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Kern farmers make do under drought conditions

Kern County ag producers are making changes big and small — from redeveloping entire orchards to fine-tuning their irrigation systems — as they try to adjust to worsening drought conditions across the Central Valley.

Strategies vary depending on access to water and ability to shift irrigation to different fields. Some landowners are trying to hold onto as much water as they can in case prices rise later in the year.

Complicating every equation is California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It limits how much can be pumped from irrigation wells. Because of local water banking, some growers do expect to tap groundwater for irrigation this year.

After a dry winter more than half the state is in extreme drought. In March, Sacramento announced State Water Project contractors will receive just 5 percent of their allocation this year, the third-smallest in the project's history.

"Growers with permanent crops will be making difficult decisions if their surface water allocations are limited this year," Kern County Farm Bureau President John C. Moore III said by email.

The price of water for sale is already raising eyebrows at close to $1,000 per acre-foot in some cases, and expectations are that it could more than double as the year goes on.

STARTING OVER

Kern County table grape, tree nut and citrus grower Martin Hein, who also manages orchards and vineyards in different counties, said some property owners are choosing to take out almond orchards nearing the end of their productive life. In their place they're redeveloping with pistachios.

Pistachios take longer to mature into production than almonds but they have far greater longevity and are currently enjoying strong prices, while almond prices are at their lowest in more than a decade. Importantly, Hein said, switching from almonds to pistachios during a drought lowers water needs as the young trees slowly mature. Plus, pistachios can live in more marginal soils with lower water quality.

"For those without water contracts or state supply allocations," he said, "this is a great time to remove your orchards and begin preparing to redevelop it."

Some farmers are ramping up their use of what's called deficit irrigation. They cut back irrigation schedules to provide just enough water to avoid shriveled or under-sized fruit. The risk is that unless the soil is later rinsed, or leached, impurities remaining near roots can endanger future yields.

BETTER VIEW

High technology is coming more into play as well as farmers using advanced imagery to spotlight areas in their fields that might need attention if they're going to produce efficiently.

To focus on hot spots that might need more water, growers are turning to satellites and multispectral imagery, Blake Sanden, a University of California Cooperative Extension emeritus irrigation soils advisor and advanced irrigation management consultant, said by email.

Otherwise, he wrote, there are four options: fallow land, convert from flooding to drop irrigation, deficit irrigate or buy water on the open market.

The emphasis on water efficiency has created a lot of work for Brian Hockett, an irrigation mobile lab consultant managing the North West Kern Resource Conservation District. He tests local growers' irrigation systems to make sure they're running efficiently.

Anything over 90 percent efficiency is good, he said. But earlier this year he found some at about 70 percent, even 50 percent, which he said means part of a crop is getting half the water it needs.

HIGH DEMAND

Normally Hockett does 125 to 150 tests in a year. He said this year he'll probably exceed 220, working almost entirely in Kern.

"Obviously water's a precious commodity and (growers) need to be as efficient as possible in the use of that water," he said.

Moore said this year he will dedicate less acreage than normal to fall row crops in order to live within his contracted water supply from the local water district.

Depending on individual circumstances, he said, more land will have to be fallowed.

"The reality of the situation is that limits on agricultural productivity will occur until the available surface water supplies are provided as agreed to and paid for in state water contracts," he wrote. "It can’t be overstated: The state needs to meet its contracts and allow our agricultural community to best utilize a resource that we pay for on an annual basis."

BOTTOM LINE

Hein, the local grower and farm manager for institutional clients, said despite the drought delivering lower financial returns, this year is not an option for large property owners.

He said if that means transferring water within a district from an older orchard to a younger one, then holding onto some remaining supply for sale later in the year, then that might be what it takes.

"We don't get time out for the teachers' and judges' pensions funds" just because there's a drought, he said. "We're managing water, a very limited resource."