Tak­ing crops to new lows

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - BRADLEY ZINT bradley.zint@la­times.com

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, Santa Ana winds swept through a sunny, 200-acre swath of Irvine where a quiet ex­per­i­ment could have a ma­jor im­pact in the blue­berry world.

Dar­ren Haver, direc­tor of the South Coast Re­search and Ex­ten­sion Cen­ter, pointed to a patch­work of the berries. For three years, five pipes have been ap­ply­ing vary­ing amounts of wa­ter to sec­tions of the crop. The goal, Haver said, is dis­cov­er­ing just how lit­tle wa­ter it takes for the blue­ber­ries to be both eco­nom­i­cally vi­able for grow­ers and tasty enough for con­sumers.

It’s an ex­per­i­ment in a drought-stricken Cal­i­for­nia agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity that’s gain­ing rel­e­vance ev­ery day.

If Haver and his team dis­cover that magic wa­ter num­ber, they want to make it known.

“Part of my job as an ad­vi­sor is to take that in­for­ma­tion and put it in a for­mat that a farmer could use or the gen­eral public could use,” he said. “It’s my job to dis­till it down.”

The South Coast Re­search and Ex­ten­sion Cen­ter was es­tab­lished in 1956 as part of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem’s agri­cul­tural and hor­ti­cul­tural stud­ies. Some of the cen­ter’s re­cent ef­forts have been re­lated to the drought, such as the blue­berry ex­per­i­ment and cre­ation of a demon­stra­tion gar­den fit for Cal­i­for­nia weather.

The cen­ter also stud­ies a small weather sta­tion that gath­ers a va­ri­ety of data, in­clud­ing rain­fall into a lit­tle bucket that mostly sits dry th­ese days. The sta­tion is on a small, grassy field that, like the blue­ber­ries, is be­ing tested to see how well it does on as lit­tle wa­ter as pos­si­ble.

Down the way from the weather sta­tion, Haver showed off a few of the cen­ter’s dragon fruit that un­like, say, al­monds, does well in a limited-wa­ter sit­u­a­tion.

“We need to find more crops like this,” he said.

Irvine res­i­dents, how­ever, don’t have to worry about the city’s farm­ers us­ing lots of pre­cious wa­ter re­sources. About 97% of the wa­ter used by Irvine farm­ers is re­cy­cled, which isn’t sub­ject to Gov. Jerry Brown’s re­cent or­ders to re­duce statewide wa­ter us­age, said Irvine Ranch Wa­ter Dis­trict spokes­woman Beth Bee­man. Get­ting to that high re­cy­cled-wa­ter level, she added, is the re­sult of a part­ner­ship be­tween the farm­ers and the wa­ter dis­trict for more than 10 years.

The drink­able wa­ter that farm­ers do end up us­ing amounts to 0.3% of the en­tire dis­trict’s drink­able sup­ply, Bee­man said.

A.G. Kawa­mura, a for­mer Cal­i­for­nia sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture un­der Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, is one of Irvine’s farm­ers us­ing the re­cy­cled wa­ter. He helps run Or­ange County Pro­duce, which rents more than 400 acres of farm­land.

Irvine’s re­claimed wa­ter is “some of the best wa­ter, re­ally, on the planet in terms of how much they clean it up be­fore they can use it,” Kawa­mura said. “We’re for­tu­nate that our Or­ange County wa­ter agen­cies are very for­ward-think­ing. They’ve al­ways rec­og­nized that we live in a drought­prone area.”

Kawa­mura added that the re­cy­cled wa­ter is good enough that “we’re grow­ing the same crops we’ve al­ways grown.” The farm­ers use drip ir­ri­ga­tion, sen­sors and “ba­si­cally all the tools we can to con­serve wa­ter,” he said.

“We al­ways want to use just the right amount of wa­ter to make sure our crops can thrive,” Kawa­mura said. “It doesn’t ben­e­fit us to use any more wa­ter than we need for us to do what we’re try­ing to ac­com­plish.... I cer­tainly hope that the public can ap­pre­ci­ate how we can get this right.”

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