It’s been a busy month in California food news. Drought, meat recalls and a new GMO labeling bill (yes, another one) are grabbing headlines across the state. Here’s a round-up of the latest news, and how it touches San Diego’s own ag community.

Farmers and Drought

A lot of the news surrounding California’s lingering drought has focused on how it will impact our ability to feed the nation.

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After all, we supply the rest of the country with nearly half of its fruits and vegetables. But worrying stories about ranchers selling off herds; California farmers yanking out acres of almond groves and federal regulators setting agriculture water allotments at zero has sent shivers through the industry.

A look at the water footprint of some of California’s most important crops, including plenty grown here in San Diego, is eye-opening. One head of lettuce takes 3.5 gallons of water to produce. A tomato uses slightly less: 3.3 gallons. One strawberry uses only .4 gallons, but let’s be honest — who eats just one? Walnuts are super healthy, but one requires 4.9 gallons of water to grow. Yikes! I have a whole new appreciation for those gorgeous red walnuts Jeff Alves at Terra Bella Ranch sells at local farmers markets. He says farmers across the state are worried.

“Many winter crop farmers that depend on the rain this season sometimes may just turn on irrigation once and this season many have had to irrigate four or five times already. It makes a huge difference in the financial outcome of a harvest,” Alves said.

He says there’s another, less reported potential impact to this year’s mild, dry winter.

“With the weather being so warm this winter, many trees are already in bloom. The concern with this is that if a frost does come it could knock out all those blooms that end up being fruit farmers’ harvest. [Alves means any flowering fruit tree: apples, oranges, cherries or nuts like almonds, walnuts and pistachio.] It is situations such as this that could lead to food prices and grocery bills increasing in the future,” said Alves.

GMO Labeling Is Back

The GMO labeling conversation that died when Prop. 37 failed in 2012 is being resurrected.

On Friday, California Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) introduced a new bill to label genetically engineered food sold in California. But unlike Prop. 37, this measure will be decided by legislators, not voters.

It sounds like the bill started out with a focus on GMO labeling for baby food, but was later broadened. Some of the sticking points that likely led to Prop. 37’s defeat were removed too. The new bill requires manufacturers, not retailers, to be responsible for the labeling; and would provide legal protection for farmers or retailers who unknowingly sold unlabeled products.

The success rate of passing GMO-labeling laws has been dismal. Connecticut and Maine both passed one, but they include a trigger clause that would require neighboring states to pass similar legislation. Alaska passed one last year, but it applies only to genetically engineered fish. Vermont has a GMO labeling bill going through its Senate now. The Center for Food Safety says at least 30 states are expected to vote on labeling legislation of some kind in 2014.

Ranchers’ USDA Beef

There’s been a lot of news over the closing of Rancho Feeding Corp., the only slaughter facility in Northern California.

A new criminal investigation has kept the USDA mum over exactly why it shuttered the facility and launched a massive recall of over 8.7 million pounds of meat, and included stores in San Diego. (Though this morning brings speculation that workers were processing cancerous cows.) So far, there have been no reported illnesses.

What may surprise you is that not all the meat processed at that facility came from large-scale ranchers. Smaller grass-fed producers, including Bill Niman, rely on the facility and got unexpectedly snagged in its closure. Marilyn Noble, spokesperson for the American Grassfed Association, which had its annual meeting in San Diego recently, tells me small producers, who slaughter their herds once a year, could be forced out of business if the USDA won’t let them sell their meat.

The problem? Industry consolidation has left ranchers with fewer and fewer options of where they can get their animals slaughtered. While the Rancho facility was too far away for San Diego farmers to use, our local producers are just as vulnerable.

Ashlie Rachelle of Da-le Ranch, who sells meat at several local farmers markets, said that once a month her ranch takes two to three heads of cattle to a USDA processing facility in central California — an eight-hour drive. What would happen if that facility, like Rancho Feeding Corp, was shuttered in a USDA crackdown?

“We’re screwed,” said Rachelle. “We’d either have to go even further away to a different facility, or stop offering individual cuts at the farmers markets.”

More Foodie Tidbits

•  Back in November we told you about the efforts to insert a provision into the Farm Bill that would impact local egg producers. The Farm Bill passed, but the provision was removed. Earlier this month, Missouri’s attorney general decided to sue California over requirements we set for out-of-state eggs being sold here. Apparently, that ruffled the AG’s feathers. (I covered it here for TakePart.) San Diego egg farmer Frank Hilliker told me he sees both sides of the argument:

“It’s a conundrum. This isn’t only about cage requirements but about egg safety and handling,” said Hilliker. “We need to protect ourselves, but on the other hand, the capitalist in me says it’s a free market. The consumer should be able to buy an egg from somewhere else.”

The lawsuit and the constant dust-up around the California’s egg law prompted another surprising move: The United Egg Producers ended its partnership with the animal welfare group Humane Society of the United States. The two unlikely partners had been working together to pass national cage standards for hens. UEP said: “We remain dedicated to transitioning to enriched colony facilities in manner/timeframe that best suits our members.” But if UEP buckled under industry pressure, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to producers like Hilliker who’ve already invested in converting their barns to comply with California law.

•  Though it has a long way to go, there may be an Office of Farm to Fork in California’s future.

•  And that controversial food safety law that would require chefs and bartenders to wear disposable gloves when preparing your food? There’s a good chance it could get repealed. We’re thinking that will make chef Matt Gordon pretty pleased.

i just signed the glove repeal petition… won’t you join me in doing so please! via @Change

— matt gordon, chef (@urbansolace) February 21, 2014

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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