Water, labor biggest issues so far in 2007 season

Pests and disease problems haven’t made any headlines this year in California agriculture — but water and labor shortages, coupled with sky-high fuel prices, are having an impact on producers.

While relatively moderate spring temperatures delayed some of the grief, heat levels have now reached triple digits across much of the San Joaquin Valley.

“Water is an ongoing problem in the San Joaquin,” says Don Cameron, Terranova Ranch Manager at Helm. “With the Delta pumps shut down for two weeks, coupled with a dry winter, growers who rely on state and federal water are running out.”

Growers were already scouring the landscape looking for surplus water to buy when the state and federal water projects shut down the pumps, creating panic and chaos. Some had groundwater as a backup, but that’s expensive and quality is often poorer than surface water. Nevertheless, it does provide some irrigation water.

“A couple of weeks ago, water traded for $510 per acre foot for 100 acre feet of water,” Cameron says — a figure that is breathtaking.

“There is no legal crop in California to which you can economically apply $510 water,” says Mark Borba of Borba Ranches, Riverdale, Calif.

The state and federal pumps were turned back on 11 and 17 days after being silenced because Delta smelt were getting too close to the pumps.

It takes time for water to move south, so growers weren’t out of the woods as the heat wave lingered in the valley. What water was available went to permanent crops like almonds and grapes. Some growers abandoned row crops like cotton to preserve water for their more profitable and more valuable permanent crops.

Even in grape-growing areas that are not dependent on canal water, growers are feeling the effects of the dry winter.

“The State Water Quality Control Board has mandated conservation and reduced the Sonoma County Water Agency water rights by 15 percent this year,” says Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “Agriculture is being asked to conserve as well.”

As growers scramble to finish the crop, they are concerned about the labor supply for harvesting.

Although the passage of an immigration reform bill in this session of Congress would not likely help the situation now, it would at least give growers hope for the future.

“The labor issue in the United States needs to be resolved,” Cameron says.

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