California has lost out on a full year’s worth of rain and snow since 2020, according to a state-funded study, leaving the most farmland idle in recent memory across a region that supplies a quarter of US fresh food.

The most severe drought in a millennium led to well over a half million acres of idle fields in 2022, researchers said in the report looking at how California’s driest three-year period on record has impacted the US’s largest agriculture producer.

Most of the unused land lies in the Central Valley, which produces about a fourth of the country’s food, including 40% of its fruits and nuts. Next year could see even more fallowed land throughout the state as the government tries to manage dangerously low water levels in the Colorado River, which flows into California. 

“The pressure is on for cutbacks,” said Josue Medellin-Azuara, a University of California at Merced professor who led the study released on Tuesday. 

Southern California and other crop-growing regions heavily reliant on Colorado River water are bracing for steep cuts, putting food supplies and farms at risk. A two-decade drought in the area, where at least 70% of irrigated farmland grows feed for livestock, already has increased price pressure on such crops, according to the report. 

The report’s findings weren’t all grim though. While the drought has struck communities and food sectors in parts of central and northern California particularly hard, statewide economic impacts on farm income were “softened considerably” by measures such as increased groundwater pumping, water trading and insurance payments for some crops, researchers said. 

Key takeaways 

  • Compared to 2019, statewide irrigated crops dropped by 752,000 acres in 2022, or nearly 10% of total acreage examined
    • NOTE: That compares with an estimated 550,000 left fallow at the peak of the state’s 2012-16 drought period
  • Shortages of crops such as tomatoes and rice hurt food processors. Gross revenue losses stand at $3.5 billion in the Central Valley this year, up from $2.4 billion
  • Surface water deliveries were reduced by nearly 43% in the Central Valley in 2021 and 2022