Besides the usual challenges associated with producing a viable citrus crop, California growers this season are struggling through what the governor’s office says is “the driest year in recorded state history.”
Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. proclaimed a drought state of emergency in January, and Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said 50,000 acres of citrus that rely on surface water are vulnerable.
Some growers are paying exorbitant prices for water just to keep their trees alive, Nelsen said. He hopes that tighter citrus supplies this year than last will help keep prices strong for growers. “Our guys paid a heck of a lot for water this year and have to get that money back,” he said. But he conceded that there’s a limit to what consumers will pay for citrus.
Two ranches that grow for Cal Citrus Packing Co., Lindsay, Calif., whose fruit is marketed by Sunkist Growers Inc., didn’t have wells and did not get water during the bloom period, said general manager Roy Bell. As a result, there was no crop from those ranches this year.
Conditions were better on other ranches that had wells and where “careful watering practices” were implemented.
“We actually set some pretty good crops wherever we had wells,” Bell said.
Some ranches that do not have wells bought just enough water to keep their trees alive, he said. They’re counting on a normal wet winter to pull their crops through.
Cal Citrus could see volume reduced by up to 12% this season because of a lack of water, Bell said.
The valencia orange crop, which is almost over for the season, already experienced effects of the drought, said Jeff Olsen, president of Chuck Olsen Co., Visalia, Calif.
The valencias were “very tired” and breaking down faster than normal, he said in late September.
“Everything is stressed,” he said.
He expected to ship valencias until the third week of October and said navels will be a “welcome site.”
How the drought impacts the navel crop may vary from place to place.
Some ranches will have normal sizing, and others, especially those in areas like Terra Bella and Orange Cove that are dependent on surface water, will have smaller-sized fruit, he said.
“It’s very erratic throughout the valley.”
Grower-shippers seemed more concerned about what might happen in the future than they were about the current season.
“The biggest impact of the drought is yet to come,” said Fred Berry, director of marketing for Mulholland Citrus, Orange Cove, Calif.
It’s not known what will happen if the state doesn’t get rain or snow during the winter, he said.
“Then we’re really in dire straits for next year,” Berry said.
The levels of reservoirs are down, and there is continual overdraft of groundwater, he said.
“Eventually, if things stay this way, there are going to have to be a lot of decisions made in terms of ground that goes fallow and crops that are abandoned,” he said.
It’s difficult to know what effect the drought will have on California’s citrus deal this year, agreed Randy Jacobsen, sales manager for Cecelia Packing Corp., Orange Cove.
But even if the state receives normal rainfall, it will take several wet years to recharge the groundwater, he said.
There was some good news in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Bell said.
Although the story said reports of an El Niño year, during which rainfall would be well above normal, may have been overstated, the article went on to say that there likely would not be an El Niña year, which would be excessively dry.
“That is encouraging,” Bell said. “The most important thing is to avoid the El Niña.”
“A normal year right now would be a blessing to all of us,” he said.