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July 18, 2014

Farm Beat: 5 percent ag loss figure doesn’t tell whole story

This week’s report on the drought’s impact on agriculture shows that the pain is concentrated in some locales and farm sectors.

If your kid came home with a 95 percent test score, you’d likely say, “Great job.”

California will maintain that much of its agricultural output this year, despite the severe drought, according to a UC Davis study released Tuesday. But that’s little cause for celebration.

That 5 percent loss is a statewide figure that masks the misery in places where the drought is especially bad – the west side of Stanislaus County, much of Merced County and many other locales.

And to maintain that 95 percent of statewide output, many farmers have increased groundwater pumping to make up for short river supplies. That is an accepted part of water management in this drought-prone state, but many experts worry about overdrafting.

The study, by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, projected a $2.2 billion hit from the drought this year. The state had $42.6 billion in gross farm income in 2012, the latest year on record, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

This year’s near-normal output results also from fallowing some annual crops so the water can go to higher-value plantings such as almonds, walnuts and grapes. This will allow growers to take advantage of the current strong prices for these crops, but it means less alfalfa and other feed for dairy and beef producers. And if you own a horse, you know what alfalfa costs these days.

The report estimated that the drought will cause 17,100 people to lose their jobs on farms and ranches and at businesses that benefit from ag-related spending. That would add only a tenth of 1 percent to the unemployment rate in California, but it will mean plenty of hardship for farmworker communities.

“If you are one of the 17,000 people who is losing a job, it’s really bad,” said study co-author Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics. He was speaking at a webcast news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The report also touched on how the drought has affected the non-irrigated grazing land in the hills east and west of the Valley. Rain was scarce this past winter on grasslands that usually support beef cattle well into spring.

“A lot of our long-term ranchers have had to disperse their herds,” said Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown. They have benefited from high beef prices, she said, but now they face the cost of rebuilding the numbers.

Farmers and ranchers take risks, and never more so than during a drought. They boost their well pumping in the belief that future wet years will replenish the aquifer. They sell off beef cattle early and pray for rain to restore the grasses.

It will fall again, as will the Sierra Nevada snow that is even more crucial to Valley agriculture. We just don’t know when and how much.

Neither do the experts. The National Weather Service has detected signs of an emerging El Niño, a warming of Pacific Ocean waters near the equator that sometimes means heavy storms for California. “Sometimes” is the key word.

“Don’t count on El Niño,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis center. “It’s probably not relevant.”

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