UC’s Karen Klonsky Retires

Karen Klonsky Retires, Gets Major Credit for CA Agricultural Cost and Return Studies

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Deputy Editor and Laurie Greene, Editor

 

This is an exclusive interview with Karen Klonsky, UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist emeritus, in the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Her expertise has been farm management and production, sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture.

CAT: Congratulations on your recent retirement!UCANR 100 years logo

Klonsky: Thanks Patrick. I retired on July 1, 2015, after 34 years. I started at UC Davis in ’81, straight from graduate school.

CAT: What has been your primary research interest?

Klonsky: My primary research areas are sustainable and organic agriculture. I have approached these subjects from several dimensions, including the economic feasibility of alternative farming practices, the size and growth of organic production in California, and factors influencing the adoption of alternative farming systems.

CAT: Wow, what a great career! I understand your interest in alternative farming systems began with your dissertation work comparing alfalfa systems with integrated pest management.

Klonsky: I studied agricultural economics in graduate school and started working with a professor in my department who had a joint appointment in agricultural economics and entomology. And I just became very interested in that research area.

I worked with entomologists and researchers on a computer model of plants and alfalfa weevils, and their interaction, plus a management component. I studied the plant and bug components, then did the management part and imposed it on top and asked, ‘If you did this, how many bugs would die?’ The plant model showed how much the alfalfa would grow, and at what point you could cut the alfalfa and achieve the desired yield. I never actually did any fieldwork.”

CAT: Since 1983, you not only directed ongoing Cost and Return Studies, but the development of an entire archived library of Cost and Return Studies for the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. You recently completed studies on pistachios and walnuts, right?

Klonsky: Yes, both “Sample Costs to Establish and Produce English Walnuts In the Sacramento Valley, Micro sprinkler irrigated” and “Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Pistachios In the San Joaquin Valley-South, Low-Volume Irrigation.”

Our library contains studies about field, tree and vine crops and animal commodities. But since I retired, Dan Sumner, director, University of California Agricultural Issues Center and Frank H. Buck, Jr. Distinguished Professor for the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics has taken that over and I continue to be peripherally involved.

CAT: These cost studies have been recognized worldwide.ARE Cost and Return Studies

Klonsky: Yes, and it has been very gratifying work. We decided to put them online routinely, and we have had a million downloads per year. Around 2005, Pete Livingston, my staff research associate, got the idea of scanning in the older studies. All of the newer studies were in electronic file format, so posting was easy. However, most of the older studies were paper copies, so we got a grant to scan and add them to our new online archive.

CAT: What was the most interesting thing about doing those cost studies?

Klonsky: I loved doing those studies. I really learned a lot because all cost studies are done directly with farmers we met through county farm advisors. I really got to know what farmers were thinking about and what their options were.

CAT: So those were real costs, not university costs?

Klonsky: Those were not university costs. The farmers tell us what equipment they will use, and then we calculate the cost of using their equipment—the fuel used to operate the equipment and the repair costs—with an agriculture-engineering program.

CAT: Do you have a math background?

Klonsky: Yes, I got my bachelor’s at the University of Michigan in mathematics. It was very helpful.

CAT: And you also earned your Ph.D. at the University of Michigan?

Klonsky: Yes.

CAT: So did you grow up in Michigan?

Klonsky: No, I grew up in New York.

CAT: And you just had an interest in going to Michigan State University?

Klonsky: Well, I had an interest in agriculture because I had an uncle who farmed corn and vegetables in upstate New York. We would go up there and I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world.

CAT: What were some of the highlights of your career?

Klonsky: For many, many years, I was involved in the long-term on-campus sustainable agriculture research on land that is now on Russell Ranch, but it started as Sustainable Ag Farming Systems. We looked at four different farming systems, organic, low input, high-input, and we did a lot of analyses with cover crops and rotations. It was great to work on that project.

CAT: And you worked with USDA on the trends of organic farms?

Klonsky: And then I worked quite a bit with Department of Food and Agriculture on using the registration data for their organic farmers to compile statistics about how many farmers they had, what they grew, and the number of acres they planted with each crop. They had this database, which started in 1992 I believe, but they weren’t using it. Now the most recent registration analysis is available for 2012.

CAT: Just to try to get more data on the organic movement and organic growth?

Klonsky: Yes, because there was no data at all about it. Now NASS (National Agriculture Statistics Service) conducts a nationwide Organic Census, in addition to the regular Census of Agriculture.

CAT: I understand you served as an editor of the Journal of American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers (ASFMRA). What did that entail?ASFMRA

Klonsky: Yes. I did that for many years. ASFMRA is a national organization. The Journal of the ASFMRA comes out annually. As editor, I corresponded with the authors, assigned reviewers, and ultimately, accepted or rejected submissions, like any journal.

CAT: Did you travel a lot with your work and presentations?

Klonsky: You know, not so much, I went to Spain one time and France once for work. But I did travel around domestically to symposiums and conferences to speak on the economics of growing a lot of different crops, including many presentations at the EcoFarm Conference.

CAT: You worked and collaborated with some really interesting people.

Klonsky: Most of my important collaborations were conducting trials with people in other disciplines. For instance, at Russell Ranch, I was the only economist involved in the collaboration with plant pathologists and pomologists who ran trials to discover fumigation alternatives in the preplanting of trees.

Then I worked with people at UC Santa Cruz on alternatives for strawberry fumigation. Most of my work has been interdisciplinary.

CAT: California farming in general is huge, diverse industry. We produce 60% of the fruits and vegetables, and nearly 100 percent of the nut crops that people across the country consume. Any comments on that and on how valiant and resilient farmers are to get through year after year, particularly lately with the drought and the lack of water deliveries?

Klonsky: When I first started, there was a land price bubble, and there were a lot of bankruptcies because people had these land payments they just couldn’t pay.

It was kind of like the mortgage crisis that housing saw in 2008, agriculture saw in the early 80s.

CAT: So as you have been editor for the Journal of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, you see land values going up and that keeps agriculture strong—the high land values, right?

Klonsky: Well, but it keeps it expensive. So now there is more and more leasing of land. As farmers retire from permanent crops, they have an orchard, but they don’t really want to sell it, so they lease it.

CAT: There you go. Keep it somehow in the family.

Klonsky: Yes, they try to keep ownership in the family. Or what we see also are these development leases where a young farmer can’t afford to buy the land, so they lease the land, but they pay for the trees to be planted.

CAT: So you are still coming to your office at UC Davis?

Klonsky: I am officially retired, but we have what we call a ‘partial recall’ where you can do things if you have funding. I have a project along with Rachel Goodhue, Professor, UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, funded through the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. The Department of Pesticide Regulations is required by law to do an economic analysis of all proposed new regulations. So that is what I am working on.

CAT: Give me a couple of examples. VOC regulations?

Klonsky: Yeah, we do VOC.

CAT: Are you looking at sustainable groundwater legislation?

Klonsky: No, just pesticide regulation. It is funded by the Mill tax on pesticides.

CAT: Did you work with a lot of graduate students at UC Davis?UC Davis Graduate Studies

Klonsky: Oh yeah, I worked with a lot of graduate students coming through. One of them was on different ways of pesticide management on eucalyptus trees. I said I went to Spain. On that trip, I spoke about growing eucalyptus for firewood.

CAT: That was an economic study, wasn’t it?

Klonsky: Yes it was. They grow it not for firewood, but for paper. But that never really caught on here.

CAT: Are you bullish on agriculture? Do you think Ag is going to continue thriving in California?

Klonsky: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. But I think that the water situation is definitely real, and I think agriculture already has definitely made tremendous strides in irrigation systems, especially the subsurface irrigation in vegetables, in particular processing tomatoes, which I worked on.

CAT: That was a huge improvement in growing tomatoes. And people didn’t think it was going to work, but it turned out to be fantastic.

Klonsky: Yeah, a really win-win on that one. And orchards are getting more efficient. If you look at the water per pound of crop produced, you see major improvements with water efficiency.

CAT: Absolutely. Of course, most plants transpire most of the water they take up through the roots, up through the leaves and the stomata cells. By the way, do you have any interesting stories regarding your career?

Klonsky: It’s not the highlight, but the weirdest thing of my career is I got an email from somebody in Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries from the United Arab Emirates. They wanted me to give a live presentation about Cooperative Extension in California and how it’s organized.

So I had to go to this office building in downtown Sacramento at 10:00 at night because of the time difference. I went into a conference room that had a special kind of projector so I could see them and they could see me. And on the monitor I see all these men walked in—they were all men—and half of them were in Western dress and half of them were wearing a Sheik-like headdress, with a band that sits on top and holds it on.

That was crazy, just being downtown after everybody is gone and the whole building was dark and quiet, except the one room that I was in.

CAT: How long was the presentation?

Klonsky: Gosh, maybe an hour.

CAT: You needed to do some research for that presentation?

Klonsky: Yeah, I had to do some research, I had to think about Cooperative Extension in a different way—the big picture. 

CAT: Keep up the good work, and I hope you are enjoying retirement.

Klonsky: Yeah, I come in two days a week, so it is nice to see everybody. I still get a lot of emails, which I need to answer.

2015 Drought Costs Ag Nearly Two Billion!

DROUGHT COSTS CALIFORNIA AGRICULTURE $1.84B AND 10,100 JOBS IN 2015

The drought is tightening its grip on California agriculture, squeezing about 30 percent more workers and cropland out of production than in 2014, according to the latest drought impact report by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

In 2015, the drought costs to the state’s agricultural economy will reach about $1.84 billion and 10,100 seasonal jobs, the report estimated, with the Central Valley hardest hit.

The analysis also forecasts how the industry will fare if the drought persists through 2017.

‘NOT A FREE LUNCH’

Currently, the industry overall remains robust. The agricultural economy continues to grow in this fourth year of severe drought, thanks mostly to the state’s vast but declining reserves of groundwater, which will offset about 70 percent of the surface water shortage this year, the researchers said.

California is the world’s richest food-producing region. Continued strong global demand and prices for many of its fruits, nuts and vegetables has helped sustain the farm economy along with intrastate water transfers and shifts in growing locations.

“We’re getting by remarkably well this year — much better than many had predicted — but it’s not a free lunch,” said lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.

The heavy reliance on groundwater comes at ever-increasing energy costs as farmers pump deeper and drill more wells. Some of the heavy pumping is in basins already in severe overdraft — where groundwater use greatly exceeds replenishment of aquifers — inviting further land subsidence, water quality problems and diminishing reserves needed for future droughts.

Further, several small rural communities continue to suffer from high unemployment and drying up of domestic wells because of the drought, particularly in the Tulare Basin.

“If a drought of this intensity persists beyond 2015, California’s agricultural production and employment will continue to erode,” said co-author Josue Medellin-Azuara, a water economist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

MAJOR CONCLUSIONS

The UC Davis team used computer models and the latest estimates of surface water availability from state and federal water projects and local water districts. They forecast several drought-related impacts in the state’s major agricultural regions for the current growing season, including:

  • The direct costs of drought to agriculture will be $1.84 billion for 2015. The total impact to all economic sectors is an estimated $2.74 billion, compared with $2.2 billion in 2014. The state’s farmers and ranchers currently receive more than $46 billion annually in gross revenues, a small fraction of California’s $1.9 trillion-a-year economy.
  • The loss of about 10,100 seasonal jobs directly related to farm production, compared with the researchers’ 2014 drought estimate of 7,500 jobs. When considering the spillover effects of the farm losses on all other economic sectors, the employment impact of the 2015 drought more than doubles to 21,000 lost jobs.
  • Surface water shortages will reach nearly 8.7 million acre-feet, which will be offset mostly by increased groundwater pumping of 6 million acre-feet.
  • Net water shortages of 2.7 million acre-feet will cause roughly 542,000 acres to be idled — 114,000 more acres than the researchers’ 2014 drought estimate. Most idled land is in the Tulare Basin.

The effects of continued drought through 2017 (assuming continued 2014 water supplies) will likely be 6 percent worse than in 2015, with the net water shortage increasing to 2.9 million acre-feet a year. Gradual decline in groundwater pumping capacity and water elevations will add to the incremental costs of a prolonged drought.

GROUNDWATER LAWS COULD HELP

The scientists noted that new state groundwater laws requiring local agencies to attain sustainable yields could eventually reverse the depletion of underground reserves.

“The transition will cause some increased fallowing of cropland or longer crop rotations but will help preserve California’s ability to support more profitable permanent and vegetable crops during drought,” said co-author Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

The report was primarily funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Other authors on the report include Daniel Sumner, a UC Davis professor of agricultural and resource economics and director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, and Duncan MacEwan of the ERA Economics consulting firm in Davis.