discovered that you were focusing on the wrong room in the house: Instead of the bathroom, our water-saving focus should be on the kitchen. What caused you to change your mind?
I sold 80,000 shower timers to save water before realizing I was focused in the wrong room of the house. My campaign, with my small distribution of shower timers, mirrored the larger water conservation campaigns recycled during every drought period by private and public agencies. Like those campaigns, I directed my attention to the 100 gallons the average American uses in one day. "You can save 2500 gallons of water in a year if you reduce your shower time by four minutes," was my pitch to sell shower timers.
As I got deeper into the world of water conservation, I came across the concept of water footprint. Water footprint refers to the amount of water required to produce a good or service. While the average American water footprint is 100 gallons of water per day, we eat an additional 530 to 1,300 gallons of virtual water each day. Food is the most significant user of freshwater in the world, using 70 percent of all freshwater on the planet. If I wanted to dedicate myself to save water, I needed to switch my focus from the shower to the kitchen and by extension the farms and factories where freshwater flows.
California's recent three-year drought took place as you were writing your book. As a California native, how did that experience impact you personally, and the book itself?
During each drought period, there is a heightened awareness of water. Articles printed in newspapers and magazines report low reservoir levels, dry wells and unplanted fields blowing away. Then when the drought is declared over, it's the news stories that dry up and blow away. Billboards that once reminded us to save water are replaced, and the conversation moves on to the next crisis. But we remain in the same predicament. Half the world's population will experience freshwater shortages, referred to as "water scarcity" events, by 2030, and groundwater levels continue to drop in California around the nation and worldwide.
When I began writing "Eat Less Water," California just completed a three-year drought cycle. During the seven years of writing the book, the Southwest went through a second drought cycle, and unless we get a "March Miracle," we will likely begin a new drought this spring/summer. Drought heightened my awareness to the need to conserve water. But I came to learn that regardless of whether we are in a drought period or in-between one, we remain in the same predicament. The message of this book is bigger than any one drought cycle. Our food pantries represent rivers, aquifers, lakes from every part of the planet. In my pantry, I have rice from Vietnam, chocolate from Ghana, coffee from Guatemala, flour from Kansas, eggs and lettuce from farms near my home. Each country, state and region deals with water scarcity issues.
Your book is the culmination of a seven-year journey across America's food system. What inspired you to see first-hand how food can be produced in a water-sustainable way?
In the book, I describe a conversation I had with an almond and olive oil vendor at my local farmers' market. I asked her how her trees were irrigated. At this point in my research, I knew drip irrigation was the most water efficient method of watering crops. She told me the trees were dry farmed, using no irrigation. I wasn't familiar with the term, so I asked her to explain. She suggested I visit the farm to meet her brothers, the farmers. It was that interaction that inspired me to visit farms to learn directly from farmers during their farm operations how they save water. I started at farms close to home, in California, but I didn't want this book to be about California alone. Saving water is an American story and the farmers nationwide who work daily to protect it.
It's hard to miss the importance of healthy soil when it comes to water supply and water quality. What was the most surprising thing you learned about this connection?
Saving water boils down to healthy soil. I learned the connection between water retention and soil early in my journey with my visit to With the Grain Farm in Paso Robles, California, owned by John DeRosier. John is a dry farmer growing a diversity of grains without irrigation during the winter and even summer months when the temperature consistently tops 110 degrees. I asked John, "How is it you can farm without irrigation while all the neighboring farms are drilling 1,000 feet beneath the surface?" I pointed to the surrounding sea of grapevines clinging to the soft hillsides. He had to explain it to me several times; the concept seemed implausible to me. "It starts with the cover crop," he told me. He took me to a field planted with a leafy plant with purple flowers. "This is vetch," he told me. "It's a legume like a peanut that transfers nitrogen from the air into the soil." I was amazed that such a beautiful field of wildflowers was busy feeding the soil.
The cover crop is essential to building healthy soil, I learned from John, because decaying plant material from the cover crop feeds the bacteria in the soil. The root systems from the cover crop build the soil organic matter (SOM). SOM can retain up to 1,000 times more water than soil lacking it, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Services. And if you remember nothing else, remember this: When we treat our land with chemicals, we kill the bacteria too, thereby diminishing the capacity of the soil to hold water.
While John's neighbors drill deeper wells to irrigate wine grapes and almond trees, his crops grow with the moisture held between the granules of soil. Only three percent of American farms reported growing cover crops in the latest Census of Agriculture, and the practice drops with farms larger than 200 acres.
One of the farmers you visited said that "farmers are water managers." It's a great quote, and it seems to be a sentiment shared by most of the farmers you interviewed. Can you describe how you've seen farmers put that idea into action?
"Farmers are water managers," was told to me by Albert Farris at his farm near Nashville, Tennessee, the only no-till organic soy and corn farm East or West of the Mississippi. Each farm I visited for the book introduced me to the many ways farmers are "water managers." Every farmer wants to use less water, but what is different about the "water managers" I describe in the book is they are actively implementing farm methods that build their soil. Each of these farmers works to retain every drop of water and droplet of moisture that falls on their farm. I saw this at John DeRosier's wheat farm (one slice of bread equals 11 gallons of water) in Paso Robles, California who, with cover crops and crop rotation, uses little to no irrigation in a region where farms drill for water 1,000 feet below the surface. In New York State, dairy farmers Maureen and Paul Knapp (one gallon of milk equals 720 gallons of water) introduced me to the water-saving farm method called holistic management. By rotating their animals to different patches of rain-fed pasture every few weeks, they eliminate the need to supplement their cows with irrigated grains during the grazing season. And in Cajun Country, Louisiana, I learn from farmer Kurt Unkle that flooded rice fields (one cup of cooked rice equals 50 gallons of water), the normal practice in the US and around the world is unnecessary. In fact, rice grown without flooded fields have lower arsenic levels, grow bigger and use 40 percent less water. "Why do rice farmers flood rice fields?" I asked Kurt. "To suppress weeds," he told me. Each farmer and food producer was my guide to understanding what farm methods I should support in my quest to save water with my food and beverage choices every day.
Most of the water-friendly food choices you suggest in the book could also help improve worker rights, animal welfare, environmental and public health, etc. How do you think these interconnections can help move us closer to a more sustainable, fair and humane food system?
To answer this question, let's talk chocolate (one chocolate bar equals 449 gallons of water). It is estimated that 70 percent of chemicals applied to cacao are retained in the soil and washed into streams and rivers. Studies document how frequent pesticide applications from cacao farms make people and rivers sick and are causing devastation to biodiversity. But we, the collective, hold power to rewrite this story. In the book, I feature Alex Whitmore, owner of Taza Chocolate, a direct-trade, organic chocolate label located in Boston. "The communities where we purchase our cacao use the river for everything, to swim and bathe in and drink. When companies like us pay a premium for organic cacao, these farmers don't need to make the difficult decision between polluting the river and making a living," he shared with me. When we purchase "water-friendly" food, like organic, direct-trade chocolate, we support more than clean rivers; we help promote a more sustainable, fair and humane food system.
The epilogue in your book isn't all positive. Some farmers that you had visited went out of business or changed what they produced because of budget problems or struggles with regulations that favor big, conventional producers. Others were bought up by larger companies, a sign of further corporate consolidation. What can help water-sustainable farmers thrive both in business and as water stewards?
Kristen Fretwell, owner of Hunter Cattle (one pound of beef equals 1,861 gallons of water) located near Savannah, Georgia explained to me how food and safety regulations are designed for the "big dogs" as she calls them - large, agricultural operations that dominate every food group in America. That partly answers the question of why environmentally sustainable small to medium scale farmers struggle to stay financially sustainable. The other challenge for these food producers is the consumer doesn't always understand why growing water-friendly foods as I describe in the book cost more. According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 44 percent of Americans "include organic" in their food purchases. But what the poll doesn't ask is "How often?" In the same year, three percent of food purchased and sold in the United States was grown without chemicals, antibiotics, petroleum-based fertilizers or genetically modified seeds designed to be paired with herbicides.
The farmers I feature in the book and the thousands of them scattered across the United States are at the forefront of the movement to save our land, air and water. "How wonderful, the work those farmers are doing," people often tell me. "It's admirable work," they say. I agree with them. With all my heart I agree. But his small army of sustainable farmers, fishers, ranchers and food and beverage producers need more than our admiration; they need our business. Saving water is a team effort. It is us the eaters, who propagate, cultivate and nourish farmers/food producers to produce the best food for water so they can "keep doing how we do," as Kristen says. And if we support them in large numbers, food regulations will be forced to adjust to accommodate the "little dogs" too.
You mention towards the end of the book that you don't always manage to make the best food choices when it comes to water because it's a work in progress. What are some of the "best" food choices that consumers find difficult to make, and what will it take to make them easier?
I think it is difficult for consumers to make water-wise food choices because we don't know what to ask for or don't yet have the vocabulary. Even if food labels read biodynamic, dry farmed, rotationally grazed, System of Rice Intensification -- all farm methods I learned conserve our water resources -- most consumers don't yet place value on those words. I've noticed farmers will forgo the terminology altogether even if they are implementing these practices. For example, most wine labels certified biodynamic I've come across don't say it anywhere on the label. I asked my favored vendor at the farmers' market, the one who dry farms almonds and olives, why she doesn't have the term "dry farmed" on her banner. She said it's because people don't know what it means and she doesn't want to risk confusing or turning off potential customers.
My deep hope is that this book will help grow consumer understanding of these farm methods that save water, seek them out and support them with our dollars. Only as more consumers place value on these water saving farming methods will we begin to see the terminology printed on our food, making it easier for the consumers to eat less water.
Food is the most significant user and polluter of water. If we are to be part of the solution of global water solutions, we must begin with our food choices, supporting farming methods that save water. We are connected to the world's water with each meal.