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Growers shift production areas in search of water in California drought

It’s a recurring theme this year in California regardless of the commodity: availability of agricultural water, and the high cost of what water is available, is an almost universal concern.

The garlic industry in California this year has had to make adjustments, such as finding new locations to grow when they could not get water on their usual fields, or drill deeper wells where the water table has dropped, or pay exorbitant prices for water transfers. But in general, the industry expects to get through this year OK.06-Garlic-WaterA California garlic field during harvest. Diminishing availability of water for agricultural uses in California is forcing garlic growers to search out new acreage with access to water in order to maintain their production. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Ranch LLC)

Next year is the great concern,  if the three-year drought continues and water deliveries from government water projects do not improve at least somewhat over the current allocations, which in many cases are as low as zero or very nearly so.

The Garlic Co. has been fortunate this year, in that the water issue “hasn’t affected us too much” directly, said Michael Layous,  a sales and marketing representative for The Garlic Co. in Bakersfield, CA. “Our growers have their own wells on their land, fortunately,” and those wells have not yet run out of water.

But with so many agribusiness concerns looking for land with water, there is tremendous competition for the land on which  The Garlic Co.’s growers are currently growing garlic.

“More and  more people are coming further south towards Kern County to try and get land, and our growers would be some of the people they are coming after, because they are having issues with their water further north towards Fresno,” he said.

Some crops, such as grapes or almonds, “can pay fairly well to a farmer,” so  The Garlic Co. expects that it will cost more to keep their growers in coming years if the water situation does not improve.

There is some hope for improvement for next year, as climatologists are talking about a high probability of an El Niño that could bring more rain and snow to California this fall and winter.

Unfortunately, California has not made any significant improvements in its water infrastructure, either with regard to storage or to conveyance, in decades, and environmental restrictions on both storage and conveyance have only intensified, so even if California receives abundant precipitation in the months ahead, much of it will just run off into the ocean.

Farmers in drought-stricken areas of the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and the Central Coast that have been hurting for water and already have had to fallow tens of thousands of acres of once productive land formerly devoted to growing garlic, onions, melons, citrus and many other crops can expect at best only a very modest uptick in their allotments.

Even in the midst of the drought, “The Bureau of Reclamation prematurely released 800,000 acre-feet of water last fall,” and then “failed to capture 500,000 acre-feet of water from rain and snow storms in February and March,” said California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen in a recent press release.  “This is the only nation in the world that has forsaken the production of food and fiber, and is actively putting farmers out of business.”

However, a wet winter would help to recharge the aquifers and keep the wells working for a while longer, although there is also talk in California of monitoring groundwater and restricting how much water a farmer can pump from his well.

“The California drought is a huge concern for all of agriculture,” said Louis Hymel, director of purchasing for Spice World Inc. in Orlando, FL, which has garlic operations in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley.

”Fortunately, we were able to get everything out of the ground securely this year,” said Hymel, referring to the harvesting of the 2014 garlic crop. “But next year, the [available] planting areas will decrease and costs are going to continue to rise. We are always looking for new virgin areas to grow, and that is always dictated by the availability of the water.”

There is much competition for the diminishing supply of irrigable land, and for a state that has been such an important supplier of so many fruit and vegetable commodities not only to the United States but to much of the world, “that is a grave concern,” he said. “Farmers are doing everything they can,” including drilling their wells deeper. But “there are a lot of challenges coming up,” including whether or not the state will “start regulating the ground water.”

Looking for land with available water on which to grow its 2015 crop is the No. 1 priority for Christopher Ranch this fall, according to President Bill Christopher.

“Of course it is going to cost us more,” because “the cost of water is going up” for everyone who does have water and there is intense competition for the available land. Growers of many commodities are “looking all up and down the state — and that is what we have done this last year. But next year will be our toughest challenge, for sure, to find enough acres.”

If the expected El Niño comes, Christopher was hopeful that the government would release more water. While agricultural water allotments this year were five percent or less, “if we can get that up to 25 or 30 percent, it will make a huge difference in all the towns in the Central Valley in getting people back to work.”

Acknowledging the dire need to have more places to store the water in those years when California does receive a surplus of precipitation, “trying to compete with the environmentalists” who object to damming rivers “is something that we will be fighting for a long time,” he said.

“I hate to say it,” Christopher continued, but perhaps if a shortage of water starts to affect “not only the farmers but the people in the cities” through the imposition of water rationing, even as billions of gallons of runoff are going out to sea, it may open some eyes.