The worsening drought is top of mind for many involved in the California spring vegetable deal.
Although vegetable grower-shippers along the Pacific Coast and the east side of the San Joaquin Valley may be in a slightly better water situation than their counterparts on the valley’s west side, they nonetheless have drought on their minds.
“We don’t have the uncertainty of the allocations and knowing we’re not going to get any (water), but we’re still very concerned,” said Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau, Watsonville, Calif.
He was referring to surface water deliveries from state and federal water projects upon which growers in the Central Valley rely.
Both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project have told growers they plan to make no contract deliveries this year because of meager snowpack in the Sierra Nevada.
Citing the driest January on record and mountain snowpack of less than 20%, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in January, setting in motion government-funded water conservation programs and other drought-relief efforts.
Historically, Westside growers relied on state and federal deliveries as their primary irrigation source. But since the 1997-2003 drought and subsequent environmental legislation that reduced surface deliveries, many have installed wells.
Mark Adamak, Tanimura & Antle director of mixed lettuces and romaine, said the Salinas, Calif.-based grower-shipper cut back on rotational crops this year to save water for its core business.
“I don’t believe (the drought) will affect our core business,” he said.
The operation, which has fields near Panoche Hills and Harris Ranch, installed drip irrigation several years ago and uses it for all of its lettuce.
In addition, T&A plans to bring a couple of deep wells online this spring to provide the crops additional water.
Most growers along the coast have never received surface deliveries and instead have relied on wells and groundwater. However, pumping too much groundwater can cause saltwater intrusion, Jess Brown said.
Over the years, many vegetable growers in his county have converted from flood to the more efficient drip irrigation. In addition, they’ve adopted other water-saving technologies.
Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside organic Gardens, Watsonville, for example, has installed drip and adopted other conservation measures that have cut water use by about 50% over the years.
Many Ventura County growers also rely on groundwater and so far haven’t experienced mandatory restrictions, said Peter Oill, sales and marketing director for the B Organic brand of Oxnard, Calif.-based Boskovich Farms Inc.
“Ag takes precedent,” he said. “In Ventura, ag probably employs 70% of the people, so it’s an ag area, and vegetablewise, we haven’t had many problems yet. But it’s been tough — people now can’t water their lawns.”
Todd Hirasuna, general manager of Selma, Calif.-based Sunnyside Packing Co., said his water situation is “temporarily OK.”
“But if something doesn’t happen soon, we’ll all be in the same boat,” he said.
Growers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, where he is, pump from the same aquifer as those on the drought-stricken west side, and the underground reservoir is already overdrafted and levels are dropping.
“We’re better off than the guys on the west side but not where anybody’s comfortable,” Hirasuna said. “If the trend continues for the next two to three years, I think the number of reported dry wells will start to climb.”
He said he’s already starting to hear of vegetable ground in California’s Stockton and Manteca areas being converted over to permanent crops, such as walnuts and almonds.
With greater potential returns and less labor requirements, nut crops are more economically attractive than vegetables, he said.
“In the short run, the overall mixed vegetable deal in the valley will continue to shrink,” Hirasuna said, adding he had heard of as many as 600 acres of hard-shell squash going out of production in the northern San Joaquin Valley this season.