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Photo by Fermin Donis

Working on our fall issue always gets me a little disoriented. It’s lazy midsummer vacation time, but here we are creating coverage for a soon-to-be-busy fall season with its harvests and holiday preparations… oh, and an election.

The drought and election were on my mind as I was talking to Aldo Assali of A.P. Farming, Inc., who for several decades has been growing almonds near Merced. That’s the Central Valley area where the water table has dropped so dramatically that the land above the subterranean water chambers is now collapsing. Assali says he stands on his hill looking down on thousands of acres recently put into cultivation and wonders why there has not been any planning for a water system to support the state’s increasing population and expansion of farming. He sees it as a failure in government and hopes for better leadership among our elected officials.

At the “peaceable kingdom” of Grabish Farm in Solano County, the crisis is not so deep, although Amy Grabish says they are paying more for the hay they need to feed their menagerie of heritage animals (including some mulefoot hogs, one of which played a starring role at the recent Cochon 555 cook-off in St. Helena). “Apparently the huge investment Solano County made in Lake Berryessa and the water system has protected it against major flux in water supply,” she says.

Welling Tom of Brookside Farm in Brentwood says his family is lucky that the close proximity of their farm to the delta means they can still run their drip irrigation and micro sprinklers off their own well. “We’ve always operated as if water were a precious commodity,” he says. “But the struggle seems tougher in recent years, with more incursions of insect pests, scrub jays pecking at tree fruit, and marauding bands of wild turkeys damaging everything they can reach. This may be drought-related, since living foliage has become scarce in wilderness areas.”

At Inzana Ranch near the Tuolumne River in Hughson, Tony Inzana’s tree crops get water from the Turlock and Modesto irrigation systems, which have more water in storage than his friend Assali’s district has. Inzana explains that the situation varies by region and what you are farming. “People who have flexibility can let ground go fallow or plant short corn.” With less than half the water allotment he’s accustomed to, Inzana is making strategic decisions, such as when to cut off water and end his peach season. “It will affect quality and price dramatically,” he says. “Processors say ‘we want big fat peaches,’ but small ones taste just as good.”

The most encouraging words I heard came from Anders Olson, who is pictured above at one of his two Olson Farms locations. At 25 years old, Olson has just started leasing land in Marin and Sonoma counties to grow the row crops he sells to a young following at the Berkeley Student Food Collective and through a community-supported agriculture program. He says three months of summer water will cost $3,000. “That’s more than the land lease for the year.” Allocating the precious water is complex set of daily decisions.

Expanding his plantings will have to wait, but it’s the long view that has Olson excited. “Farmers have always been creative and forward thinking,” he says. And Olson’s young customer base is savvy to the new concepts that interest him, like agroforestry, where an orchard’s leaf canopy can serve to protect vegetables grown among the trees from the harsh, drying sun of our 21st century climate. “Avocados have always been grown further south, but this is a great place to grow them.” (For a CSA box or other information, contact Anders Olson at earthworm12@gmail.com.)

So here’s to our farmers and a guacamole-green future for our foodshed! Please save water and enjoy those last little peaches.

 Correction: In our summer-issue article, “Tasting the East Bay: A Food Tour Sampler,” we neglected to say that Localite Tours is owned and operated in equal part by Gretchen Ludwig and Serena Laing. Also, we want to clarify that their tours always include a full meal, in addition to snacks along the way.

Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Editor