A Farm Level View on Supply Chain Water Risk

Lettuce crops at Chris Willoughby's farm in Watsonville, CA

WATSONVILLE, CA—Lettuce is a thirsty crop in parched California. It takes roughly 12 gallons to grow a single head, and Chris Willoughby, a mid-sized grower of leafy greens, broccoli and cabbage, is doing his best to cut back on that amount.

Lettuce crops at Chris Willoughby’s farm in Watsonville, CA

When his wells ran salty 10 years ago, following decades of regional groundwater over pumping, he turned to Watsonville’s recycled wastewater plant, installing—at his own expense—the necessary piping and valves to tap into the more expensive recycled water.

It doubled his water costs.

Willoughby intensified his use of drip irrigation and changed his tillage practices “big time” to further conserve water. As a result, he’s managed to achieve a 15 percent reduction in his water use since 2013.

He may be ahead of the curve on water stewardship among California’s thousands of vegetable growers, but he wouldn’t know. Though his buyers ask him to report his water use, they don’t provide him feedback on how he compares to similar growers.

As California’s agricultural community faces mandatory water cutbacks, growers are bearing the brunt; yet, the entire supply chain, from farm to fork, has a stake in ensuring the long-term sustainability of water supplies. Ceres new report, Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How Global Food Companies are Managing Water Risk, found that very few global food companies are assessing water risk in their agricultural supply chains, or working with their growers to improve water management.

Willoughby’s experience, at the base of the supply chain, provides a microcosm of some of the barriers—and opportunities—for better collaboration on water management.

Daniel Mountjoy, Sustainable Conservation (left) and Chris Willoughby, vegetable farmer

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