Unless you have a personal connection to the Central Valley or work in agriculture, chances are you haven’t been able to speak directly to a farmer about how they’re experiencing this year’s historic drought.
Recently on KQED Forum, three farmers from the Central Valley, where roughly 40% of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown, shared just how little water they have to work with, how they’re adapting, and what the drought means for their industry long term.
Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How little water are farmers working with?
Joe Del Bosque, CEO of Del Bosque Farms: This year, we got zero water from the Bureau of Reclamation. So we’ve had to look toward other irrigation districts that have higher water rights, and purchase water from them. If it hadn’t been for our ability to buy from other farmers, we would not be able to farm today.
Don Cameron, Terranova Ranch, California State Board of Food and Agriculture president: We rely primarily on groundwater pumped in our region. About 5%, in a normal year, [is] surface water. So we have depended on the groundwater for years. And we are in a critically overdrafting basin, which means we are now dealing with sustainable groundwater management; we need to stop the decline in groundwater.
Stuart Woolf, Woolf Farming & Processing: Our surface water was taken to zero. We have maintained some wells in the area. Traditionally in dry years, we’d lean into our wells, and years ago when we had adequate surface supplies, we would then recharge our aquifers. But we’re seeing the loss of our surface supplies now, and that is basically exacerbating the issues with groundwater out here.
How much more does water cost right now?
Stuart Woolf: In a normal year in Westlands [Water District], for our surface water, we end up paying about $250 an acre-foot. And in a year like this, if you can find it and actually buy it, we’re thinking in terms of like $2,000 to $2,500 per acre-foot, on an incremental cost basis. You can have surface water that you receive that costs $400, $500, the incremental cost being much, much higher. Pumping costs are closer to that $250.
Less water means fewer crops, smaller yields
Joe Del Bosque: We’ve cut back our melon program. We’ve grown asparagus for 20 years and we took that out. We removed the asparagus to try to save our melon program because that’s where our largest focus is. So we sacrificed that crop. And we may also have to sacrifice the sweet corn crop next year.
Don Cameron: It’s been more of an issue with climate. We have the heat. We had 114-degree heat in early June, which caused our tomato plants to abort the flowers and essentially come up with a yield lower than we’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been farming.
Stuart Woolf: We’ve had to make some difficult decisions, like pulling out almond trees prematurely. Normally they would last 20, 25 years, and we pulled some out recently that were about 15 years old simply because we were looking at the incremental cost of trying to get water to them if we could get it. We just came to the conclusion that when you kind of worked out all the economics and looked at the orchard itself, we’d be better off pulling the trees out early and using water we had on our tomato crop.
Market share matters
Joe Del Bosque: We have some market share with our melons. It’s something that we need to protect. If we do not plant our melons, we lose our market share. And not only that, we lose our very skilled workforce that has been with us for decades. We have people who work in our harvest that have been with us for many years and have done this job very well. Just because we have annual crops doesn’t mean that they’re that easy to fallow. And so that concerns me. If we are not able to plant melons next year, we’re basically out of that program.
Effects on workers
Joe Del Bosque That asparagus [we pulled up], it sustained 70 people for about two months in the early spring, when there aren’t a lot of jobs in this area. So those jobs are going to be gone. Those folks will probably have to migrate somewhere else to look for work.
Don Cameron: We’ve seen some land retirement near us in the past, and the local communities suffer. You see half of some of these small towns boarded up. You don’t see the the economy increasing. It’s really difficult for the communities. It’s hard for our workers. But, you know, it actually stretches even beyond our local reach here. So many of the crops are exported through the Port of Oakland or Long Beach. So the effect is really far-reaching within California.
Don Cameron: Right now there are more farms for sale than I’ve seen in the time I’ve been farming. People understand that there are changes, and for a lot of reasons they’re getting out of farming or they’re trying to get out of farming. It’s more difficult to sell a piece of farmland without an adequate water supply that we’re faced with during a drought. .
How farmers are adapting
Don Cameron: We have been very proactive and have developed a groundwater recharge system and put in canals and infrastructure, to bring floodwater onto the farm to actually recharge our groundwater, so that we can be more sustainable in the future and have a much better supply of groundwater.
Stuart Woolf: I think my charge right now is to try to figure out how to optimize the lands that I’m likely going to be fallowing. And so we are looking at industrial solar as kind of a new crop. We are leasing ground, putting solar projects out there. We have one breaking ground in November; it will be about 1,300 acres. So we’re covering up some very productive and diverse farmland with a lease, but we’re generating some rental income, and we’ll take what water allocations we have on those lands and use them on the properties that we are irrigating.
We’re looking at some alternative crops. I’m experimenting. I happen to be a tequila drinker, so I’m planting some agave. We’ve partnered with some other neighbors and taken part of our property to set it aside as a water bank, so when those flood flows do show up and we have access to water, we’ll be sinking it in the ground. And honestly, we’ve looked at other parts of the state where there’s better groundwater or better rights, and we’ve actually developed and invested in some properties in those other areas to try to mitigate the pressure that we have here in western Fresno County.
Stuart Woolf: I think long term, what’s going to happen, we will gravitate to more crops that are just specialty crops that are unique to California that will likely go up in value. And we’ll be growing fewer acres of lower-value crops or water-intensive crops like alfalfa or cotton or grains and what have you. I think our cropping patterns will change over time.
Don Cameron: The state left this at the local level and you’ve got growers and water districts involved, and we will get to sustainability. We have to. I have realized now for many, many years that we have to do something about declining groundwater, and so we took it upon ourselves to get involved early on and put a large project together, that when it’s complete, will actually serve 30,000 acres.
Changes farmers would like to see
Joe Del Bosque: In the short run, [water] transfers would help get us out of this predicament we’re in now. It takes months to get a transfer approved. And even when you have them approved, sometimes they’re still held up.
We should facilitate storm flows to go to places where we can recharge groundwater.
In the long run, we have to have more storage. Today, we’re getting more rain, it seems, and that’s not stored up in the mountains. That needs to come down and be stored here. I think that there are some projects that could be done fairly easily, something as simple as raising San Luis Reservoir 15 feet. I think we have to look at all of these things, because in the future, our storage may not be adequate for the state.
Don Cameron: We know that we have to capture floodwater when it is available. It comes quick. It comes fast. Now we need to be ready. Let’s face it, during the drought is when we need to be building the infrastructure for floodwater capture.
Effects on consumers
Don Cameron: We’re already seeing price increases of 15% to 25% for the fall planted crops. We know that if we get to the end of December and there really isn’t much of a snowpack, a grower is not going to put seeds in a greenhouse to plant tomatoes, let’s say, for next year’s crop. This coming winter is going to be absolutely critical, but you’re definitely going to see higher food prices for things that are grown within California, and if we don’t see adequate snowpack, this will continue into 2023, with limited products possible on your food shelf. We’re growing food here for people, and I think it is sometimes forgotten that if we don’t have the water to produce a crop, someone is going to be short.