Courtesy Harris FarmsJohn Harris, right, chief executive officer of Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms, discusses water policy with Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a May 2013 Western Growers Association meeting in Washington, D.C.Spring lettuce will be one of the first crop casualties if water allocations to Fresno County growers — already just 20% last year — are eliminated this year.
Duda Farm Fresh Foods, which operates a transitional deal in Huron, Calif., plans to skip that production. And Harris Farms, based in the county, will probably abandon the 3,000 acres it devotes to lettuce — 1,500 each in the spring and fall — said William Bourdeau, executive vice president.
Initial water allocations, expected around March 1, are almost certain to be zero according to Fresno, Calif.-based Westlands Water District.
“A lot of land is going to be fallow and a lot of people are going to be unemployed,” Bourdeau said. “Everyone’s scrambling.”
The district’s bleak assessment came in response to a Jan. 3 snow survey by the California Department of Water Resources that underscored the state’s drought problem. Growers, though, argue that pumping restrictions and water policy make their situation worse than it need be.
For Harris Farms, stopping spring and fall production would mean about 72 million fewer heads of lettuce – mostly romaine and iceberg – hitting the market. Altogether, the company plans to fallow 9,000 of its 14,000 Westside acres. Among affected crops are melons, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli and cabbage.
“The only reason we’re not fallowing more is because the rest are permanent crops — either almonds, pistachios or asparagus,” Bourdeau said.
Duda Farm Fresh Foods plans to extend its Yuma, Ariz., season on leaf items and start early in the Salinas Valley to make up for the loss of Huron lettuce in late March and early April. It’s about a three-weak deal.
“For the first time ever, we’re not going to Huron this spring,” said Sammy Duda, vice president. “Our grower didn’t know what allocation if any he would get. It’s not final that we’re never going back, but it’s had an impact on our program.”
Duda expects no supply gap, but spring gaps could become more common if Huron proves unfeasible in future years.
“There’s a reason we switch districts when we do,” he said. “You’re trying to be in the best place all the time and each of these growing districts has a normal beginning and end. Any time you stretch those windows, you’re in less certain territory.”
Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce, on the other hand, anticipates only a slight reduction in its Huron acreage for iceberg, said Mark McBride, salesman. In recent years some Salinas companies, such as D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California, stopped going to Huron for various reasons. Improved growing techniques and varieties in Yuma extended the season there, shortening the Huron transition. Others still consider it an important transition.
“The problem is not so much the drought as the pumping restrictions,” Bourdeau said. “(In December 2012) 1 million acre feet of water was let out to the ocean because of pumping restrictions. Then a long drought started. If you could have put that water into the reservoirs, it would be easier to manage the situation.”
Pumping restrictions are related to federal protection for the endangered delta smelt.
“Two years ago, there were heavy rains and snowpack,” Duda said. “Water was released all summer to get reservoirs ready for winter. These were virtual flood control conditions, but the Westside still got less than 50% of its allocation. There’s no question policy played a role.”
“I am depressed and disappointed that this fertile farming area with a great history of high quality spring and fall lettuce for decades may fade out of existence,” said John Harris, chairman and chief executive officer of Coalinga, Calif.-based Harris Farms.
“A huge hit is taken by the Western Fresno County economy if it suddenly goes away due to the draconian water policies we face,” Harris said.
“As I understand it, most delta smelt killed are killed by striped bass,” Bourdeau said. “Instead of addressing that, the pumps are restricted. The smelt’s health and vitality haven’t improved.”
“First off, the governor and president need to declare a drought emergency,” he said. “They need to operate within the biological opinion protecting the (smelt) but in a way that can maximize water transfers and pumping. They have some ability to use their judgment. There is some tolerance and range, and they need to operate at the higher end.”
After initial water allocations, subsequent allocations can adjust the amount. Last year’s allocation in the district dropped to 20% after starting at 25%. In 2012, it was adjusted up from 30% to 40%.
This year, even if there’s a zero allocation and it’s adjusted up, growers may not have time to react, given the planning crops require.