Local farmers fight against drought, limited water supply

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Turkovich Family Wines laborers work hard against long-term drought conditions to keep crops as healthy as possible this harvest season. (Courtesy photo)

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California had been fighting over water since before California became a state.

That’s what Turkovich Family Wines owner and General Manager Chris Turkovich pointed out when detailing how the recent drought and ruling from the 6th Appellate District Court, which limits California State Water Resources Control Board’s ability to govern water supply, affects his farm.

“There is a lot of it that is outside our control,” Turkovich said. “We do what we can, but we don’t have control over the big picture, especially when it comes to weather and climate.”

Take, for example, the triple-digit weather from a few weeks ago.

“We just got hit with an inch of rain, which on the surface seems good but is problematic for some of the farming because we are not quite done with harvest, and it’s going to create issues there,” Turkovich said.

Groundwater has been the only source of irrigation in Winters for two years due to the drought, leaving Bruce Rominger, owner of Rominger Brothers Farms, with issues of his own.

“The largest effect of the drought is that we did not plant about a quarter of our acreage,” Rominger said. “What we did plant, we had to irrigate with well-water only because our irrigation district, which usually delivers water in a canal to our fields, had none to deliver.”

Rominger’s plight is recorded in a recent blog by University of California, Davis DeLoach Professor of Agricultural Economics Aaron Smith, who said statistics show local farmers report not planting due to inadequate irrigation water.

“The worst affected counties are north of us, but there are still significant unplanted acres in Yolo County,” Smith said. “Farmers in this county planted only 23 percent of the rice acres they had planned and only half the corn acres.”

Only time will tell how acres of other big crops survive, including sunflowers, tomatoes, and alfalfa. Smith said that reducing water availability makes it harder for farmers to keep their almond trees and grape vines healthy. In addition, during droughts, California farmers tend to plant fewer annual crops such as wheat, cotton and rice, Smith said.

“This allows them to use their scarce water
resources for higher value crops such as grapes and almonds,” Smith added.

The university professor said climate change only makes the matter worse. For example, a smaller snowpack in the Sierra means less water available for irrigation and worse growing conditions for California crops.

But even without climate change, California’s drought cycles are always part of the picture, according to Turkovich.

“Climate change just adds to that, with more uncertainty and magnification,” Turkovich said.

So what is a farmer to do when surviving a drought?

“We plan ahead and only plant fields that we are sure we have enough water to irrigate,” Rominger said. “Some crops, like wheat and safflower, use less irrigation water, so in a drought year, we will usually plant more of those.”

The problem is, those crops are not very profitable, Rominger added with a word of caution. He said locals should take notice before it is too late.

“I think this hotter and more unpredictable weather is becoming a problem around the world, so everyone should be concerned about the food supply,” Rominger said. “Sometimes people not directly involved in agriculture don’t think a drought or heat spell will affect their lives, but when we start seeing empty shelves in a grocery store, it is everyone’s problem.”

Smith said farmers have always understood that they are at the mercy of Mother Nature but agrees that while changing climate makes things even more challenging, farmers face state regulations to preserve water and environmental resources.

While Smith said he is very optimistic about the ability of new technologies such as “precision irrigation, fertilizer, and herbicide application to aid in adaptation to this new world,” Turkovich said statewide changes would need to be made if the drought continues.

“If we don’t get rain this year, it’s just going to be worse next spring when we get ready to start that farming season again because we haven’t had a chance to let that groundwater be recharged,” Turkovich said.

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