As forecasters grow more confident of a wet El Niño year ahead farmers are cautiously optimistic. Another winter of below normal precipitation could be disastrous for our state’s agricultural industry.
Regardless of whether or not the drought ends in the coming months, we believe that one of the ongoing lessons of the drought is how we are all dependent upon a finite resource whose availability is fundamentally outside of our control and how important it is to manage that resource wisely.
Four years of crippling drought has endangered the livelihoods of almost 78,000 farmers in California, but the promise of an El Niño year brings hope to drought-stricken farms. The current rain deficit has major implications for our food supply and could lead to rising prices for fruit, nuts, and other commodities. More than half of California’s agricultural crop value comes from its production of fruit and tree nuts, which is almost 60% of total US fruit and tree nut farm values, not to mention vegetable row crops. Shortages in groundwater used to irrigate will increase production costs or force farmers to reduce acreage, likely raising fruit prices for years to come.
But even the promise of a wet winter brings potential threats. Farmers hope for light to moderate rainfall over a long period of time so it can soak into the ground, without heavy rains that flood the surface and run off. Some farmers are also worried that heavy rains during the spring planting season could delay when they are able to set new crops in the ground.
For the last few years, farms like Bautista Ranch in Stockton have curtailed water usage. Acreage has been sacrificed by letting fields go fallow and by not watering large sections of their orchards, causing many of their trees die.
But along with sacrificing crops, small farmers have doubled their efficiency of agricultural water use. Drip irrigation has grown rapidly and has almost replaced gravity irrigation as a method of watering crops. This will have far reaching implications for the future of California’s agriculture.
One El Niño year will not end the drought, considering it has been dry for several years, but it will certainly help the water deficit. Let’s all hope for a wetter than normal winter and spring – and a return to regular rainfall in years to come.