Kern County ag producers are making changes big and small — from redeveloping entire orchards to fine-tuning their irrigation systems — as they try to adjust to worsening drought conditions across the Central Valley.
Strategies vary depending on access to water and ability to shift irrigation to different fields. Some landowners are trying to hold onto as much water as they can in case prices rise later in the year.
Complicating every equation is California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It limits how much can be pumped from irrigation wells. Because of local water banking, some growers do expect to tap groundwater for irrigation this year.
After a dry winter more than half the state is in extreme drought. In March, Sacramento announced State Water Project contractors will receive just 5 percent of their allocation this year, the third-smallest in the project’s history.
“Growers with permanent crops will be making difficult decisions if their surface water allocations are limited this year,” Kern County Farm Bureau President John C. Moore III said by email.
The price of water for sale is already raising eyebrows at close to $1,000 per acre-foot in some cases, and expectations are that it could more than double as the year goes on.
Kern County table grape, tree nut and citrus grower Martin Hein, who also manages orchards and vineyards in different counties, said some property owners are choosing to take out almond orchards nearing the end of their productive life. In their place they’re redeveloping with pistachios.
Pistachios take longer to mature into production than almonds but they have far greater longevity and are currently enjoying strong prices, while almond prices are at their lowest in more than a decade. Importantly, Hein said, switching from almonds to pistachios during a drought lowers water needs as the young trees slowly mature. Plus, pistachios can live in more marginal soils with lower water quality.
“For those without water contracts or state supply allocations,” he said, “this is a great time to remove your orchards and begin preparing to redevelop it.”
Some farmers are ramping up their use of what’s called deficit irrigation. They cut back irrigation schedules to provide just enough water to avoid shriveled or under-sized fruit. The risk is that unless the soil is later rinsed, or leached, impurities remaining near roots can endanger future yields.
High technology is coming more into play as well as farmers using advanced imagery to spotlight areas in their fields that might need attention if they’re going to produce efficiently.
To focus on hot spots that might need more water, growers are turning to satellites and multispectral imagery, Blake Sanden, a University of California Cooperative Extension emeritus irrigation soils advisor and advanced irrigation management consultant, said by email.
Otherwise, he wrote, there are four options: fallow land,…