Drought may see California farmers idle 500,000 acres of cropland

Irrigation cut back | Consumers can expect higher prices and major job cuts in ag sector

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (Reuters) — Drought-stricken California farmers facing drastic cutbacks in irrigation water are expected to idle 500,000 acres of cropland this year.

It is a record production loss that could cause billions of dollars in economic damage, industry officials said.

Large-scale crop losses in California would undoubtedly lead to higher consumer prices, especially for tree and vine produce grown only in the state. However, experts say it is too soon to quantify the effect.

California is the No. 1 farm state in the United States, producing half of the country’s fruits and vegetables.

Coming off its driest year on record, the state is gripped in a drought that threatens to inflict the worst water crisis in its history, prompting governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency last month.

He urged citizens to voluntarily reduce their water consumption by 20 percent.

California water managers later said the drought would force an unprecedented cutoff in state-supplied water sold to 29 irrigation districts, public water agencies and municipalities, barring an unexpected turnaround.

Irrigation deliveries to another group of agricultural districts served by the state are expected to be reduced by half, and an even larger group of farmers who get water from the federally operated Central Valley Project are likewise bracing for sharp cutbacks this year.

“We’re in a dire situation that we’ve never been in before,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The state’s network of reservoirs, which collect runoff of rainfall and snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, is badly depleted. The Sierra Nevada is the state’s biggest source of fresh water.

There are also problems with underground aquifers, which have provided farmers with reserves when water was otherwise scarce.

“Some farmers may still grow crops on some of their land. Some farmers may face bankruptcy because of this,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

The crisis is unfolding after an all-time banner year for California agriculture, with statewide production valued at $43.5 billion in 2012. Most of it comes from California’s Central Valley, a flat, fertile region stretching 720 kilometres north-south from Redding to Bakersfield.

Farm districts representing half of irrigated agriculture in that region have reported that they already expect to fallow 385,000 acres this year because of the water shortage, Wade said.

Extrapolating to the remainder of the Central Valley, Wade said his organization expects the full amount of irrigated land removed from production this year will easily top 500,000 acres of the region’s approximate six million total.

The Farm Bureau is similarly projecting 400,000 to 500,000 acres of irrigated land being fallowed, Wenger said. Hardest hit would be annual row crops such as tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, cantaloupes, garlic, peppers and corn.

Wade said consumers can also expect higher prices and reduced selection at grocery stores, particularly for products such as almonds, raisins, walnuts and olives.

He said the potential total value of unplanted crops was hard to calculate, but his group estimates the overall impact of idled farmland will be $5 billion in direct costs of lost production and indirect effects through the region’s economy.

An economic toll of that magnitude would put 40 percent of all agricultural jobs in the Central Valley at risk, or 117,000 people directly employed in farm production, processing and transportation, he said.

Wenger declined to venture an estimate of economic losses, but said it will be big.

“It’s going to be a sizable number that we’ve never seen before, and it’s going to ripple through the local economies, especially where agriculture is the name of the game.”

A California drought in 2009 resulted in an estimated 269,000 acres of cropland idled, $368 million in lost farm revenues and total reduced economic output of $796 million, according to a study from the University of California at Davis. Nearly 10,000 jobs were lost.

Steve Lyle, a spokesperson for the state agriculture department, said the department is working with UC Davis to develop real-time impact assessments.

“We are anticipating significantly higher economic impacts, compared to the 2009 drought, for the agricultural sector,” he said.

The water shortage could be made worse by the fact that many farmers have switched from annual field crops to orchard-style produce, such as almonds and olives, which cannot simply be left fallow from one year to the next.

Many growers face the choice of either shutting off irrigation to their older, less-producing trees to save the younger ones or spreading less water across their groves and accepting smaller overall yields.

Orange and lemon growers, who weathered a damaging week-long blast of sub-freezing temperatures in December, are safe for now but worry about running short of water for next year’s crop, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

The region accounts for most of the nation’s fresh citrus fruit. The cold snap cost Central Valley growers $441 million in lost revenues out of about $1.5 billion in annual production, the trade group said.

Still, the losses paled in comparison with a severe freeze in December 1990, which damaged citrus trees so badly that growers lost two years of production.

Livestock producers are facing their own drought-related difficulties, including scant winter rain they rely on to grow grass for grazing their herds.

Beef producers are being forced to ship much of their stock east, while dairy producers face higher costs to buy hay and feed.



Stories from our other publications