Farming in Drought: Tomato growers embrace the heat
In late May, UC Davis published a drought impact report projecting 410,000 acres of farmland left fallow, 14,500 jobs lost, and a $1.7 billion hit to our state’s agricultural economy. Since tomatoes can be a water-intensive crop, we expected that when we set out to ask farmers about the drought’s effect on their tomatoes, we would hear they were planting less, anticipating smaller yields, making changes to their seed orders for next year, and worrying about the future of their farms. The truth? “To be honest,” said Phil Rhodes of Country Rhodes Family Farm in Visalia, “this is our best year ever.” Like many farmers, Rhodes is very concerned about water — the water level in his well has dropped about a foot a year since the 1990s, to the point where he must invest upwards of $50,000 to drill it deeper in the next year — but for now, the heat accompanying the drought has been a boon to his tomato crop, which came in early and strong.
Rhodes brought his first tomatoes to farmers’ markets in mid-May, several weeks earlier than normal. As long as he has water in his well, Rhodes’ farm is not impacted by water rationing by local or federal water districts. Farmers who rely on water from those sources are facing more dire circumstances: Rhodes admits that in the southern Central Valley region where his farm is located, he sees other farmers leaving fields unplanted. Those unplanted fields may mean that vegetable farmers who have ground water access, farm in areas less impacted by the drought, or whose infrastructure, climate, and soil conditions allow for less water usage will see increased demand for their crops. So while the drought has substantial implications for California agriculture on the whole, farmers like Rhodes are doing well in spite or even because of it.
Ron Enos, who owns certified organic Enos Family Farms in Brentwood, also expects he’ll have a good year with his tomatoes. In his region, many of his neighbors are larger-scale farms growing processing tomatoes, which means that demand for his fresh tomatoes is high. While the high-heat conditions accompanying the drought spelled trouble for his winter and spring vegetables (which do best in cooler conditions), the hot dry summer bodes well for his summer crops. He also uses less water than many farmers in his region: over the last few years, Enos has transitioned to using a black plastic mulch in combination with drip irrigation for many of his crops, which cut his water usage to about 30 percent of what he needed before. Another method for using less water on fruiting crops like tomatoes and squash is dry farming: a method of cutting irrigation early in a plant’s life and forcing it to rely only on existing soil moisture.
Some vegetable varieties do especially well in these conditions, which result in smaller, more flavorful fruit. While it’s near impossible to dry farm in the extreme climate of the Central Valley, it works well in coastal regions where the soil retains some moisture through the summer. Thomas Farm in Aptos, south of Santa Cruz, grows organic dry-farmed tomatoes along with other annual vegetables and many varieties of cut flowers.
Josh and Kari Thomas are currently experimenting with dry-farming tomato varieties other than the standard Early Girl. If the drought continues, they said, they may need to transition some of their water-demanding flower fields into vegetable rows. While organic flowers are a very high-value crop for their farm, unfortunately, Josh said, “people don’t buy drought-tolerant flowers.” For now, the Thomases are holding off on seed and seedling orders for next summer, waiting to see what winter and a much-anticipated El Niño have in store.
Kari Thomas checks out her farm's Early Girl tomato rows, which she and her husband dry farm by cutting irrigation off when plants are about a foot tall. Photo by Sarah Trent.[/caption] “There’s not a day goes by that we don’t talk about rain,” said Kari. “There’s a little bit of denial there,” she added. Farmers everywhere and in every climate rely so heavily on weather conditions that they are used to taking each season in stride, adapting as needed and moving forward with their businesses however they can. Echoing most of the farmers we’ve spoken to while covering this year’s drought, she and Josh said, quite simply: “Hopefully it just rains.” But, Kari adds, surveying their rows of dahlias, cosmos, tomatoes, potatoes, and onions tucked into a quiet coastal valley, “never has a winter had so much pressure on it.”