CALIFORNIA is suffering one of its worst ever droughts and if it continues, social and economic dislocation is set to increase for rural communities.
The US’s biggest agricultural-production State is enduring its third consecutive drought year, with expectations farm-related income will be cut significantly.
The California Farm Water Coalition recently estimated that 800,000 acres (324,000 hectares) of the State’s farm land would be idle in 2014, sparking about $2.7 billion in crop losses.
California Farm Bureau Federation communications manager Dave Kranz said most of that un-farmed acreage would comprise fresh vegetable and field crops.
Lettuce, broccoli, garlic, onions, bell peppers, cantaloupes, citrus and tomato crops are expected to be hit hardest by the lack of water in 2014.
“California produces the bulk of processing tomatoes for sauce and salsa in the US so we think that’s one of the crops that will cut back most because of the drought,” he said.
“There’s also a lot of concern about nut crops because a lot of almonds have been planted in regions where water supplies are most dire.
“In some cases, those farmers may get enough water to keep their trees alive but not necessarily enough water to produce a crop.”
Mr Kranz said based on weather records kept over the past 150 years, it was California’s fourth driest period in history, and was “all but certain” to reduce the US$44.7 billion contribution agriculture made to the State’s economy in 2012.
“We’re going to have a reduction in California’s crop production overall, but just how large of a proportion that will be is a little hard to know right now,” he said.
Californian cattle ranchers were some of the first to suffer drought impacts due to there being little or no pasture which has forced them to sell early and reduce their herds, or manage the operation on minimum stock levels.
“If it doesn’t rain in the coming year, many cattle ranchers will be forced to make some tough decisions about their future,” he said.
Mr Kranz said while an estimated 800,000 acres of farmland will be left fallow this year, many more acres of irrigated farmland won’t receive full water supplies.
That land may be supplemented with ground water supplies or face the prospects of only producing a partial crop, depending on late season rains.
He said farmland in the Sacramento Valley and eastern San Joaquin Valley is typically more cushioned from the impacts of reduced water allocation but “are not being cushioned this year”.
“Most of our rainfall season in California is from December through to March but those months have already passed and were very dry,” he said.
“We’re getting a bit of rain now that will help but we know that typically, by the end of March, we’ve got about as much rain as we can expect for the year, so it’s going to be a hard year.
“We have a very complex and convoluted water distribution system in California, and farmers get their water from several different sources and sometimes a combination of different sources on farm.
“We go through droughts periodically and typically the impact on agricultural water supplies tends to be focused in the Western San Joaquin Valley which has some of the richest farmland in the State.
“It’s hard for farmers in that area to get water, even in very wet years, because a lot of the water supply is redirected for environmental purposes.
“So when we have a dry year like this one, they get zero water allocation.
“However, this year is different because many other people, who don’t usually get zero allocation, are facing that scenario for the first time.”
Push for more water storage
Mr Kranz said the federal government provided low interest loans to farmers and emergency feed programs for livestock.
But he said the Californian Farm Bureau was using the drought crisis as an example to show why the State needed more water storages.
He said the California Farm Water Coalition estimated the State’s farmers were probably producing double the tonnage of food, on the same volume of water they used about 40 years ago.
But he said to survive in future, they’ll need more water storages while continuing to improve operating efficiencies or water recycling and desalination.
“One of the main things we’re asking our State and federal officials to do is move on some of the water storage projects that have been reviewed and discussed but have sort of languished for several years waiting approval,” he said.
“We basically think all options have to be on the table.
“To feed California’s existing population of 38 million people, which will continue to grow, and maintain the environment, we’ll probably need to have a lot more water in storage than we have now, to add some more flexibility to the system.
“Everybody knows what the projects are but it’s hard to get anything built.”
But Mr Kranz said if the drought continued for another year or more there would be only be increased social and economic dislocation than what had already occurred.
“Farmers say, ‘well I can get through this year but I’m worried about next year’ and you hear that a lot,” he said.
“But for many farmers, next year is here and they’re already in a serious situation.
“If the drought continues, it’s very likely you’ll see that situation worsen, especially for farmers in the hardest hit areas.
“It’s something nobody wants to contemplate very much, but we certainly recognise that it’s likely to last.
“As our president has said, we don’t know if we’re in year three of a three-year drought or year three of a ten-year drought.
“The main help we could get would be to have a good winter in 2014.”
Year of missed opportunities
Mr Kranz said before the drought started, many Californian crops and commodities were in high demand, which was a key reason for many almond crops being planted.
“People just can’t get enough almonds, it’s a big export crop,” he said.
“We’re selling almonds all over the world along with walnuts and pistachios - a lot of our nut crops are very popular and have done very well.
“The prices have been strong for those crops and others, irrespective of the drought, so obviously that’s helped cushion the blow a little bit.”
But Mr Kranz said many Californian farmers would still suffer “a lot of missed opportunity” in 2014.
“Cattle prices have been high which has helped those farmers who’ve had to sell their animals but you can’t take advantage of a good market if you don’t have anything to sell,” he said.
“People feel like California has had a pretty good agricultural economy for the past four or five years.
“We’re fond of saying agriculture is one of the sectors of the economy that helped California get through the big recession we had because production kept going and didn’t slump like housing and tourism and other sectors of the economy.
“But we need water to make that happen and that’s certainly going to be a real limiting factor this year and possibly in future years as well.”
Cattle sell-off underway
Californian cattle rancher Jon Wooster said the extreme lack of rainfall during the winter months and growing season has left him with no carry over feed heading into this year and only enough pasture to last another month.
Some rainfall in January and late March has helped boost recent growth but he still expects his pasture paddocks to be “dried up and brown” during the approaching summer period.
“This has been about as tough a year as I’ve seen in 40 years because of the lack of rain and the lack of forage,” he said.
“You can usually take one dry year because you go into the new season with a lot of carryover feed and that’ll last a long time.
“You can take one year of drought which is tough but when you get several years in a row like we’ve had, each one gets worse.
“Most of the dams are dry because there was no rain last year or this year and a lot of the wells and aquifers are going dry that have never been dry before.”
Mr Wooster is president of the US Cattlemen’s Association and operates a cattle ranch at San Lucas in Monterey County on the Californian central coast.
He said the drought’s impact on cattle numbers in California was as yet unknown.
But he said many ranchers were “liquidating right now” due to the lack of forage and insufficient feed supplies to sustain livestock through to next winter.
“Some people are trying to hold onto a few cattle but most are liquidating their entire stock,” he said.
“They’re selling off calves right now that weigh 200 to 450 pounds (90 to 200kg) which is unheard of in this country.
“You normally wouldn’t sell any calves until they weighed 600 to 700 pounds (270 to 320kg) and a lot of mother cows are selling now too because we just can’t feed them.
“I’m a moderate sized operation but can easily see where I’ll have to sell probably 50 per cent or more of my herd.
“I know a lot of Australian farmers are also going through a horrific drought this year.
“But whether you’re in the US or Australia, many producers face the same kind of challenges, like the weather and markets, just on different continents.
“However I’d rather fight markets than the weather, any day.”