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  • Record sales for Cali farmers during record drought

    Feb 11th, 2016

    In 2014 California's Governor Jerry Brown declared the state in a drought emergency and launched what in 2015 became mandatory water conservation for cities and towns. Yet in the same year, California's farmers reaped record sales; 76,400 farms recorded $53.5 billion in sales in 2014. The figures are causing tension between farmers and city-dwellers and environmentalists, who complain they are being forced to make greater sacrifices than growers.Experts cite two key reasons for California farms’ strong showing even in dry times: a California almond boom fed by surging demand from China and elsewhere, and farmers’ ability to dig deeper, bigger wells to pump up more groundwater when other sources run out.

    The state report tracked sales, not profits. Higher costs for water and other expenses of the drought outstripped sales for some farmers, but experts said it is clear many others made strong profits, as evidenced by the rush by growers and corporate investors to get into the almond business and take advantage of a run-up in prices.Jay Lund, a water-resources researcher at the University of California at Davis said the sales figures show that California farmers are doing what they should be doing in a dry spell.“To me it illustrates that you can actually have a fairly good job in managing water,” Lund said.Some of those who consider themselves the losers in California’s water wars see it differently.“The water they’re taking, they’re also taking from communities around them — like us,” said Guillermo Lopez, a resident of Fresno County, the state’s third-most productive farming county, who was forced to haul water when his family taps ran dry.

    Lopez’s family well was one of 2,520 household wells around the state to run out of water because of the drought and overpumping of the state’s underground water reserves, according to state figures.California just went through its driest four-year period on record. Brown asked California cities and towns to cut water use 20 percent in 2014, then made a 25 percent cutback for urban users mandatory the next year. Farmers say that they have suffered in the drought, too, and that the rising cost of irrigating their crops is eating into their profits. Not only are their water costs higher but their power bills have shot up because they’re running their well pumps more.The University of California at Davis estimates that more expensive water and other drought-related expenses cost farmers $2 billion in 2014.The state ordered thousands of farmers to stop taking water from rivers last year in a rare move that hit even some of those with seemingly ironclad water rights dating back a century. In the fertile San Joaquin Valley, some farms in 2015 received no surface water for a second year in a row and were forced to rely on their wells to irrigate crops. Experts warn that Californians are pumping up groundwater at unsustainable rates, causing the ground during the drought to sink more than a foot in parts of the Central Valley farm country.

    Heavy demand for almonds in Asia and Europe has spurred a boom in the planting of almonds in California and drawn hedge funds and big corporations into the business. California almond production has doubled since the start of this century, surpassing even grapes in 2011.Environmentalists and others complain that almonds are thirsty crops, requiring about a gallon of water per nut, or more than wine grapes use. Some agriculture experts counter that almonds are exactly the kind of high-dollar crop California farmers should be planting to make the most of scarce water.California farmers have passed the higher costs of water on to consumers, with almond prices soaring from $2.40 a pound in 2012 to $5 last year.The recent state agriculture report, released late last month, shows almonds were the state’s second-biggest cash crop in 2014 after dairy. Exports accounted for $4.5 billion of California almond farmers’ total $5.9 billion in sales, agriculture officials say.However, the outlook for almond sales has dimmed since 2014, with overplanting by eager farmers and an economic slowdown in China threatening to end the boom.“It’s a curious case where the effects of the economic growth thousands of miles away might have more effect than a drought in California,” said Lund, the UC-Davis expert.