Citrus growers try to survive water cutbacks


Issue Date: July 22, 2015
By Christine Souza
Tulare County farmer Zack Stuller checks on removal of this Valencia orange grove managed by his employer Sun Pacific, a grower, packer and shipper of citrus fruit. Growers in the region face a second year of no water from the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project.
Photo/Christine Souza
Tulare County citrus grower Zack Stuller standing next to a pump that is failing, says farmers are dedicating what water they have to their most valuable citrus fruit, such as mandarins.
Photo/Christine Souza

Faced with the fourth consecutive year of drought and a second year of no water from the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project, Tulare County farmer Zack Stuller said he and his fellow citrus growers are in "survival mode."

"We're not giving up," said Stuller, who works for Sun Pacific, a grower, packer and shipper of citrus, table grapes, fresh tomatoes and kiwifruit, and who grows citrus, walnuts and field crops at his home ranch. But, he added, "For a way of life for what we do, you talk to any farmer in this valley or any farmer anywhere, you are taking away his livelihood. It's very scary."

The ongoing drought and water shortages are scarring the California citrus belt on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, where blocks of citrus trees are abandoned or have been removed, and for-sale signs and well-drilling rigs are common. Farmers in citrus-growing regions that have no surface water and very little groundwater are scrambling to locate enough water just to keep trees alive.

Standing near a gurgling irrigation pump that in other years has used state-of-the-art technology to irrigate an 80-acre citrus grove, Stuller said, "This is a well that is about to give out; this is the last well (of four) that we have on this ranch."

Many east side citrus growers depend on water from the Friant-Kern Canal, a federal irrigation project with its primary source of water from the San Joaquin River, delivering water from Chowchilla to south of Bakersfield.

For a second consecutive season, the 20-plus irrigation districts that receive water from this project face a zero allocation of water.

In areas where farmers don't have access to groundwater, groves of trees, such as navel and Valencia oranges, are being removed so that water can be diverted to more valuable citrus varieties, such as mandarins and lemons.

Tulare County citrus grower Roger Everett, who received a zero water allocation from the Terra Bella Irrigation District, said that of his 75 acres of citrus, he has enough water to irrigate only 15 acres.

"We thought our district had secured water for another 20 acres, but that water seems to be tied up in the Shasta decision for the temperature releases for fish," Everett said. "We have another 20 acres of citrus that we decided it just wasn't worth the money to justify putting water on them. The 15 citrus acres that we are still irrigating are lemons, which are more valuable."

Everett, who is also a beekeeper, said with irrigation canals and ditches dry, this is the first year that he has had to place water near his bees.

"I know a lot of people are discussing the El Niño cycle that we are in, but I'm not going to get overly excited until I see it. Something has definitely got to change," Everett said. "A friend of mine has 160 acres that he is not even farming because he doesn't have enough well water."

A few miles away, Stuller stopped to check on progress at a ranch where an older block of Valencia trees was being removed.

"We can't justify the cost of the water needed to grow this crop because of the value, so we need to take that expensive ($2,000 an acre-foot) water and grow more valuable crops such as mandarins," Stuller said. "Growers are taking the citrus that only produces $100 a bin and pushing it out or letting it dry up, to move water to farm mandarins that produce $400 a bin."

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, said he estimates that between 20,000 and 25,000 acres of citrus trees will be removed this year, due to lack of water. That amount of acreage would generate roughly 650 jobs, he said.

"The September crop estimate is going to show a reduction because of the bulldozed acreage," Nelsen said. "It's just going to be a smaller industry as we transition through this."

He said he expects "some consolidation" among both farmers and packinghouses, which will reduce jobs.

California is the nation's leading supplier of fresh-market oranges and grows roughly 80 percent of the mandarins, tangerines and lemons grown in the United States.

Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever Blattler said what the county's citrus growers are dealing with is "intense."

"There is very tangible, palpable aggravation and angst, and people are mad and frustrated and scared that they are not going to have the family farm to pass on to the next generation," she said. "They don't even know if they are going to make it through another summer."

Blattler added that environmental restrictions have worsened the water shortages farmers are experiencing.

"It's not just supply, it's mismanagement of the available supply," she said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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