Farming in drought: A light year for cherries

Farming in drought: A light year for cherries
Posted April 30, 2014

Living in the Bay Area, it’s difficult to grasp the full impact of the current drought. April’s light rains have been enough to keep lawns green, wildflowers bloom by the roadside, and while there’s talk of conservation, there are few restrictions on residential water use in our counties and cities. Traveling I-5 through the Central Valley paints a different picture: among the countless rows of almond, cherry, and stone fruit trees lining the freeway from Stockton to Bakersfield, whole orchards have been left for dead; acres of bare white limbs stand like ghosts in California’s most productive agricultural region. “Consumers know there’s a drought, but they don’t realize the scope of it,” said Raj Iyer, who grows cherries, almonds, and stone fruit on Iyer Farms in Gustine, 60 miles south of Stockton. Iyer’s access to federal water has been shut off. His local water district is rationing at 25 to 30 percent of the usual supply. Well-drilling companies are booked for 10 months or more. And anyone who owns rights to water is selling it for upwards of $2,000 per acre-foot (the non-drought value being $50-70 per acre-foot). “It’s so bad this year that if we don’t get a wet winter, there’s a serious chance that California agriculture may collapse,” Iyer said. “The largest industry in California may just go down the toilet.” As fruit crops begin to hit markets and the growing season approaches its peak, Iyer and other farmers expect that consumers will finally feel the drought’s full effect on the price, quality, and availability of food.

Raj Iyer holds a ripening cherry, a blossom, and an aborted fruit. It is very rare for a cherry tree to have all three of these at the same time. The scattered bloom caused by the warm summer will mean a smaller harvest this year.Raj Iyer holds a ripening cherry, a blossom, and an aborted fruit. It is very rare for a cherry tree to have all three of these at the same time. The scattered bloom caused by the warm summer will mean a smaller harvest this year.[/caption]

A light year for cherries The first orchard crop of the year, cherries may give consumers their first real taste of drought. Farmers up and down the Central Valley are expecting extremely light cherry yields -- but it’s not because of the lack of water itself. The unusually warm winter that came alongside the drought “confused the trees,” Iyer said. Cherry trees all across California bloomed early and unevenly. As Iyer explains it, once a cherry tree sets its first blooms, the tree begins to emit ethylene gas, which prevents later blooms from setting. In normal conditions, this prevents the tree from carrying more fruit than it’s able to support -- this year, it means the harvest is going to be early, but very small. “There’s only one benefit from all this,” Iyer said. When there’s less crop on the trees, each cherry is better, bigger, and sweeter, “so there’s going to be some really, really good cherries out this year -- just not very many of them.”

Rising costs, rising prices With the light harvest and the skyrocketing cost of water, cherry prices will likely be higher this year than last. Across the board, the price of California produce is expected to rise 10 to 15 percent this year, according to the California Farm Water Coalition. That increase may actually be felt less at farmers’ markets than supermarkets, since farmers report feeling more accountable to customers they see face-to-face each week. Anticipating a $60,000 or more cost to upgrade to his well-water infrastructure if water district allocations dry up, Guy Allard of Allard Farms expects his farmers’ market prices may need to come up a little bit, spread out over many years, to keep his farm running. Allard Farms grows cherries, almonds, and stone fruit in Westley, 30 miles south of Stockton. Until he must increase prices, however, Allard hopes to keep them close to last year’s. “We’re going to sell [cherries] as cheap as we can and still make a decent profit at it,” he said. “And be here for years to come, I hope.”

Guy Allard examines the fruit in his cherry orchard.►Guy Allard examines the fruit in his cherry orchard.

The future of orchard fruit An early season, high-value crop, many farmers have diverted as much water as possible to keeping their cherry orchards alive this year. Almond orchards, too, are being watered at the sacrifice of other, less valuable crops. Farmers have thousands to millions of dollars invested in their trees, which provide decades of income compared to a few months’ yield on a field of broccoli or kale. It takes a cherry tree five years to come into production, making it hard to recover from any unplanned tree loss. “If I don’t have enough water and my trees die,” said Allard, “to be pretty blunt, I’m out of business.”

Some farmers, including Iyer, are sacrificing older orchards to keep younger ones productive. According to both Iyer and Allard, friends and neighbors who grow row crop vegetables have left fields fallow to keep their orchards watered, which will likely affect the price and availability of tomatoes, peppers, and more starting this summer. With the early crop of cherries this year, Allard said he could water these trees less after the harvest wraps up, and therefore give more to his almond trees. But he admits that could affect the size and quality of several years’ future harvests. Relying on well water, which is high in minerals and salts, could also hurt his trees in the long run, he said. As he navigates these tough decisions in response to the worst drought his 100-year-old farm has ever seen, “it’s not just this year we’ve got to worry about,” he said. Standing in his orchard, Raj Iyer examines a cluster of unevenly-ripening cherries while a mower takes down the water-sucking weeds coming up between the rows. “I was once told that there are three secrets to farming,” he says, “They are water, water, and water. Without that, nothing else matters.”

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