On a late January day, when heavy fog and drizzle inspired longing for the wet winters of years past, I called up Alexis Koefoed at Soul Food Farm in Vacaville to see if the Facebook chatter about a ceremony on her farm to invoke the rain gods had some basis.
“It started off tongue in cheek, but now it’s turning into something like an authentic Native American rain dance,” she said. In our brief conversation, Keofoed mentioned that she already had many water-conserving techniques in place on her farm, but she would be making further adaptions.
I sent out a query to about a dozen other farmers, asking for brief comments about the drought, but receiving an emotion-tinged flood of words, far more than I could put in the print version of this magazine. The full extent of the comments is now collected below, and I hope you will read to the end.
I kept thinking of Koefoed’s upbeat closing note: “I believe it’s going to rain after we do the dance.” One has to hold that belief in these circumstances, but perhaps it’s that we might all need that kind of energy and intention to carry through and support the good people who are producing the food we rely on for life.
In celebration of the coming spring,
“The hills are still brown with dry grass from last spring. They are usually always green by February. The surface water from our farm comes from Clear Lake and Indian Valley Reservoir and as of the end of January, it looks like there will be no water to release into Cache Creek, which feeds the canal that flows through our farm. Yolo County sits above a healthy aquifer that is about 80 feet below the surface of the ground. All but one of our fields have wells that will be irrigated by this precious natural resource and have been well managed by our farmers and Yolo County Flood Control officials. Other farms are not so lucky and have many more fields that are dependent on surface water that isn’t available. We still have a few months of rain season ahead of us. I am doing my rain dance and trying not to enjoy the beautiful weather.”
—Thaddeus Barsotti, farmer and co-CEO, Farm Fresh To You
“At Brookside Farm our usual means of irrigation have always been frugal (dry-farmed tomatoes and melons; drip irrigation for most row crops, especially during summer; micro-sprinklers for spring, fall, and winter vegetables and for our fruit trees), mostly because we operate on a very limited budget and because we understand that water is never a boundless resource. Our own well (located in deep soil, near sea level) is our primary source. For our fruit trees we order water (one week each month, usually between April and October) from the East Contra Costa County Irrigation District (ECCID), which I believe is sourced at the San Joaquin River. These sources are apparently not as endangered as many of the reservoirs, but I expect the price of the ECCID water will be higher.
“The only hope I see for the future of California farmers is to recognize and respect the microclimates and regional geographies that are best suited to farming. It is hopeless when good farmland becomes tract housing and farmers try to turn deserts into orchards. We need to cut into that overly cozy dance between politicians and real estate developers and corporate farmers, in order to make better use of our natural resources. Perhaps my view favors small farms on small acreages better than large-scale mega farms, but it is not based solely on my own opinion.”
—Welling Tom, Brookside Farm, Brentwood
“With ZERO surface water forecasted to be available in Yolo County this summer, farmers around us are hunkering down to try to just survive the year on properties that have wells. With almost no recharge from rains, and following a drier than normal previous year, many of my farming neighbors are worried about groundwater lasting through summer.
“We’re using this crisis as an opportunity to evaluate how we can continue to grow food sustainably for our local communities in the face of dwindling resources, expanding population, and a changing climate. It is a challenge not just for our farm this one season, but to our nation in the long haul. I hope this drought provides the impetus to policy makers and engineers to increase our storage capacity in the state, and, further incentivize farmers to maximize irrigation efficiency in our fields. The alternative is bleak.”
—Chris Hay, Say Hay Farms, Woodland
“We produce our own livestock feed on the farm, but we are concerned that we will not have the feed we need without precipitation and have already sold one third of our cow herd. Our hope is to reach maximum soil fertility and flexibility through our livestock manure, compost, and more drought tolerant crops to maintain higher yields with less water. We are grateful for the gifts of the living world and seek to support the beings within that world through the use of biodynamic sprays and preparations.”
—Gloria Decatur, Live Power Community Farm, Covelo
“We have 160 years of weather records for this area, and every decade or two we can expect a few years of drought. When agriculture in the valley was mostly field crops and row crops, the farmers could just fallow their land until it started raining again. But increasingly the valley is planted to orchards, and you cannot fallow an irrigated orchard without risking the trees, so we have to expect heavy pumping of ground water this year, and probably a drop in the water table.
I’ve always been frugal with water, and my trees are adapted to deficit irrigation, so my practices won’t change much. I am pruning my olive trees very hard this year, taking out about a third of the branches; this increases the ratio of roots to shoots, and decreases the amount of foliage, which is where the trees use water. My green manure crops, which depend on rainfall, are a complete failure.
Hardest hit by the drought will be the ranchers. The usual winter forage is not there, and the dry land hay crop is a failure, so that the price of hay will be very high. At this point sheep and cattle are more of a liability than an asset, and a lot of ranchers will be selling off animals at a light weight and a low price to decrease the size of their herds.
My experience of farming over the years is that about thirty percent of my efforts are failures, and I don’t expect to be much outside that range this year.
—Mike Madison, Yolo Bulb Farm, Dixon
“Many of us might be faced with the decision of whether to allow the trees to develop the olives or strip them bare of fruit for the year to allow the tree to survive the drought.”
—Charles Crohare, Olivina Ranch, Livermore
“As far as the olive oil goes, since all our orchards are already drip irrigated, there is not much more we can do to economize on our water use. We already practice deficit irrigation 40 days prior to harvest to get fruit to color up and be more flavorful. In our orchard in an irrigation district, we will not be receiving any allocations this year as far as we know, so we will be utilizing our well all through the summer. We will have increased PG&E costs. On our orchard where we are not in a district, we are installing a pump that allows us to shift some of the load to solar panels during daylight hours. Our storage is already 100% solar powered for meat and olive oil. We should be able to keep up production but we will have increased operating costs.
“As far as feeding our livestock, we are in very deep trouble. We are culling about 15 percent of our stock, early weaning our lambs, and are relying on purchased hay. Our own hay stock is depleted and we will not get a cutting until May. For many ranchers, who were already running very lean in their operations, with a slim profit margin on the grass based meats, this drought may be the finishing straw. We will hang in there as long as we can, but the state’s hay stock is disappearing fast. If we could get a moratorium on exporting hay to other countries (especially China) while the drought declaration is in place, all our cattle & sheep producers would have a much better chance of finding hay to maintain their herds through this hard time.”
—Rachel Kasa, Casa Rosa Farms, Woodland