Groundwater access and farmland financialization in California

Authors: Madeleine Fairbairn*, University of California, Santa Cruz, James LaChance, University of California, Berkeley, Kathryn DeMaster, University of California, Berkeley, Loka Ashwood, Auburn University
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Natural Resources, Rural Geography
Keywords: Financialization, groundwater, agriculture
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Regency Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


One prominent dimension of the global land rush has been an increasing interest in farmland on the part of financial entities. The “financialization of farmland” has entailed a growing number of land purchases by institutional investors, as well as the deployment of narratives, images, and metrics that construct farmland as a new financial asset class. This paper examines the significant hurdles investors can encounter in their efforts to “render land investible” through a single case study: the purchase of 8,000 acres of rangeland in California’s Cuyama Valley by a wholly owned subsidiary of a major university endowment for use in creating an irrigated vineyard. The research included over twenty interviews with Cuyama Valley community members, participant observation at community meetings, and analysis of permitting and planning documents. We argue that, in the context of California, where drought and new state-wide regulations are forcing a reckoning with groundwater usage, water access is essential to making farmland a profitable site for capital accumulation. However, establishing and maintaining water access can be a fraught process. In the case of the Cuyama Valley, savvy engagements with the regulatory process allowed investors to maximize their water access but also left them exposed when community members used the same regulatory processes to oppose their plans. Meanwhile, hydrogeological unknowns have left openings for multiple competing visions of water basin structure and recharge rates, each likely to boost water access—and therefore land values—for different actors.

Abstract Information

This abstract is already part of a session. View the session here.

To access contact information login