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Kern County Produce

Drought remains wild card in Kern produce deals

Vegetable acreage is expected to be down this season in Kern County because of water cutbacks, but the question remains by how much.

In February, the state and federal water projects, which deliver the bulk of surface water supplies, announced they would make no agricultural water deliveries this year because of a meager snowpack.

An April 1 survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack was only 32% of normal, prompting water officials to say they most likely will not change their delivery projections.

Mark Mulkay, general manager of the Kern Delta Water District, Bakersfield, said he didn’t have any hard data about idled acreage.

He estimated that up to 30,000 acres that typically are double- or triple-cropped within his district will likely see only one planting this year. The district provides water to about 100,000 acres.

Historically with the multiple croppings, many growers would plant a short-season vegetable crop, then quickly turn around after harvest and put in another crop, such as corn for silage, he said.

“In my district, we have enough surface water for at least one crop,” Mulkay said, referring to the district’s Kern River water rights.

In addition, the district began a groundwater banking project in the mid- to late 1990s to augment underground water storage.

The Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s office also is looking into this season’s drought-induced acreage reductions, said agricultural biologist Cerise Montanio.

“We’re talking to growers about the drought and how they’re dealing with it,” she said. “I can tell you for vegetable crops, they’re row crops and they’re year to year, so there will be cuts. That’s a fact. And even if growers don’t have permanent acreage, they may not be planting because the prices are so high for the water.”

In some cases, growers with permanent crops, such as trees, nuts and vines, are fallowing row crop ground so they can divert that water to keep the trees and vines alive, she said.

In 2012, the last year for which full production figures are available, growers harvested 79,428 acres of vegetables in Kern County with a value of about $714.4 million, according to the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

That compares with 72,970 acres and $684.8 million in 2011.

Potatoes accounted for the largest percentage of the acreage and value both years.

In 2012, 16,890 acres of potatoes — mostly classified as spring spuds — were harvested with a total value of $85.1 million.


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