The deep ef­fects of the drought

The ex­tended lack of rain keeps farm­ers scram­bling. But di­min­ished crops and higher prices for con­sumers prove un­avoid­able.

Los Angeles Times - - FOOD & DINING - By Gil­lian Fer­gu­son food@la­times.com

The news came via In­sta­gram, as much of the news does these days. “Dear Val­ued Cus­tomers,” the text read, “Due to Stage III drought con­di­tions I have been man­dated to cut my wa­ter use by 42%.”

In black type­face against a white square back­ground, Romeo Cole­man, who, along with his fa­ther, Bill, and mother, Delia, runs Cole­man Fam­ily Farm in Carpin­te­ria and Oak View, spelled out an all-too-com­mon sce­nario for South­ern Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers: As we adapt to the drought, con­sumers need to brace for higher prices and re­duced har­vests.

Four years in, the drought has be­come a new nor­mal for many farm­ers, but Au­gust is when the dry sea­son peaks in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and farm­ers are feel­ing the heat. Across the jig­saw puz­zle that is Cal­i­for­nia wa­ter dis­tricts, wa­ter woes range from crip­pling al­lo­ca­tions in Kern County to manda­tory re­duc­tions across Ven­tura County.

Driv­ing the 18 miles back and forth from his dad’s prop­erty in Carpin­te­ria to his 12-acre plot in Oak View, Romeo Cole­man has watched as is­lands emerge and boat docks de­scend with his pri­mary wa­ter sup­ply, Lake Ca­sitas, a reser­voir run by one of a hand­ful of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia wa­ter dis­tricts that is en­tirely self-suf­fi­cient. At Oak View he re­lies on wa­ter from the lake, so the 42% cut­back is the sum of last year’s state-man­dated re­duc­tions for ur­ban users com­bined with lo­cal re­stric­tions that took ef­fect last month.

“It’s like some­one wrap­ping their hands around my neck and slowly squeez­ing,” Cole­man says of the cut­backs. “The hands are just get­ting tighter and tighter.”

Sea­sonal spe­cial­ties like mel­ons and cran­berry beans have been taken off the farm’s ros­ter, while let­tuce and kale plant­ings have been se­verely re­duced. For the res­tau­rants that tout Cole­man Fam­ily Farm let­tuce on their menus, whole­sale prices no longer ap­ply.

Chef Evan Funke, whose restau­rant Felix will open later this year in Venice, shook his head while Cole­man broke the news at a re­cent Wed­nes­day Santa Mon­ica farm­ers mar­ket. Though he’s not yet shop­ping for the restau­rant, Funke is de­ter­mined to sup­port Cole­man through the lean years. “That’s what be­ing sus­tain­able is,” Funke said, snack­ing on raw green beans. “You have to sup­port the whole sys­tem.”

Two years ago, Funke, along with other chefs from around the city, hosted a fundraiser for farmer James Birch when two of the three riverbeds that feed his Flora Bella Farms in Three Rivers, Calif., went dry. At the time, the drought had all but dec­i­mated Birch’s 40 acres on the edge of Se­quoia Na­tional Park. Hun­gry deer and bears from the Sierra Ne­vadas ran­sacked his row crops and fruit trees, for­ag­ing for the food they were miss­ing in the moun­tains.

As farm­ers do, Birch adapted, con­vert­ing to drip ir­ri­ga­tion, dig­ging ad­di­tional ponds to cap­ture what wa­ter was left and build­ing a deer fence to pro­tect his har­vest. Af­ter an im­pres­sive snow­fall this year (87% of aver­age com­pared with 5% in 2015), the Kaweah River is once again flow­ing, but Birch knows it’s a tem­po­rary fix.

“If we don’t con­tinue to get rain and snow in the Sier­ras, I’ll ex­pe­ri­ence this again next year,” he says, so he’s cut his wa­ter use by 50% and re­mains fo­cused on con­ser­va­tion.

Birch owns his wa­ter rights, which were se­cured by deed to his prop­erty when the land was first pur­chased in the late 1800s. In wet years, there’s lit­tle need to quib­ble with his seven neigh­bors over the wa­ter that flows to their prop­er­ties by way of a three-mile ditch, but in dry years he and his cat­tle-ranch­ing neigh­bor form an ad hoc wa­ter polic­ing unit, en­sur­ing that no one ex­ceeds their al­lo­ca­tions. The com­mu­nity re­ceives no state or fed­eral wa­ter, which means the reser­voirs to the south pro­vide zero se­cu­rity, no mat­ter how dire their sit­u­a­tion. Dur­ing the drought, Birch says, “I’m the first to get the wa­ter and the first to run out.”

Travel an hour and a half south of Birch’s farm on State Route 65 and the land is more parched. In Bak­ers­field, a quar­ter of the com­mu­nity’s cherry or­chards have been razed, re­planted or re­duced to stumps.

Two years ago farmer Steve Mur­ray pulled out 25 acres of cher­ries, usu­ally his bread and but­ter, and re­planted with new va­ri­eties bet­ter suited for warmer win­ters. But this year’s heavy snow­pack and rain­fall in the north never reached the flat­lands south of the Sier­ras. The rain that did fall in Bak­ers­field this year came un­usu­ally late, just seven days be­fore the cherry har­vest, ru­in­ing what the farmer thought would be a ban­ner year.

“I thought the bank was go­ing to re­quire me to sell land this year,” Mur­ray said. This is the sec­ond year in a row that the fam­ily has been struck with a 90% crop loss on cher­ries, but Mur­ray re­mains hope­ful for 2017. He doesn’t have an­other choice; last year he cashed in a 25-year pen­sion to keep the farm afloat.

Un­like James Birch, Mur­ray is sup­plied by the Arvin-Edi­son wa­ter district, which re­ceived none of its San Joaquin River al­lo­ca­tion in 2014 and a mere 5% in 2015. This year’s North­ern Cal­i­for­nia storms recharged the river enough to merit a 60% al­lo­ca­tion, which sounds f lush by com­par­i­son but is still 40% less than what farm­ers re­quire to keep their acreage thriv­ing. So far, Mur­ray has been able to cob­ble to­gether a piece­meal wa­ter sup­ply by pur­chas­ing al­lo­ca­tions from neigh­bors who sell un­used wa­ter back to the district, but the re­source comes at a pre­mium. In the next two months he will spend an ad­di­tional $36,000 on wa­ter to sus­tain his farm and keep his fruit trees alive.

Wa­ter, of course, is a ne­ces­sity for farm­ing, but it’s also es­sen­tial for main­tain­ing a healthy farm ecosys­tem. Phil Mc­Grath, who farms off the 101 Free­way in Ca­mar­illo, is bat­tling in­creas­ingly salty soil and more squir­rels than he has seen in his en­tire farm­ing ca­reer.

“Every­body’s thirsty,” he says. “Every­body’s hun­gry.”

Mc­Grath, who pro­duced only half of his farm’s aver­age yield this year, is quick to of­fer an ear­ful on the is­sues af­fect­ing South­ern Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers — la­bor short­ages, land-use leg­is­la­tion and, of course, wa­ter — but like Cole­man, Birch and Mur­ray, he re­mains hope­ful.

“There is no one more op­ti­mistic than a farmer,” Mc­Grath says, para­phras­ing Will Rogers. “Any­time we plant a seed, we hope for the best.”

Amy Scat­ter­good Los An­ge­les Times

THE COLE­MAN FAM­ILY FARM had let­tuce for sale in Santa Mon­ica on Wed­nes­day.

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