The Drought and Our Farmers

The Drought and Our Farmers
Posted March 14, 2014

The potential implications of a sustained drought on our state’s farmers and our state’s economy are very worrisome. At the end of February, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story headlined “California Almond Farmers Face Tough Choices,” which addressed the impact of the drought on just one sector of the farming community – almond farmers. The article profiled farmers who are choosing to remove mature, productive almond trees because they don’t have enough water to maintain them.

To get additional perspective on this issue, we turned to Les Portello, a founding member of the PCFMA Board of Directors who, after retiring from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, had a successful career as an almond farmer. Les explained that almond trees must either be provided with sufficient water to remain healthy, or be removed. Trees that are not provided with enough water develop pests that can spread even to healthy, irrigated trees in the orchard. The decision to remove trees is serious as it creates long term financial implications for the farm. Once the drought has ended and an almond farmer decides to replant trees, it will be many years before the harvests from the new trees are equal to that of the mature trees that were removed.

Les said that advances in soil and plant science allow new trees to begin producing two to three years after being planted, where it used to take five years to collect a harvest from a new tree. However, even with these scientific advances, it will take seven to eight years for these new trees to fully develop. That means these farmers, even if the drought were to end next winter, will be feeling the economic impacts past the year 2020. Les also mentioned that the issue for farmers is not just the amount of water that is available, but the quality of the water.

Some farms are able to use wells to extract water from underground aquifers, but the high salt content of the water that is pumped up is harmful to salt-sensitive crops like almonds. The water delivery systems that have been built to move water throughout our state’s agricultural regions are important not just for the quantity of the water that they deliver, but also for the water’s quality.

The family farmers that sell in PCFMA’s farmers’ markets are facing these kinds of decisions about their future every day, basing their decisions on factors of water and weather that they cannot control or predict. As someone who enjoys the fruits of their labor, it is important to me that they have the water they need to grow the crops which help feed our families and our communities. And it is important that Bay Area communities have sufficient water to be able to remain economically vibrant so its residents can continue to purchase locally grown fruits, vegetables and nuts. There are no easy answers to the state’s water issues, but until the drought breaks, I hope we can all do our part to share this precious resource.  

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