Report: Harvard Is Buying California Vineyards for Their Water Rights

California farm water pump
Robyn Beck/Getty

Harvard University is buying up vineyards in California’s wine country, reportedly to gain access to the water rights allotted to those properties.

According to a report from Fortune Magazine, Harvard University is buying up vineyards in California that have access to groundwater. And this isn’t a new practice for the university. By 2015, the university had already bought 10,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis for approximately $60 million, a drop in the bucket for Harvard, which has an endowment of $39 billion. Harvard has been buying the land using a company called Brodiaea that it established in 2012.

An April 2018 report from the Crimson makes the case that the California vineyard lands are nearly perfect for agricultural development. The only drawback to the region is the limited amounts of water in the long dry summers that are characteristic of the region’s climate.

Bounded to the southwest by the Sierra Madre mountains, Cuyama Valley hugs the Cuyama River and spans four counties in California. Once a hotbed for oil production, Cuyama Valley peaked in the early 1950s as California’s fourth most productive oil region. The oil boom also gave rise to New Cuyama—now the most populated city in the region with just over 500 residents. Once the oil began to dry out, though, farmers started tapping the region for agricultural use.

Stephen R. Gliessman, an agroecology professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a farmer in the valley who has challenged the Harvard vineyard’s water usage, said the region experimented with a variety of crops like alfalfa, oats, and carrots. Regardless of the crop, Gliessman said, one issue has persisted across California.

“In reality, the climate is perfect for agriculture—nice long dry summers, mild winters in large parts of the state,” Gliessman said. “The only problem is water. There’s not enough of it.”

Most analysts believe that Harvard sees the land’s water resource as something that can be sold to neighboring farms in the region. Some local politicians have expressed concern about Harvard’s arrival in the region. They fear that the university will exploit the resource and take advantage of local farmers by gouging them with high prices.

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