How to “Make” Land

Author: William Kusch

Mark Twain once suggested: “buy land – they’re not making it anymore”.  My response to that suggestion would be, “well, sort of”, but I’ll back that up in a little bit. The number of acres available for conventional agricultural crop production is indeed finite, and in fact there is downward pressure on that number in some parts of the country due to water shortages.

L Mead (3)As a case study, let’s consider Lake Mead, the artificial lake created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in Nevada, which harnessed the energy of the Colorado River. Ordinarily, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet; as of March 23, 2013 the lake level is 1,120 feet. Due in part to increasing water demand from a growing population in Las Vegas, evaporation from the 250 square mile surface area with temperatures regularly exceeding 100 degrees F, and frequent droughts, the lake level is dropping precipitously: there is a 50% chance Lake Mead will run dry by 2021. Were this to happen, the situation would not only be devastating to the inhabitants of Las Vegas, but also to prime agricultural operations in areas such as the Imperial Valley and Palo Verde Mesa in California, which rely on the Colorado River.

But wait, it gets worse. Around the country, increasing numbers of agricultural areas are being affected by soil salinization, which is a condition that can be lethal to plants. Salinization often results from crop irrigation. Almost all of the water used for agriculture has some dissolved salt content; plants selectively take up the water while they are growing, leaving the salt behind in the soil, or the water evaporates before the plants can use it, again leaving the salt in the soil. This process has metastasized to the point that the long-term productivity of the Western San Joaquin Valley in California, one of the most highly productive agricultural regions in the USA, is threatened by salinity levels. Many other parts of the country are also affected by this process.Salty (2)

Which brings me back to Mr. Twain. Our company, TerViva, is in the business of establishing orchards of oilseed-bearing pongamia trees. Pongamia trees address both of the issues raised above in that they have lower water requirements than many conventional orchard crops, and have shown strong indications of tolerance for saline soils and irrigation water. These traits mean that acres of land that are unavailable to other crops due to insufficient water availability, or salinity issues, can be put to productive use for pongamia cultivation, in essence, making new cropland. While you still may want to buy land, at least you can know that in some sense, they are indeed making more of it.

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