Stumped trees leave a stark reminder of water shortages

Issue Date: August 13, 2008
Ching Lee

"There's just no sense in trying to save them if you don't have the water for them."

That's how San Diego County avocado farmer Russ Hatfield explains his decision to cut all of his trees down to their stumps, after a combination of wildfire and water shortages left him with no other options.

Hatfield is one of nearly 200 California farmers and ranchers who have responded to a survey being conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation, to learn more about how the state's water shortage is impacting them.

San Diego County farmer Russ Hatfield stands amid the stumps of avocado trees that he cut back in response to wildfire and water shortages. Hatfield said it will take at least three years for the trees to recover and set a harvestable crop.

He said he'll earn zero income from his avocados for the next three years, while he waits to see how many of his trees will recover. Wildfires last year charred most of his 22 acres of trees. The ones he managed to save had to be "stumped," after he learned that his water supply would be cut by 30 percent.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California imposed the reductions this year, under contracts that provided farmers with special water rates but that require them to absorb the 30-percent cutbacks when water is short.

For avocado growers, who often use highly efficient irrigation techniques, the only way to cope with the shortages has been to stump their trees. Many who responded to the Farm Bureau survey expressed dismay at the result.

"A third of my trees have been removed from production just when they should be approaching full productivity," wrote one San Diego County avocado farmer. "As these are young trees, many will not survive these procedures."

Another wrote that the water shortages force him to re-evaluate his long-term plans to stay in farming.

"With the increased cost and reduced supply (of water), the business math does not make sense," he said.

San Diego grower Chris Ambuul stumped 30 percent of his avocado trees and abandoned most of his citrus acreage this year because of current water reductions and some fire damage.

In his survey response, Chris Ambuul said the water cutbacks have "already had a massive effect on us." Ambuul, who farms 1,700 acres of mostly avocados and some citrus in San Diego County, said he's had to stump 30 percent of his avocado trees due to current water reductions and some fire damage. He's also abandoning most of his citrus acreage, keeping only his most viable lemon trees.

"We're going to water them less because the avocados are what really take up a lot of the water," he said.

The lost acreage will translate to $5.1 million to $7.6 million in lost income per year for the next several years that the trees will be out of production, he added. At the same time, he has incurred more than $4 million in stumping costs.

Hatfield will not have any trees in production because all of them were damaged in the fire. Like Ambuul, he's had to stump them in hopes of spurring new growth. Some have started to show life, but many of them are dead. It will take at least three years before the good trees will start bearing fruit.

"A hundred-percent reduction in income makes a pretty bleak picture," Hatfield said.

And while his income has been reduced to nothing, his input costs have soared—everything from water and fuel to fertilizer and labor. He estimates his overall input costs have gone up 34 percent.

With no money coming in, Hatfield said he had to let one of his workers go. His other formerly full-time employee is now working only two days a week.

Many farmers, including Hatfield and Ambuul, have tried to drill wells in search of groundwater to supplement what they're buying from their local water district, but oftentimes they come up dry. Hatfield said he spent $13,500 to drill a 900-foot well and didn't find a drop.

Another company offered to drill deeper at a different site for $50,000 but couldn't guarantee any water. Hatfield said he won't be drilling any more wells, especially now that he won't be earning income from his avocados.

The only other thing farmers can do is manage their water better, and both Hatfield and Ambuul said they're as efficient as they can be, using micro sprinklers to give their trees an exact amount that they need and monitoring equipment to ensure soil is not too wet or too dry.

"Farmers don't really waste water because we're real conscious about it," Ambuul said.

Wayne Brydon, field services manager for the California Avocado Commission, said most growers will choose to stump their trees rather than abandoning them. Stumping will allow the trees to grow back while using virtually no water this year and very little next year.

With trees taken out of production due to water cutbacks and fire damage, Brydon said he expects to see fewer California avocados on the market next year. Aside from the problems growers have had with fire and lack of water, heat episodes in May and June, when trees were in bloom and setting fruit, have also created what appears to be a lighter crop for next year. The commission's preliminary estimate for the 2009 crop is 250 million pounds, down from 320 million pounds for this year's crop.

"In San Diego County as in many other parts of California, farmers are using water as efficiently as they know how," California Farm Bureau Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said. "When water shortages hit, their only option is to reduce the amount of food they can produce. That's a hard choice to have to make, especially at a time when many people worry about food supplies around the world. In their survey responses, many Farm Bureau members say our government leaders need to act to assure reliable, affordable water for farms and homes."

Looking ahead, Hatfield said he's concerned about the long-term effects the current water crisis will have on California agriculture. Those in the water business have indicated that more cuts—as much as 40 percent for San Diego County agricultural customers—are probable for next year if current situations don't improve.

If that happens, Hatfield said he's not sure how long he'll be able to sustain his business.

"I can carry a negative balance for a few years, but you get to a point that it doesn't make sense," he said. "When your accountant says you're running into a hole here and you've got a big debt, you can't just spend forever."

(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.