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OPN Connect Newsletter 224 · July 1, 2021

Organic Growers Share How Historic Drought Is Impacting Their Operations


The heatwave that is pummeling the Pacific Northwest and California is exacerbating already dire growing conditions, with industry leaders saying expertise, innovation, and long-term strategies will be needed to navigate production in the years to come.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 90 percent of the Western part of the US is experiencing drought conditions, with 50 percent of the West in severe to exceptional drought conditions.

Stemilt September 2021

May 2021 precipitation data from the NOAA

Earlier this year, the US Bureau of Reclamation announced there will be zero agriculture water allocations from the Central Valley Project or the Klamath Irrigation Project. The San Joaquin basin fed by the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, and American rivers is the driest it has been since 1977. Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 90 percent of the Western part of the US is experiencing drought conditions, with 50 percent of the West in severe to exceptional drought conditions.

Organic farmers have an advantage: organic soils retain more water, and organic practices decrease evaporation and lower irrigation costs.

Organics Unlimited September 2021

Tannis Thorlakson, Senior Environmental Manger, Driscoll's

Driscoll’s Senior Environmental Manager Tannis Thorlakson said the company has recognized the critical role water plays in its growing operations for decades.

“It’s led us to work directly with our growers on water conservation, from piloting new water conservation practices to holding irrigator trainings to share best practices,” she said. “Our growers rely primarily on groundwater resources, which have been less affected by this recent drought. But the challenge with groundwater is that we all drink from the same punch bowl so to speak, so it is critical that all water users come together to find solutions. That is why we actively engage in local stakeholder processes to develop basin-wide solutions for long-term water sustainability.”

Red Sun Farms September 2021

“Our growers rely primarily on groundwater resources, which have been less affected by this recent drought. But the challenge with groundwater is that we all drink from the same punch bowl so to speak, so it is critical that all water users come together to find solutions." -Tannis Thorlakson

Homegrown Organic Farms represents 120 farmers with 7,000 acres of "permanent" tree crops in California and Oregon. Scott Mabs, the company’s CEO, takes a broad perspective when discussing the water situation.

“We’re a company of small to mid-sized organic citrus, blueberry, tree fruit, and table grape growers. Many were successful over the years, but that is changing. It’s becoming harder for them to compete with large organizations for market share, land, labor, and, of course, water,” Mabs said. “Most rely on well water from underground aquifers that are typically recharged each year. Minimal rainfall, surface water, and no snowpack have put our groundwater resources in a tenuous situation.”

 

Starr Ranch September 2021

Scott Mabs, CEO, Homegrown

“If we have another dry winter, many of those wells will dry up. If next winter is the same, the system will break. We must develop new ways to replenish our groundwater—it’s not an endless resource.”

Mabs said the California Water Action Plan was developed to move the industry towards more sustainable water management. “As the state regulates agriculture water, there will be winners and losers. Land will be fallowed, and while cotton and corn may not survive, tree fruit is a different story. This will change the entire agricultural environment in the Central Valley.”

NatureSafe September 2021

“Most [of our growers] rely on well water from underground aquifers that are typically recharged each year. Minimal rainfall, surface water, and no snowpack have put our groundwater resources in a tenuous situation.” -Scott Mabs

Rainbow Valley Orchards has been growing and shipping organic produce since 1981, representing hundreds of growers of citrus, table grapes, and dragon fruit. 

Ryan SanJose, Rainbow Valley Orchards’ national sales manager, keeps a close tab on field operations. “What’s top of mind for our growers are the district water allocations, now limited to 20 percent of normal usage,” he said. “District water comes from local rivers, canals, and municipalities. If you don’t have access to a second source like a well, you’re in trouble.”

Ryan SanJose, National Sales Manager, Rainbow Valley Orchards

“We’ve been dealing with drought since December, and none of our growers are pushing out orchards because citrus trees are resilient. But the concern is what we call ‘June drop’—the fruit sets typically drop in the summer heat. Growers who have used up their 20-percent allocations will experience more drop, resulting in dismal harvest volumes next year. The lack of water today affects the season to come,” he said.

SanJose shared the story of one of his growers having their water shut off after using the 20 percent allocation, with only well water available to sustain his 60 acres of citrus production.

“What’s top of mind for our growers are the district water allocations, now limited to 20 percent of normal usage. District water comes from local rivers, canals, and municipalities. If you don’t have access to a second source like a well, you’re in trouble.” -Ryan SanJose

Valent September 2021

“I’m concerned about the effect groundwater levels will have on these wells. If they aren’t deeper than the typical 150-200 feet, they may eventually just suck up mud,” he said. “As Californians, we need to work together to conserve water. If it’s the farmer using new fan jet irrigation systems or the large metropolitan areas limiting their household usage, we need to do better together.” 

Travis Noland, Vice President, Wild River Fruit 

Travis Noland, vice president of Wild River Fruit, called his 60-year family farm alongside the Yuba River "a natural asset."

“We’re extremely fortunate that our farm resides along one of the consistently highest-flowing rivers in the state," he said. "I know it’s a dire issue for producers across the state, but we haven’t had to contend with these impacts.”

"We've adopted practices to reduce our water dependency, installing micro-sprinklers across all vineyards and orchards. Our specialty kiwifruit vineyards are covered with partial shade that reduces the evapo-transpiration rate.”

Mitch Wetzel, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Sunview

Decco September 2021

Sunview Marketing is the Zaninovich family’s legacy—they’ve grown table grapes in the Central Valley for 73 years. “As a family-owned company that’s farmed here so long, we’ve taken a long-term approach to water conservation,” explained Mitch Wetzel, Sunview’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“We have invested significant capital and have the acreage to balance fallow ground and active vineyards. Our commitment to sustainability isn’t just about water; it considers all our inputs, from fertilizer, ground cover, and land. As part of our strategic plan, we have been replacing legacy varieties and [planting] more productive vines from our in-house breeding program," Wetzel said. “This is a long-standing practice as part of the continuing evolution of the farm. This isn’t the first or the last year we’ll deal with water shortages, and the situation is critical now. Long-term family farmers like us—with deep historic knowledge, with a long-term strategic plan—are much better suited to face the water challenges today and in the future.”

OGS September 2021
Duncan September 2021

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