#9 story of 2009: California growers face fallout of water restrictions, drought

01/04/2010 11:38:36 AM
Dan Galbraith

Water shortages causing concern for the fresh produce industry seems like a perennial issue, and, with Mother Nature again failing to cooperate with the industry — particularly in many growing regions of California — the water issue made The Packer’s Top 10 stories of 2009.

The topic picked up steam as industry officials not only pondered future perils but also debated policy, kicking around terms such as “water rights.”

On Nov. 5, at the 32nd annual meeting of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, the industry reexamined the delta smelt case and the Environmental Species Act in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

Water loss took its toll on California grower-shippers in 2009 by shrinking fall produce deals.

Reduce acreage

California’s ongoing water woes reduced plantings of fall lettuce in the Huron area of the San Joaquin Valley.

Many California grower-shippers, suffering from a third consecutive year of drought and court-ordered reductions in water shipments, cut back on lettuce acreage. Still others opted out of Huron.

Some Huron-area growers purchased water at premium prices from other irrigation districts.

The burden of supplying fall lettuce fell on the shoulders of those who grow only vegetables. Some reduced acreage.

Fall head lettuce acreage in 2008 fell to 7,100, down more than 14% from 2007, according to the county’s 2008 annual report.

Back in 2004, the county reported that fall head lettuce grew on more than 10,000 acres, and there was another 9,000 acres of leaf lettuce.

Broccoli acreage for Pappas & Co., Mendota, Calif., was down 70% from last year — all because of a lack of irrigation water, said salesman Gene Van Bebber.

Water supply worries not only affected California in 2009 but also Mexico’s neighboring Baja California.

Despite the effects of three consecutive dry years, California tomato grower-shippers remained guardedly optimistic.

Faced last year with the options of cheaper water that could be turned off or paying higher water rates, Oceanside Produce Inc., Oceanside, elected to open the purse strings, said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing.

However, the company was not prepared to let water districts dictate its future.

California growers facing the driest conditions are the ones in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Water is a huge issue,” said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, a cooperative based in Fresno.


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