WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2016 - After four years of withering drought in California, hope for a wetter, more fruitful future springs from a round of downpours across the state’s normally rainier northern half through October - the first month of its “rain year.” The skies have delivered, from 5 inches to more than 20 inches, depending on location, which is 200 percent to more than 600 percent of normal October rainfall. Much of it has poured into the Sierra Nevada range, which feeds principal reservoirs.

For sure, the state’s southern half remains in a major drought, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center now forecasts La Niña conditions – Pacific Ocean surface temperatures that imply continued lack of rain in the U.S. Southwest – through fall and winter.

Some believe drought may be the new normal for the region.  Among them is Rob Vandenheuvel, general manager of the Milk Producers Council, with its offices in the parched south. “I am starting to feel like this is not a drought, maybe it is just the climate, and rain will be the exception to the rule,” he says. Drought is just one of the reasons that the number of dairy farms is plunging – from about 2,200 in 2007 and 1,900 in 2012, “to 1,400 and change now,” according to Vandenheuvel, who notes that statewide milk production has been slipping each month versus a year earlier for a couple of years..

Just how California agriculture is faring with the drought conditions economically depends where one looks. On the one hand, the state had its wettest year since 2010, so dryland crops did better this year in some northern areas, and releases from reservoirs for irrigation and other uses were increased moderately from 2015. That allowed for a rebound in production of water-hungry medium- and short-grained rice, to 559,000 acres, more than before the drought, for example.

In fact, while acreage of a few crops, including olives, peaches, figs and hay, have slipped during the drought years, bearing acres of almonds, the state’s premier crop that sells like hotcakes worldwide, have swelled to 890,000 this year, up 11 percent since 2011, and may produce a record crop at 2.05 million tons. Walnuts are up similarly, to probably 300,000 acres this year.

Pistachio acreage has swollen by more than half since 2011, while acres producing other big California crops – avocados, wine grapes, strawberries – have changed little. Still, grape acres are up modestly and the wine-grape crush will set a record at 3.9 million tons. On the livestock side, the beef cow herd, about 625,000, is nearly the same as before the drought.

Nonetheless, a drought doesn’t release its grip with the arrival of a few good showers, or even a year of above-average precipitation. The U.S. Forest Service says the forests have suffered terribly: 26 million trees died from October 2015 to last June in California, bringing the total to 66 million since 2010.

Farmed trees, too, are impacted. Richard Howitt, economist with the Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS) at the University of California, Davis, points out that almond and many other nut and fruit trees, once throttled down by lack of water, tend to downshift their growth and production for a year, or even several years.

That’s true, attests Jim Beck, who has raised Christmas trees for 47 years near Los Gatos, south of San Jose. “The principal problem with drought years like this is that instead of a normal leader growth of 24 to 30 inches, we’ve seen maybe 16 or 18 in the past year or two. That cuts your production in half,” he said. His Douglas fir, Monterey pine and Sierra redwood trees absorb moisture from two to six feet deep, he said, “and one year of average rain doesn’t really help that. You need some long-term heavy rains to bring that water table back up.”

On the other hand, as with almonds, the drought hasn’t thwarted a farmers’ stampede to new varieties of tangerines, which Californians call mandarins. Groves have tripled in the past decade, and doubled since the drought began, to 57,000 acres, while orange acreage has fallen by 23,000 acres through the drought.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said the American consumers were ready for the no-seeds, easy-peel mandarins. Orange growers “saw how the demand for mandarins was going to increase” and used the long drought to their advantage, he said. Producers, especially in Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties, plowed out older, low-producing orange trees that demanded a lot of water and planted mandarins, which take little water in the half-dozen years growing to bearing age.

Mandarin growers, who included many also switching out of peaches, plums and nectarines, planted a range of varieties that mature all the way from now through winter, and they enhanced mandarin traits for flavor, color and fruit size – breeding handy snack sizes called “Cuties” and “halos.” The young trees are maturing steadily now, Nelsen says, and California growers will harvest nearly 22 million boxes this year, or six times the 2006 harvest.  “Fortunately, right now, demand still exceeds supply,” Nelsen says.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s annual farm receipts tally has not strayed far from $50 billion since before the drought and, at $47 billion for 2015, was still about $3 billion more than in 2011 and 2012.

Howitt, at CWS, expects CDFA may find the sum for 2016 up, “but not by very much.” He is one of the experts who compiles the CWS’ annual reports on the Economic Impacts of the California Drought for Agriculture. California agriculture has done well through the drought largely because farmers are resilient and flexible, adapting to short water supplies and changing markets. He points to cotton, which has been in declining world demand, surplus supply, and selling for around 60 cents a pound, well under the cost of production. With vanishing supplies and spiraling costs for water, he says, San Joaquin cotton crops couldn’t cover their water costs, so farmers fallowed acres or planted almonds, walnuts, or other nut or fruit trees instead. The state will harvest just 218,000 cotton acres this year, less than half of the 2001 acreage.

Despite the smart adjustments in cropping in recent years, Howitt says, smaller receipts for milk, the state’s leading commodity by value, will limit any rebound in overall 2016 farm receipts. California farmers have been getting about $15-$16 a hundredweight since the start of 2015, about $6 less than in 2014, and, because of the way a state milk marketing order works, typically about $1 less than farmers get nationally. With the dwindling number of dairies, and the state’s total milk production as well slipping by about 1 percent versus 2015, receipts this year are sure to be down from 2015’s $6.3 billion.


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