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Wide-ranging impacts of the California drought expected this summer

Many farmers will use scarce water this summer to keep their permanent crops alive.
Agricultural operations ranging from small family farms to agribusiness giants are feeling the pinch of the California drought, reported Dale Kasler in the Sacramento Bee. Growers are fallowing land, tapping expensive groundwater and rationing supplies to keep their orchards and vineyards alive.

The article said west side farming giant Harris Ranch plans to fallow thousands of acres of cropland and use it's scarce water supplies to irrigate permanent crops: almonds, pistachios and asparagus. The ranch says it will hire at least 1,000 fewer field workers than usual this year.

“The trees are there. They can't be moved, they can't be put away,” said  David Goldhamer, UC Cooperative Extension specialist emeritus in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis.“They can't be put on hold for a year.”

Most growers will be able to squeeze out a crop, although some will have to settle for sprinkling just enough water on the trees to keep them alive. Goldhamer said yields will fall by as much as 25 percent, mainly because the almonds themselves won't grow to full size.

“You'll have a crop, (but) the nuts will be small,” Goldhamer said.

The Bee article also outlined the drought's projected impact on the state ag economy. The water coalition said farm production could fall by more than $3.5 billion, nearly a tenth of the usual $44 billion in annual production. Factoring in related businesses, the state's economy could lose $7.5 billion, the coalition said.

Richard Howitt, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, said at least 20,000 farmworkers will lose their jobs, putting enormous strain on areas of California where unemployment is typically in double-digit percentages even during good times.

A post in the Rural California Report blog of the California Institute for Rural Studies painted a more detailed portrait of the California ag economy during the drought.

Philip Martin, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economic at UC Davis, says that with a $1 million reduction in farm revenue, 20 to 50 jobs are lost. However, with less water, farmers shift their water use from low value crops like cotton to high value crops like melons. These high value crops located, for the most part, east of Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley, are also more labor intensive. This shift in water use could limit the effects of water losses on farm employment numbers. Martin estimates that there will be a reduction of irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley from 5 million to between 3.5 and 4 million acres.

Dan Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, summed up the impact of the current drought as follows:

“This is a real idling of land, and there is nothing positive about it. It's not fallowing — that implies a choice. This is not like North Dakota, where we know it's going to get better. We're talking either spending huge sums on bringing water in or thousands of acres lost.”

Posted on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 2:30 PM
Tags: Dan Sumner (31), drought (202), Philip Martin (5), Richard Howitt (12)

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