Shortage of water forces tough decisions

Issue Date: September 3, 2008
Ching Lee

Whether they run a thriving nursery in Southern California or grow figs in the Central Valley, farmers across the state are confronting similar predicaments concerning how to keep their crops and businesses viable in the face of this year's water shortage.

San Diego farmer Janet Kister said she skated by this year with the 10-percent cut in production she was forced to make in her nursery to meet the 30-percent reduction in water deliveries from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). But she said if additional cuts are in store for next year—to her water and production—her business would not survive.

Merced County farmers Tonetta and Blair Gladwin are concerned that water delivery reductions this year may bring their harvest of fresh figs to an early end.

"You can only cut your production so far before you start to not have the ability to service your customers," she said. "Our customers expect us to have the plants that we have. If we don't have them, then they're going to go somewhere else."

Kister is among nearly 200 farmers and ranchers who described how the state's current water crisis is affecting them in a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Due to high fuel costs, Kister said her customers in Texas, where many of her plants are shipped, want enough inventory to fill an entire truckload. If she further reduces her production and cannot deliver enough plants to fill her customers' orders, she may lose those accounts, she said.

MWD, from which she contracts her water, may impose further cuts in water deliveries to its agricultural customers next year—as much as 40 percent—if current conditions don't improve. Farmers receive a special rate for water under a program that makes them first to suffer cutbacks during shortages.

Like Kister, other farmers who responded to Farm Bureau's survey also had to take acreage out of production to cope with reduced water supplies.

A San Luis Obispo grower who operates a 10-acre U-pick farm of pumpkins and tomatoes wrote that she had to let one of her main fields lie fallow because of dry conditions.

"Our ag well is on a gas generator. We have very little soil moisture this year and must rely heavily on irrigation," she wrote. "The price of gas is literally killing us."

A Merced County organic dairy producer, who depends on native grasses and irrigated pastures to graze her animals, wrote that she had to "cut her growing season short and stress the grass with longer periods in between water." With a 50-percent reduction in feed, she said she had no choice but to sell some of her cattle.

"The increased costs for feed and support have reduced our profit margin to almost not breaking even," she wrote. "The need for water storage and tax breaks for efficiency or power is a serious issue."

Blair and Tonetta Gladwin, who farm figs on 250 acres in Merced County, are worried that their water allocations this year will not carry them through to the end of their season in October.

Because they ship their figs fresh rather than dried, they have a longer season and must continue to water their trees and grow their crop to maintain the market that they have. But due to water shortages this year, Blair Gladwin said they've nearly exhausted their water allotment and may have to cut their season short.

"That's going to decrease our production for the 2008 crop year," said Tonetta Gladwin. "We normally pick into October. If we have to stop because water isn't available for us to grow additional figs, then every week early that we stop is about 215 employees that won't be working per week."

She said what really hurt them was that they didn't get enough notice from the Merced Irrigation District to prepare for the water rationing. Earlier in the winter, they ripped their ground to allow better water circulation to tree roots, but the process also doubled the orchard's water intake, said Blair Gladwin.

"It's good for the tree but it's bad to do in a year that water has been rationed," Tonetta Gladwin said. "If we would've known earlier, we may have postponed that operation until water was more readily available. Now we're not going to have that water available to us in September when we need it for just standard growing purposes."

There was also not enough time to change irrigation practices or consider drilling wells to supplement their water allocations.

Kister said she knew about the water reductions far enough in advance that she had two wells drilled. It cost her $50,000 to find out there was no water.

San Diego County nursery operator Janet Kister said if there are any further water cuts, it will be very difficult for her to fill her customers' orders.

She also converted last year to a more efficient drip irrigation system by installing pressure compensating emitters and computer controllers to reduce her nursery's water usage in anticipation of this year's cutbacks. Total cost there was $250,000.

Unlike other farmers who've had to lay off workers due to lack of water for their crops, Kister actually had to hire three additional employees at a total cost of $65,000 in an effort to save water.

Extra labor was needed to consolidate plants in her nursery so that she wouldn't have to water as many areas after plants are sold. More workers were also needed to help hand-water her plants, as well as sweep up her nursery instead of washing.

For the Gladwins, having enough fresh figs to accommodate the market at the end of the growing season, when supplies are low and prices are strong, will make a huge difference in their bottom line.

"Now I don't know if I'm going to be able to fill those orders because I'm not sure that I'll have the figs that they were looking for," said Tonetta Gladwin.

Growers with smaller operations such as Greg Berry, who farms about 5 acres of blueberries, tangerines and avocados in Ventura County, said he can't afford to take any acreage out of production and will continue to irrigate his crops even as water rates soar.

Because he sells most of his produce in farmers markets and to specialty stores, Berry said he has been able to pass some of his costs on to his customers. But he said he also understands that at some point, he may price himself out of the market and not be able to remain competitive.

"Without reliable and affordable sources of water, farm production starts to shrivel," said Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau. "Farmers who responded to our survey made it very clear that without reliable water, they won't be able to produce reliable supplies of food and farm products. That leads to lost markets, and lost markets lead to lost jobs. It's a terrible cycle that we must break by fixing California's water system and assuring reliable supplies for everyone."

For more information on California's water crisis, go to the California Farm Bureau's Web site at To participate in the CFBF water survey, go to

(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.