Monday, January 20, 2014

San Joaquin Valley Farmers Making Tough Decisions in Face of Drought Worries

For the past several months, we talked about the tough decisions growers would be facing if the skies continued to be dry during the coming winter.

It was back in October during the Sustainable Cotton Project’s annual farm tour that one long-time grower told us the prospects looked grim about planting cotton in 2014 because of a second year of skimpy rain. Today, that prediction is very likely to come true as we face a third straight dry year.
Gov. Brown declares a state drought emergency.
  As most farmers know, Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday officially said the dreaded “D” word, declaring a drought emergency in the San Joaquin Valley and the rest of California. His announcement came a day after hundreds of farmers from the Valley traveled to the steps of the state Capitol for a late-morning rally, calling for a resolution to the state’s continuing water crisis.

Farmers and supporters at a water rally  at the state Capitol.
For the Central Valley – the state’s bread basket – water is like liquid gold, a precious commodity that enables farmers to grow their crops, keep farm workers working and support farm-related businesses that employ thousands of folks in the rural communities. For economically disadvantaged towns such as Firebaugh and Mendota farming is the economic linchpin.

While the politicians, water agencies, farm lobbies and other big players in the water scene debate a long-term solution, growers and the rest of the folks here are focusing on the short-term realities of limited, or even no, water allocations this year.

Getting adequate irrigation water will be a challenge in 2014.
Forget about pumping more well water. That source continues to be depleted. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey reported in November that some parts of Merced County south of El Nido have sunk more than 21 inches in two years because of over drafting. We’ll have to see how the emergency declaration helps farmers with water availability and financial help.

In the meantime, our field scouts Carlos Silva and Jenna Horine report growers are starting to make those tough decisions for the upcoming season.
One grower, for example, is foregoing cotton this year to concentrate on other crops such as tomatoes. One plans to stick with cotton and alfalfa, but is likely to scale back on acreage. Another is setting aside a field for cotton, just in case miracle rainfall emerges in February, and he can move ahead with planting some cotton.
Cotton fields could be fallow unless there is more rain.
One thing seems certain – fallow fields will be common sights around the valley. Carlos reports that one farm is planning to work three or four fields in 2014 – down from the usual 20 to 30 fields it normally work each season.

Almond growers also are facing tough decisions right now.

“Everyone is unsure of the future. No one knows what they are going to do yet,” Jenna says. The talk going around now is whether to abort bloom.
Almond and alfalfa growers are weighing their options.

“Another big thing is that everyone is well aware that mites are going to be a huge problem in almonds. There has been no rain to wash the dust from left from shaking at harvest. Any mowing or disking is going to make more dust,” Jenna says. “With trees being water stressed, that is going to create all the right conditions for mites to thrive.”

We all know how almonds are a long-term investment as a permanent crop. So growers will be weighing their options carefully to maintain their trees and protect them for long run.

For now, let’s continue our rain dance and cross our fingers.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Surveyors Barely Find Snow – Question for Farmers May Be ‘To Grow or To Not to Grow’

The New Year is certainly starting out much like last year ended – with water on everybody’s mind.
For starters, surveyors for the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) confirmed on Friday what we all suspected during their first snow measurement of 2014: More bare ground than snow.

Surveyor measures the snow pack.
 Amid brilliant deep blue skies and spring-like temperatures off of Highway 50 near Echo Summit, surveyors reported the snowpack’s statewide water content at about 20 percent of average for this time of year, which ties January 2012 as the driest reading on record. The figure is just 7 percent of the average for the April 1 measurement, which is the time the snowpack is usually at its peak. The snow melt provides a third of the water used by farms and cities.

It’s another unwelcome record we’re heard about in recent days. This past week, the media played up news that 2013 was the driest calendar year ever. State officials already are urging everyone to start conserving water now.
Orange trees were pulled out during the last drought.

“While we hope conditions improve, we are fully mobilized to streamline water transfers and take every action possible to ease the effects of dry weather on farms, homes and businesses as we face a possible third consecutive dry year,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said in a statement. “And every Californian can help by making water conservation a daily habit.”

Around the Valley, field scout Carlos Silva reports water is a big topic around coffee shops for growers. “They’re hoping for rain, but there’s nothing,” Carlos says. Already, they are making the crop plans based on skimpy water availability.

During the last drought, we saw lots of fallow fields and orchards with uprooted trees. Groundwater was tapped out.

In Sacramento, officials will be convening a drought summit tomorrow, January 7.

Farmers could leave fields fallow if a drought hits the state.
Water transfers and drought preparedness will be the topic of a day-long meeting in Sacramento sponsored by the state Board? Department of Food and Agriculture and DWR. Everyone – from the federal Bureau of Reclamation to the Westlands Water District – will be there.

Says state Ag Secretary Karen Ross: “California’s farmers and ranchers need to prepare for a potentially significant drought year.”

Food and Ag President Craig McNamara stresses everyone needs to start preparing now to lessen the long-term consequences of a drought. “We are sounding the alarm on behalf of the agricultural industry.”

Around here, growers are thinking short-term plans as well –to grow or to not to grow crops in 2014? Their livelihoods could be on the line.

For now, let’s hope for some rain and snow soon.