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Drought calls for desperate measures from Northern California farmers

California has seen its share of droughts, but the one happening now is so severe that a longtime dairy farmer has called it quits.

“It was the final straw. I tell people, I'm in the fourth quarter of business anyway so if not now, when?” said Bob McClure, a 60-year-old fourth-generation rancher of McClure Dairy, which was founded in 1889 and remains on the Point Reyes Peninsula in Marin County. “I couldn't take a risk of running out of water for hundreds of cows, and I’m not going to haul water to the Point Reyes Peninsula at this point in my life.”

McClure was already thinking about when he would wrap up operations at the dairy, but his decision to close at the end of May was “truly, truly driven by the threat of running out of water,” he said.

Searching for water

California since 1895 has undergone a number of extended periods of dry weather, with the driest on record being the three-year period between 1974 and 1977, according to Drought.gov, the National Integrated Drought Information System’s website.

“I remember the 1976 and 1977 drought, and this is much worse,” said McClure.

During that drought, he recalled ranchers would plug-up culverts and dig holes in order to create makeshift dams. “This year, it’s dry as a bone. There’s not a drop of water in those places, wherein the past we had dug little stock ponds.”

As the current drought wears on — it began last year — it’s becoming even more difficult for the ranching community, which mostly depends on surface water, noted Stefan Parnay, Marin County’s agricultural commissioner.

“When those ponds and other storage areas don't fill up with water, then that creates a huge, huge issue,” Parnay said. “One year they can get by with; two years, things start to get really, really tough. And there’s concern about the next year.”

Dairy farmers in Marin County are already having to haul in water for their livestock.

“Right now we have about 12 dairies that are hauling water in the county, and that number is going to go up because the amount of water that's available is just going down,” Parnay said, noting there are 25 operating dairies in the county, including goat dairies. “It's not going to be enough to keep those businesses going, and that’s even with reducing herd size.”

Parnay said most of the dairy and beef cattle ranchers he’s spoken with already have reduced their herd at some level, and for those who haven’t, that day is coming soon.

“The amount of forage out there is really limited and it's pretty poor quality,” Parnay said. “In a lot of cases, 100% of the feed is coming from purchased feed.” That alone puts organic dairies in a bind. Under U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, dairy animals must graze pasture at least 120 days per year.

Organic mandates aside, it’s a tough business these days for any farmer in the North Bay.

“You start penciling out the numbers and it just doesn't make economic sense to keep as many animals,” Parnay said, “so you have to reduce the herd in order to maintain the health of the other animals.”

And it’s hardly a buyer’s market for offloading livestock, which means ranchers are having to send older animals to slaughter — in some cases earlier than planned — and younger ones to other ranches, Parnay said.

In this regard, McClure got lucky.

“I had a good offer for buying the cows just prior, right around the same time (the drought began),” he said. “It made sense. So no regrets on that.”

Saving crops

Crop producers have been hit just as hard as ranchers, according to Parnay, who said he’s hearing that about 50% of the crop production acreage in Marin County will be left fallow, meaning it won’t be planted at all.

In Napa County, where wine grapes make up most of the region’s agriculture, producers like David Wilson have been trying to stay ahead of the drought amidst the uncertainty of how long it will last.

“Our focus this season so far has just been to get in early for all of our practices because we're trying to conserve the moisture that is there,” said Wilson, a second-generation farmer at Rancho Chimiles and a member of the Napa County Farm Bureau’s board of directors.

Rancho Chimiles currently farms about 65 acres of wine grapes in its vineyards located in the hills of Wooden Valley, northeast of Napa.

“We're trying to limit how much water we need to use, because we know we'll need it later in the summer to sustain the crop and canopies going into harvest,” Wilson said.

That means early shoot thinning, early mowing and eliminating the younger foliage to focus on the mature foliage that’s a lot more efficient with water usage, he noted.

A canopy refers to all above ground parts of a grape vine, including the vine, leaves and fruit.

“It’s really challenging,” Wilson said. “With grape vines, if you don't build sufficient canopy in the springtime going into bloom, you can't get it back.”

So far, the bloom — when grape vines self-pollinate to create nascent clusters — has been impacted in certain blocks, but it’s too soon to fully assess losses, he said.

“We've been through many drought cycles before, so we feel like we have experience, but this one’s been pretty dramatic,” Wilson said. “We do have crop insurance, but it's nowhere near our contracted-through price.”

Regional impact

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said the impact of the drought can best be assessed through variances among three regions.

In southern Sonoma County, Tesconi said dairy farmers already are starting to have to haul water. She’s expecting to see more beef cattle, goats and horse ranches to follow suit.

“Right now, they are depending on some sort of surface-water storage or springs, so they’ll eventually likely have water concerns as well,” she said.

Many farmers in the middle part of the county depend on reclaimed, or recycled, water from the city of Santa Rosa’s treatment facility, which has 70 different agricultural users, she said.

“(The facility) has indicated that farmers are only going to get about 30% to 40% of a three-year average,” Tesconi said, which will result in farmers probably having to make some planting decisions.

“The one thing that (farmers in the) central part of Sonoma County do have available is groundwater,” she said. But that’s an expensive proposition. “Some of them have wells they had 30 years ago that they gave up because they were getting all this recycled water, so now they're having to go back and either put in new pumps or recase their wells.”

In northern Sonoma County, vineyard farmers that depend on water from the Russian River have been notified they may not be able to get water from their go-to source, Tesconi said.

Those farmers now have to decide if they’re going to let some things fallow or perhaps go with a more dry harvest crop, meaning they’ll get 50% of the fruit they normally get, she said.

“There's a lot of decisions being made across all the crops, geographically, so it's really very challenging times right now for our farmers,” Tesconi said.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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