California’s $2 billion citrus industry is not the only entity fighting for its very existence. Families that make up the fabric of the San Joaquin Valley are fighting for their livelihoods and their homes.
Decisions by state and federal officials to withhold surface water from California agriculture seem to be hitting citrus growers harder because of where citrus is predominantly grown and the source of the surface water used to irrigate those crops. The impacts of these decisions will severely harm many of the families living in these regions as their farms will dry up and die, taking with them the small businesses built over generations.
Orange Cove citrus grower and agronomy consultant Andrew Brown is fighting that battle right now, not just for himself, but for his wife and their two children that they hope will become the fifth generation of Browns to farm citrus in the San Joaquin Valley.
Theirs is a story that can be repeated by simply changing the last name. Family farmers produce crops on land they’ve purchased or leased. They shop in local stores, buying goods and services from their neighbors; their children attend local schools alongside the children of their employees and those of the couple that owns the local restaurant they frequent; they donate to local charities and causes, and they volunteer where necessary to make their communities a better place to live.
Among the many hats he wears Andrew Brown also serves as vice chairman of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a citrus trade association that represents about 60 percent of California’s 275,000 acres of citrus. His family primarily farms Mandarins, lemons and Navel oranges near Orange Cove, a tiny community along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada where Fresno and Tulare counties come together.
The region is filled with citrus trees and large wind machines used at times to protect groves from freezing temperatures. Orange Cove is also quintessential California: a street named Orange runs through it and a public campus named Citrus Middle School sits at the heart of the community.
Never so bad
This is the worst Brown has seen water supplies in his lifetime.
“This is one of the scariest moments in my career,” he said. “We’ve made it through freezes that otherwise could have wiped us out. Those are manageable with frost protection and crop insurance. Now we are at the mercy of things that simply should not be.”
Brown was referring to rules in place that no longer allow for California’s banked water storage to supply sufficient amounts of surface water to growers. Environmental regulations and court rulings have taken that water away from California farmers.
During California’s big drought of 1977 growers had about one million acre feet less water to draw from than they do today and still state and federal officials were able to supply them with sufficient water to get by.
“Our industry survived 1977,” Brown said. “People were hurt, but people survived. Now we’re looking at zero water. I’m very concerned for my future.”
Like his family, Brown’s citrus groves are relatively young. Many of his trees won’t produce a profitable crop for a few years. Until then those crops won’t help him recover the investment costs of buying the land, preparing the land and planting his crops. Not counting the cost of the land, Brown said he spent about $10,000 per acre on land preparations and the trees alone.
Some of those land preparation costs include installing micro irrigation systems to efficiently irrigate his crops and provide some frost-protection measures.
“I take exception to when people tell me I’m wasting water,” Brown said.
Citrus growers were early adopters of micro and drip irrigation systems he said. The fixed cost of installing the systems can be recovered after several years from the savings of water and micronutrients applied to the crops.
Brown is like many other growers in the San Joaquin Valley. They all have families to support and businesses to run, which in turn supports the economies of communities throughout the region.
“I’m just a small operation here,” Brown said. “You multiply me many times over and this is a very serious situation.”
Brown refuses to give up. He’s been able to purchase a limited supply of surface water of which he wouldn’t disclose the price, though reports of water sales early in 2014 exceeded $1,000 per acre foot and other reports of sales exceeding $2,000 per acre foot have more recently been circulated. Brown has a very limited supply of well water he hopes will be sufficient to keep his young trees alive until a wetter cycle can return to California.
Not watering his trees is not an option. They will die without it.
“Right now I’m farming for the finish line,” Brown says.
Brown’s region of Central California does not have ample access to ground water even in a good year. Underground aquifers in the region are more like shallow streams flowing directly beneath one’s feet rather than large pools of water able to augment the needs of the region. Moreover that water does not meet state and federal drinking water standards, making the Friant-Kern canal the only source of drinking water for the nearby city of Orange Cove and other San Joaquin Valley communities.
“You can’t just punch a hole in the ground out here and find water,” he said. “One of my neighbors drilled four dry test holes looking for water. This is quite common.”
It’s not just Brown who will suffer. Local packing houses like Cecilia Packing and the nearby Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association are already planning on fewer cartons of fresh-packed citrus to move through their operations next year.
Packing operations suffer
Cecilia Packing President David Roth says his operation also owns about 2,250 acres of citrus. About 70 acres of that will be pushed out of production for lack of water and another 70 acres waiting to be planted could be put on hold.
“Until we know how this situation is going to work out we might not plant,” Roth said.
Cecilia Packing Company processes about 1.2 million 40-pound carton equivalents of citrus each year, according to Roth. He estimates next year’s volume could be 10 percent lower because of the lost citrus production.
The nearby Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association runs about 2.2 million carton equivalents through its facility each year, according to General Manager Kevin Severns. He expects 30 percent of the acreage that ships to his packing house to be significantly impacted by the water shortage.
“And that’s probably a low estimate,” Severns said.
Severns also said the reduced volume will impact employees who look forward to overtime opportunities and the higher pay during harvest season.
Brown’s concerns are spread far and wide across what is called “California’s Citrus Belt,” a region that basically stretches from Fresno County, through Tulare County and into Kern County along the western edge of the southern Sierra Nevada. The zone is home to about 75 percent of California’s citrus production, which is primarily fresh-market fruit. By comparison, Florida’s citrus production is primarily a juice market.
About an hour’s drive south of Orange Cove is the community of Terra Bella, which will also be hit extremely hard because of the water cuts. That area is also solely reliant upon surface water from the Friant system and will likely see large blocks of citrus trees die this year for lack of water. Those are more families and more small businesses that could lose everything because state and federal officials cannot or will not allocate sufficient water resources for agricultural operations.
In what some thought could have been a ray of hope for California growers in mid-April with news that some water could flow to their farming operations because of late-season rains, citrus growers quickly learned that they would not be among those receiving surface water.
Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, blasted the state’s announcement after it was quickly learned that citrus growers along the federal Friant-Kern Canal system would not be among those with a 5 percent surface water allocation.
Citrus growers reliant on Friant water will still receive no water because of water rights issues and environmental regulations. This is 180 degrees out of phase from previous years when Friant users received ample surface water and growers along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley had their water supplies cut severely to favor environmental regulations. New rules have now put the Friant system growers in the same boat as western San Joaquin Valley growers.
“I continue to be mystified by the announcement and the inconsistencies it presents,” Nelsen said.
One of those inconsistencies, according to Nelsen, is the concurrent news that barriers earlier planned for the Delta region could be installed to slow or prevent salt water intrusion into critical areas where pumping stations operate. This means that the 5 percent allocation that otherwise could have helped keep some citrus trees alive in a zero-allocation year will instead be used to flush the Delta of salt and provide water for salmon and other protected fish species.
“The announcement and previous announcements all state that the public should strive to conserve at least 20 percent of their normal water user,” Nelsen continued. “Yet the producers I represent, and for that matter all producers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, are being told to give up 100 percent of their water. In fact, those in the Friant service area are the only contractors being asked to give up 100 percent of their water.”