The heavy winter rains haven’t washed away all the water worries of San Diego County’s $1.3 billion agricultural industry, as it heads into the high-demand summer. Citrus growers especially are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Two years ago, for instance, Doug Anderson sold 175 acres of citrus groves in Pauma Valley to a nursery operation, but still lives on the property and helps manage it. While he had his own wells, market forces made him sell out.
But, he added, “It’s not like the water was free. It was one of our major costs.”
Anderson said he has no regrets.
“We’d been on the property since 1950 and I always thought we could keep our heads above water and make money,’ he said. “But, finally, I got to the point where we couldn’t keep going.”
Some of his neighbors have followed suit.
“The nursery people have been able to do well on more expensive water, and I take my hat off to them,” he said. “I hung on for so long, it didn’t hurt me to see everything go. I had such a hard time hanging on.”
While growers with wells pay significantly less than those who tap into district water, that’s not an option for most county farmers, said Eric Larson, the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.
“We have such low rainfall here, and there aren’t good water basins in the county, not that much access to well water,” he said. “It’s why 90 percent of our water is imported.”
Some farmers sign up for a so-called “interruptible rate,” which gives them a discount from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California of $114 per acre-foot of water for agreeing to be the first cut off in the event of a shortage; while the San Diego County Water Authority offers a $27 discount in exchange for accepting less water from its emergency storage reservoirs.
Those who sign up for the discounts are paying $425 per acre-foot of water today, compared with the $233 they paid in 1990, said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources for the Water Authority.
But not all farmers find it easy to conserve.
“With citrus, you have a little variance,” said Scott McIntyre, the chairman of the California Avocado Commission. “But with avocados, when they’re dry, you can’t wait. You have to keep them at a constant moisture level.”
Said Larson: “The problem for agriculture is that the demand to cut back would come at the worst time of the year, when we have the biggest demand to irrigate our crops. It’s one thing not to water the lawn or wash the car, but it’s difficult for farmers trying to protect their livelihood. They might lose a proportionate percentage of their crop. It will be an issue for the next two summers.”
Gary Broomell, part owner and manager of Broomell Properties, with 125 acres of citrus in Valley Center, sees the trend toward land conversion “probably a natural progression.”
“Basically what happened in Los Angeles and Orange County, as the demand for homes grew, economically it didn’t make sense to stay in business any longer and the land was converted over. We’re doing the same thing in San Diego County.
“It’s totally out of control in terms of staying in business. The citrus business has a lot of competition. We are not protecting our growers here. A lot of our citrus is going to Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. We get a higher value off our fruit if it goes overseas than if it stays here. If we export it overseas, I get $1 a box more than I do selling it domestically.”
Charley Wolk, who owns Bejoca Farm Management in Fallbrook, said it’s all a matter of perspective.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “It’s always so striking to see abandoned citrus orchards and bulldozers pushing the trees out. Is it bad that land is going to developers? When we have the highest housing costs in the country? Is building more homes good or bad? It depends on where you’re standing.”
Burnet Wohlford, owner of Heritage Ranch Management in Escondido and a fourth-generation grower, is less sanguine.
“It’s becoming more of a hassle and it takes away from the enjoyment of working the property,” he said of the many hardships facing the county’s farmers. “If you can’t do it at a profit, you’ve got to look at doing something different.”
An avocado grower, Wohlford’s family has gradually sold off their citrus acres.
“We have another 40 acres where the trees were cut down and it’s now completely vacant,” he said. “We were losing too much money. Hopefully, we’ll sell it to developers, once we work out zoning issues with the city and county.”
Al Stehly, the chief financial officer of Stehly Farm Management in Valley Center, owns or manages about 1,000 acres of avocados, lemons and oranges, most of them Valencias.
With a worldwide glut of citrus, he said, and declining consumption in the United States , with the exception of lemons , growers are struggling. Ironically, the disappearance of some citrus operations actually helped the survivors last year, he said.
“Supply and demand was out of whack,” said Stehly. “We had oversupplied the market. But with the removal of many acres in Riverside and Irvine for houses, and Ventura for strawberries and avocados, we had less competition for the same pie, and less of a supply for Valencias.”
In previous years, a box of Valencias was selling for 50 cents to $2, and last year it rose to $4.
“It won’t continue to go up,” he said. “But if it stabilizes at between $4 and $5, you’ll see fewer groves disappearing. I’m hoping we’ve found that balance.”
But, said Stehly, while this upturn might stop the citrus exodus, don’t expect new groves.
“They’ll start something else,” he said. “Olives, grapes, something that doesn’t use much water.”
Overall, said Stehly, “There is not as much gloom and doom as there was two years ago. Farmers are smart businessmen, and they know that one year does not make a trend. No one is jumping up and down on last year’s returns. But, for the first time, growers are beginning to talk to each other and discuss marketing policies. We have to plan. I refuse to be pessimistic about it. It’s still a good product.”
But, he said, it’s a product that needs better marketing.
“California has failed miserably in advertising,” Stehly said. “If you compare the citrus industry to the avocado industry, it’s been a huge failure. There is no generic advertising like Florida does, or like we do with avocados. Without advertising in this day and age, you can’t drive a product.”
The long-term challenge facing big water users will continue to be pricing, said Larson.
“There is some speculation that water prices will go up 50 percent in the next decade,” he said. “Agriculture prices don’t tend to have dramatic increases in price. If we see a 50 percent rise, we aren’t expecting 50 percent rise in the price of the commodities they sell. It doesn’t work that way.
“The concern is that if farmers can’t afford to farm land because of water, they will be looking for alternative crops. They will look for alternative uses for the land. The highest bidder for that is the development community. We don’t care to see that, but we do understand the economics of it.”
Kathleen Thuner, a county agriculture commissioner, and sealer of weights and measures, said it’s all a matter of perspective.
“The places farmed change, the crops farmed change, the people farming change,” she said, “but farming as an industry in this county remains energetic, viable and innovative.”
San Diego County has a combination of water sources, but gets about 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. A big concern is the availability of treated water.
But didn’t all that winter rainfall make a dent in the drought?
“That’s a really hard one,” said the Water Authority’s Weinberg. “Is it a drought when you declare rationing or when you have dry years? The reservoirs are coming back, snow pack is coming back. We’re looking pretty good for the high-demand period, May through September. Could drought conditions reappear? Yes.”
Thuner added, “I think the drought is never over in California. If you look back 100 years at photos in California in the late 1800s, there are so few plants on the hills. We’ve put all this plant material here to make it habitable. The issue is usage.”