02/05/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

California's Very Big Drought

The problem with California is that it's just so beautiful. And sunny. All the time. Of course, that's why it's known as "sunny California." Apparently, though, winter is the rainy season. You wouldn't know it from being here, though. The state is experiencing its longest drought in more than 100 years. And that's a bad thing for food prices and availability for everyone in America, since California grows a lot of our food -- both the organic and the chemical, "conventional," kind.

People are starting to get worried, especially the farmers. Many are blaming global warming, and I am sure there is truth in that. I am in no way a denier. However, global warming is an esoteric, ephemeral idea made up of a million practical things that we have control over.

Let's start with the good news: I didn't see a lot of rampant water waste in California. The only truly green lawn I saw was the Pebble Beach Golf Course (I'll give them a pass -- it's their job, and it was gorgeous!). All the showerheads and toilets seemed very efficient. And because the weather is so "nice," there doesn't seem to be a lot of wasted energy on heating and air-conditioning.

I'll tell you what the problem is in California. I saw it with my own eyes, and it shocked and concerned me greatly. I drove from San Francisco up to Sacramento to give a talk. It's about a 2.5-hour drive. And yes, I thought it was weird that there were six-lane highways from what seemed like a small town to the next small town, but that wasn't what shocked me the most. It was the farm fields.

Other than the Central Coast of California, the land north of San Francisco is some of the most productive and abundant farmland in America. It was January when I drove though, so I know the fields were mostly dormant and being "prepared" for planting, but that did not prepare me for their utter NAKEDNESS. Not only were there no weeds or wild plants (even at the edges) but there were no cover crops, no mulches, no PROTECTION for the soil, either. The soil was dry and barren--a dust bowl just waiting to happen!

In fact, most of the fields were freshly tilled, which is also a recipe for disaster when it comes to preserving moisture and soil life. It leaves nothing left to absorb and store the carbon that we need in the ground to remedy our climate-change problem, let alone enough to manage a farm practically for the long-term health of its soil!

Even the orchards, of which there were many, were stripped clean of any additional life other than the dormant trees with their coated white trunks. There were no ground covers of wildflowers to attract native pollinators; no, these are the orchards where hives are trucked in when needed so the bees can pollinate for a price, get poisoned by the pesticides, and then die off at an unnatural rate.

What have we done?

And before you get excited about farmland being naked, it's not that kind of naked. No, it was a body without skin sort of naked. It's a naked that is exposed to disease, damage, and degradation. Some may call that "conventional" agriculture. I call it abuse.

Right smack in the middle of this drive is the University of California-Davis, a school I have always heard about as a leader in sustainable agriculture. It all made me sad.

Later that week, I attended the Ecofarm conference in Pacific Grove and had a chance to ask a California rancher if what I'd seen was in fact what I thought I saw. "Yes, and that's 95 percent of California agriculture," he said. At the conference I was asked to sit in on a roundtable of Women in Agriculture. As you all know, I am not a farmer, so I just listened as each woman spoke and explained why she was there. There were about 60 woman involved with all different types of farming, and they each told a variation of a similar theme: They love what they do. They love the earth and its wildness. They are frustrated by the challenges they face with the male view of how things should be done. One farmer spoke about hearing multiple stories from female "WWOOFERS" of being sexually abused. When it was my turn to speak, I said that I believe that how we treat women is how we treat the earth -- we being the collective we, both men and women.

So what is the drought telling California? It's time to change, to adapt, to take better care of nature's body. That same rancher talked about weeds not being the problem but a symptom of the problem. In the same way global warming/climate change and drought are not the problem here but a symptom of the problem. And the problem is we are treating the earth as if the future doesn't matter. Or worse, searching for a technological solution that people can get rich from, as if nothing mattered except an economic indicator that doesn't even reflect any honest truth.

The answers are out there. In fact, the answers are right in front of our faces and underneath our feet. And they are simple. All the evidence of what we need to do already exists and has been verified by scientists around the world, including the UN. All that's left to do is help open the hearts and minds of those farmers and academics who haven't been able to see it yet. Sometimes it's hard to see things from a different perspective when you're stuck inside an old familiar one...even if it doesn't work anymore.

Until, perhaps, something happens that forces change. And then everyone has a choice: Choose life, and embrace a different path, or choose death, and stubbornly cling to the old path.

Ecofarm made me hopeful. There are so many successful organic farmers, and so many new, young ones -- many of them women! But like taking over a farm that's been degraded and damaged, there is a lot of hard work ahead of them. And only one way to heal the earth: organically!

For more from Maria Rodale, visit