California Farmers Look to New Technologies to Combat Climate Change

October 21, 2014

As the end of the year draws near, 2014 is likely to go down as one of the worst for California farmers as a result of an unprecedented drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, approximately 80% of California is experiencing extreme drought levels (click here for clip of California’s drought evolution). One of the drought’s main effects for Californians, is a reduction in agricultural production–something that affects every American when they checkout at the grocery store. California ranks as the country’s top agricultural producing states, in terms of cash farm receipts. In 2012, California produced over 400 different commodities at a $ 42.6 billion return, according to California’s Department of Food & Agriculture. However, this year economists predict over a billion-dollar loss in agricultural production as a result of the drought. While this year may be a loss, many are looking to different technologies to help combat the effects of climate change in the coming years, with grow lights and drones being two such technologies.
Grow lights allow for plants to be grown at more northerly latitudes, where light is more limited, by mimicking the effects of sunshine. The concept of grow lights is simple; when natural sunshine becomes unavailable, use lights to replicate the sun’s growth-generating effects, allowing for production in less than optimal conditions. Grow lights have long been used to produce commodities, such as fruits and vegetables, in greenhouses year round. However, the technology has never been applied on a large scale, but with recent advances that make the technology more energy and cost efficient, grow lights could offer a way to curb the effects of climate change. In the case of California, grow lights could allow agricultural production to expand into the state’s northern regions and beyond, where water is less scarce. According, to the Washington Post , this northern movement is already happening in one of California’s most recognizable commodities: wine grapes. Dave Runsten, policy director for the California-based Community Alliance for Family Farmers, states

“[t]here’s a lot of investment going into Washington, and areas up in that direction,” as “models show that a lot of places in California won’t be able to grow high-value wine.”

Additional evidence of a northern shift can be seen in soybean and wheat production areas over the past fifty years, according to a USA Today article.
With the drought predicted to extend into 2015 and possibly 2016, grow lights are becoming increasingly attractive to farmers who are trying to maintain production levels, and light companies are taken noticing. Bayer, a maker of LED grow lights, predicts $20 million in sales next year. Additionally, Lumigrow, a manufacturer of energy efficient LED lights for commercial greenhouses, recently supplied USDA with LED lights for its Agricultural Research Service division’s greenhouses.
While some farmers look to grow lights for a solution, some believe drones are the way to go. Farmers are hopeful that the unmanned aerial systems can be used to facilitate “cloud seeding,” a process in which chemicals, usually silver iodide, are fired into the cloud layer, causing precipitation. Typically, aircraft or ground-based launchers are used to introduce the chemical into the cloud, but with the advent of drones, many believe the historically costly and cumbersome process can become more efficient. There is one hold-up, however; currently the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not allow commercial drone use, unless the agency grants an exemption. Last month, the FAA granted exemptions to six television and film companies, prompting many, including Alan Levin for Bloomberg News, to speculate that the agency is likely to grant similar exemptions to agriculture groups.
Whether it is grow lights or drones, as global temperatures continue to rise, straining available natural resources, it is becoming increasingly apparent that technology will continue to become the farmer’s friend in the fight against climate change.