Drought Sucks the Life from California Farms

On January 17, 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of drought emergency. Fast forward a few months and California has still yet to experience substantial rainfall. No rainfall means no snow in the Sierra Nevada, and no snow means no runoff; essential to not only the residents of California but vital to farmers.

It’s a Tuesday morning in Roseville, California and all is well at the local farmer’s market. There are several people, going from tent to tent in search of fresh and local produce, but what they don’t know, is the struggle these small farms are currently facing

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Tes Sulivan of Natural Trading Company runs the stand at the Farmer’s Market. For sale was an array of greenery; kale, swiss chard, wheatgrass, butternut squash and pea shooters. Natural Trading Co. is the biggest, certified organic farm in Placer County. In addition to produce, Natural Trading Co. also has fresh eggs for sale.

The lack of rainfall and snow is behind the drought and according to the California Department of Water Resources “California has only met 32 percent of it’s needed water supply.”

This is bad news for the 40 million residents of the state but even worse news for farmers.

“It’s definitely affected us this year, we’ve had to water this year because on good years we don’t water. Now, we’re having to water and try to get water at the same time.” said Tes Sulivan of Natural Trading Company in Newcastle, California.

Natural Trading Co. is the largest, organic-certified farm in Placer County and has been barely getting by with the water ration. Since the farm is located in Newcastle, it receives water from the Central Valley Project, which starts at Lake Shasta, and gets water from local streams and rivers.

There may be a lack of water but Sulivan of Natural Trading Co. said it’s just one of the hard parts of farming.

“Every year, everything is different, the rainfall, the time of the year when things heat up, will it get cold? Every year the components are slightly different and have a different affect on produce,” Sulivan said.

Now that winter has come to an end, we will begin to see summer fruits hit that stand but, these delicious summer fruits require more water than winter vegetables. One farm in the Placer County area has had to sacrifice several produce items for their main fruit.

“This year to save the mandarins, we’re planting less summer stuff because we only get so much water and [summer produce] needs so much water,” said Lisa Pilz of Pilz Produce at Hillcrest in Penryn, California.

“We’ll have a little less squash and maybe only one tent set up instead of two then our restaurants and whole sale market will suffer a little bit too. Out of 7 acres of vegetables we’re planting about half of that in order to water all of the trees” Pilz noted.

Pilz also is unsure of how much water the 20 acre farm will receive causing difficulties in determining what to plant.

“The worst part is snow pack which we don’t have. That’s our August to September water supply,” Pilz explained.

Lisa Pilz, of Pilz Produce at Hillcrest, runs the family-farm with her husband Steve Pilz. Mr. Pilz inherited the farm when his grandfather retired. The farm is on 20 acres of land and produces different vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs every year.

Lisa Pilz, of Pilz Produce at Hillcrest, runs the family-farm with her husband Steve Pilz. Mr. Pilz inherited the farm when his grandfather retired. The farm is on 20 acres of land and produces different vegetables, fruit, flowers and herbs every year.

But not all farms require water from the mountains, Salle Orchards in Wheatland, California has a water well with plenty of water for their 60 acre farm. Their specialty is walnuts and an expansive amount of fruit-baring trees.

“For us, we run on a well but it is cautionary,” Nicole Salle said.

Although Salle Farms has a sufficiently-filled well, not all farms are lucky to have that amount of water for their crops.

So what exactly is causing California’s lack of water?

Of course we need more rain, but the few rain storms in the valley will only water the crops and continue out to the ocean, which has it’s own benefits but does not help farms. Needless to say, the rain in the valley has not been sufficient enough to lift the drought. The real problem is the lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. Currently, the mountains have only seen “29 percent of the normal amount of snowfall,” said snow surveyor Frank Gehrke.

Most of the snowpack is supposed to run down and fill up several rivers and lakes, including Folsom Lake, which reached a low of 14 percent capacity this year. Regardless of any more snow in the mountains or rain in lower elevations, several regions of California have been put on mandatory water restrictions and left farms are still waiting to see how much of the water they will get.

Despite the scarcity of water, these three farms will still manage to grow and sell summer produce to make the necessary income.

As for Natural Trading Co. and Pilz Produce, they are still unaware of how much water they will receive but are still hopeful for the summer season.

“Tomatoes will trickle in, cherries and even apricots,” Sulivan Said.

As for Salle Orchards, the summer will be a breeze.

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