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In vino veritas, in aqua lucrum: Farmland investment, environmental uncertainty, and groundwater access in California’s Cuyama Valley


This paper explores the relationship between farmland investment and environmental uncertainty. It examines how farmland investors seek to “render land investible” (Li, Trans Inst Br Geographers 39:589–602, 2014) in spite of drought, groundwater depletion, and changing regulations. To do so, we analyze a single case study: the purchase of 8000 acres of dry rangeland in California’s Cuyama Valley by the Harvard University endowment for use in creating an irrigated vineyard. Drawing from interviews with Cuyama Valley farmers and community members, participant observation at community meetings, and public document analysis, we make two primary contributions to understandings of uncertain resource materiality in farmland investment. First, this case reveals that investors can turn environmental uncertainty into an advantage, exploiting both the temporal uncertainties associated with resource management under climate change and the spatial uncertainties inherent to all subsurface resources. We argue that the material and legal uncertainties of groundwater access provide investors with a potentially lucrative opening to assert their preferred land imaginaries and improve their property values. In the Cuyama Valley they did so through both participation in groundwater governance and the establishment of water-related infrastructure on their property. Second, this case highlights that the asset-making processes involved in farmland investment may be as much vertical as they are horizontal. The need to map and measure the uncertain vertical dimension of land creates an outsized role for scientific expertise in farmland assetization.

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  1. Risk and uncertainty are related but not identical concepts. Frank Knight and John Maynard Keynes distinguished between risk, which refers to situations where it is possible to estimate probabilities of different future outcomes, and uncertainty, which refers to truly unpredictable future scenarios (Froud 2003).

  2. Other crops grown on the valley’s eastern end include barley, wheat, onions, garlic, potatoes, alfalfa, as well as an assortment of permanent crops: pistachios, olives, grapes, and apples. Other major growers in the area include Duncan Family Farms, Santa Barbara Pistachio Company, Cuyama Orchards and Sunridge Nurseries.

  3. Groundwater basin boundaries used by SGMA are laid out in DWR Bulletin 118 (DWR 2019). Of the state’s 515 water basins, 127 were designated high or medium priority. Of the high priority basins, 21 were deemed “critically overdrafted.”.

  4. Strike-slip faults occur when two pieces of the Earth’s crust slide past each other horizontally, while normal faults occur when they pull apart.

  5. Alatout (2009) argues that, while scarcity narratives tend to receive more scholarly attention, resource abundance can play an equally pivotal role in environmental politics.

  6. This was not a particularly unusual moment. At a GSA board meeting we attended on December 3, 2018, one of the presenting environmental consultants stated explicitly to the board: “My job as a technical person is to bring you choices that we can defend in front of the state. What you choose within that is entirely up to you and I’m very purposefully trying not to advocate very hard one way or the other. So, if you think it's important to lower this [proposed threshold] a certain amount, I think that is plausible and it's not my decision.” For much of the GSA process, hydrogeological models simply set the outer bounds for what were essentially political decisions made by a board dominated by representatives of large growers and landowners from the local water district.

  7. The opposition made other arguments as well. They rejected the biological surveys conducted by Grapevine Capital Partners, which were done at the height of the drought and after the property had already been disked for cultivation. They also amplified concerns expressed by the California Department of Transportation that the reservoirs could pose a flood risk to Route 166 (Chytilo 2019, Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors 2019).


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This project was supported by the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), grant number 2017-68006-26347. We are indebted to the many people who provided formative feedback on earlier drafts of this paper, including: Flora Lu and the rest of her brilliant lab group, Katharine Legun, Zenia Kish, Julie Keller, Lindsey Dillon, Amanda Smith, Renee Fox, and Alma Heckman. We also thank the special issue editors, Sarah Sippel and Oane Visser, for an incredibly helpful round of internal reviews and for being the most organized special issue editors we have ever encountered. Finally, we are deeply indebted to the Cuyama Valley residents who housed us, fed us, and generously shared their wealth of knowledge about the valley and its water politics.

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Correspondence to Madeleine Fairbairn.

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Fairbairn, M., LaChance, J., De Master, K.T. et al. In vino veritas, in aqua lucrum: Farmland investment, environmental uncertainty, and groundwater access in California’s Cuyama Valley. Agric Hum Values 38, 285–299 (2021).

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  • Farmland
  • Financialization
  • Assetization
  • Groundwater
  • Climate change
  • Environmental uncertainty