San Luis Obispo County has had its driest year in 128 years with having dropped over nine inches of average precipitation, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

For local communities, the drought has challenged agricultural industries and has inspired some individuals to adapt to the drier conditions. 

Beekeeping and the drought

Jeremy Rose, a local commercial beekeeper, relies on his beekeeping business, the California Beekeeping Company, to support his family. Rose said that the impact of the drought has been “absolutely ridiculous.”

Rose is a Cal Poly alumni who graduated in 2007. He, along with Patrick Frazier, a 2006 Cal Poly graduate, returned to run the university’s beekeeping program. They have been leading the program since 2015.

“It’s beyond even description, because I have to make honey for a living for the program,” Rose said. The beekeeping program can keep going, but it’s very, very frustrating for Patrick and I to teach it.” 

With the drought being a concern, the future of beekeeping for them looks different.

“2020 was the first time I’ve seen robbing behavior –– where the beehives are actually stealing honey from other hives during April,” Rose said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”

This year, there were many people enrolled in the beekeeping class at Cal Poly. With more than one lab section, a few days a week, this means the hives are opened frequently, creating more stress within the bee populations.

“Having this many students continually open them, this adds more stress,” Frazier said. “We add a greater risk of death in the colony with how much pressure we’re putting on for teaching the students in our class.”

As of May 24, San Luis Obispo is considered to be partly in a severe and extreme drought, based on the percentage of drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. The drought impacts the plants and flowers bees rely on for pollination, as stated in an article by Entomology Today.

“They’re actually decreasing not only the honey that they’re producing at this time, but because it’s a drought, they’re actually tapping into their reserves,” Rose said. “So the bees are actually eating the honey that they had stored up already, and it just stresses the high bound nutritionally, as well as behaviorally.”

Drought impacts on agriculture

The drought has strongly affected the farming industry, both small scale and large scale. Cameron Lilly, a 2021 Cal Poly civil engineering graduate, founded the Garden Club in 2018 “to prove that you can do something that’s sustainable.”

Now as a fruit and vegetable farmer in Sonoma County, Lilly said he has noticed that the increasing urgency to accommodate for the lack of rainwater has led many to find other ways to acquire their water supply. 

Farmers in California’s Central Valley have been pumping groundwater, but depleting this water supply creates air pockets “so the weight of the soil above it will just crush it,” Lilly said. This eventually results in losses such as with elevation reduction, according to Lilly. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Central Valley produces one-fourth of the nation’s food supply, despite using less than 1% of the country’s farmland. With such a significant portion of food provision originating here, the drought’s extension past San Luis Obispo still poses a localized threat by affecting food security and prices. 

Animal science senior and two year-long student manager for the sheep and goat Program, Sam Valliere, predicts this. 

Valliere said he believes that the cost of growing feed for animals to eat will increase with the lack of water availability, and in turn, food prices will become less affordable and  people  may no longer get “as good a quality of food as they’re used to eating.” 

In addition to a possible food price spike, another potential repercussion from the drought both in San Luis Obispo and across California could be a monopolization of water supply, Lilly said. According to Lilly, “the only people who can afford wells and get into deep groundwater are huge agricultural corporations,” creating an unprecedented monopoly. 

“Water rights for individual homeowners and citizens and people is going to be something that people are going to have to actually fight for, which is something that was probably unheard of, like, 20 years ago,” Lilly said. 

How Cal Poly is handling increased fire risk attributed to the drought 

While water availability and agricultural efficacy are affected, fire risk also has significantly increased with the drought. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, unusually warm temperatures paired with drought “create increased potential for extreme wildfires that spread rapidly, burn with more severity, and are costly to suppress.” 

However, Cal Poly has been combating this with the use of goats and sheep. Once a year around the end of June, Valliere said that the university’s goats and sheep are used to create a fire break of about 25-30 acres. With the drought’s intensification throughout 2022, he said that the sheep and goat program chose to start the process multiple weeks earlier than usual. 

“The goal with [the animals] is they just reduce the amount of biomass that’s around so that if there were a fire, it wouldn’t spread as quickly and it would hopefully not burn as hot,” Valliere said, “Another thing that goats do is they eat the ladder shields, which are basically the fields that would carry a fire from ground level up a tree. It’s like a canopy.” 

Technological advances to combat the drought

However, even with the agricultural dilemmas that the drier seasons have presented, it has also encouraged technological advancement. 

“I think a major response to the drought has been the development of drip irrigation and stuff like that, where you’re able to utilize a lot less water in agriculture, which is something that is really cool,” Lilly said.

Lilly advocates for people to become more self-sufficient by growing their own food and avoiding store purchases of what they can grow. 

The U.S. Census of Agriculture said that one acre to a depth of one foot requires about 325,851 gallons of water on average. An at-home smaller and more curated garden would require less water and would thus be more drought-friendly, Lilly said.

Currently, the Cal Poly Corporation is working on different research initiatives and soil health studies that can be used to mitigate the drought.

Matthew Grieshop was hired as the founding director of the Grimm Family Center for Organic Production and Research this year under the Cal Poly Corporation. Grieshop’s role has been relatively new, but he currently is working on “renovating a lab to be basically an organic soil fertility lab.” 

“The emphasis of organic agriculture is really on building healthy soil with a bigger living component and more carbon in it,” Grieshop said. “It tends to be more drought resistant because the soil holds on to water better.”

For holding water in the soil, Grieshop said that cover crops, or crops that are in place of the main crop during the year, help retain moisture. Future plans by Cal Poly to mitigate the drought effects include new water treatment systems, according to Grieshop.

“Cal Poly is looking into the development of a new water treatment system that would allow us to recycle a lot of the water that’s used on campus and essentially use it again for irrigation,” Grieshop said.

Sustainability after graduation

While Cal Poly has facilitated sustainable efforts made by students throughout their college careers, some plan to use their degrees after graduating. 

Valliere said he is hoping to continue his education for targeted grazing. 

“It’s basically just grazing animals with a specific goal in mind,” Valliere said. “The firebreak would be targeted grazing for fire prevention or you can do targeted grazing to eliminate certain invasive species.”

For other students that are interested in pursuing a similar career path, Valliere recommends talking to individuals working for the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Department on campus.