A new report warns Kern County agriculture will face tough challenges in the decades ahead as climate change makes irrigation water scarcer and weather conditions more variable and intense.
The study concludes these hurdles "ultimately challenge the ability to maximize production while ensuring profitability." But it also predicts impacts will vary by crop, with almond production benefiting somewhat while growers of pistachios, grapes, oranges and carrots face overall difficult conditions.
The report was put together by the California Department of Food and Agriculture in cooperation with the San Diego-based Climate Science Alliance. Intended to promote climate-change resilience among the state's farmers, it presents information gathered during workshops, surveys and interviews with growers as well as researchers and technical advisors.
Kern ag figures prominently in the report, which also looked at farming in Imperial, Riverside and San Diego Counties. It noted Kern, specializing in grapes, almonds, pistachios and many other specialty crops, is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country with $7.25 billion in gross output in 2017.
The general prediction is that temperatures will rise in the coming decades, with summer and winter highs exceeding previous norms. There will be more frequent and intense heat waves as well as greater variability leading to more cold snaps.
At the same time there is expected to be less precipitation as droughts become more frequent and intense, the report states. But like the temperature forecast, the report says variability and intensity of precipitation are likely to increase, raising the chances of floods.
Local farmers have long faced variable and intense weather and ever-changing conditions. In recent years, as in decades past, they have weathered heat waves that sometimes lower the quality of their cherries and cold snaps that can ruin their mandarins or reduce the effectiveness of pollination.
But more than these, water availability has taken their focus lately because of groundwater-pumping restrictions imposed by Sacramento after Central Valley farmland literally sank amid overuse during recent droughts.
The Kern County Farm Bureau on Thursday issued a comment on the new report. It specifically mentioned only the report's implications for water availability.
“Kern County has been able to sustain its economic vitality within the agricultural space due to its Mediterranean climate and most importantly delivery of surface water supplies," the statement read. "If the climate report as provided by CDFA is correct in its thesis then the importance of continued delivery of surface water supplies to the South Valley remains paramount."
"The sustainability and resilience of Kern County communities is solely dependent on realistic collaborative efforts by stakeholder parties, and the agricultural industry pledges to do its part to remain viable for the long haul," the bureau's statement continued. "Farmers and ranchers are resilient and have worked within Mother Nature’s parameters from the genesis of organized agriculture, which is why California ag is unique and productive; the new challenge is adapting to rules and restrictions imposed by regulatory bodies."
The report's good news was that farmers have an important role in adapting to and perhaps helping cushion the impacts of climate change.
"There are many strategies and actions farmers can and are taking to address these impacts, including shifts to more efficient management of water and irrigation, adoption of advanced technologies, and selection of new crop varieties and species," the report states. "Other strategies include a suite of soil management practices, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage and crop rotation that can increase soil health and carbon sequestration."
Almonds, a key crop in Kern County that has seen expanded acreage during the past decade, will likely do better as temperatures rise, according to the report.
But it also says the nut's bloom period might shorten, endangering pollination, while severe storms could damage orchards. Also mentioned in the report is the potential for more fungal disease attacking almond trees, reduced water supply and less fog, which helps ensure production quality.
Oranges, also popular among Kern growers, could suffer "scorching" of their blooms amid higher temperatures, the study says. It adds that chances of frost damage will diminish even as wildfires and flooding become bigger threats.
Table grapes, Kern's top-grossing crop in recent years, will suffer as temperatures rise and autumn precipitation declines, according to the report.
For pistachio growers, higher temperatures and less fog will take away some of the "chill hours" trees need to produce at their best, according to the report.
The study says another important crop in Kern, carrots, don't do well in extreme heat. Although milder winters may be of help, it says, carrots also depend on higher-quality water and lots of it. Neither of those factors are forecast to improve in the coming decades.