How you might be contributing to California’s water woes

Great Washington Post article on the drought…

In the wake of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to enact mandatory restrictions on the use of water given the state’s ongoing, historic drought, people nationwide have become obsessed with almonds. Not in the sense that people are buying and eating lots of almonds, mind you. In the sense that suddenly everyone with even a tenuous connection to the Internet is an expert on the water usage of various agricultural products.

Each almond, you may have heard, requires one gallon of water to grow. Which, you may also have heard, is part of the reason why agriculture uses a stunning 80 percent of California’s water — and yet was not asked by Brown to curtail its usage at all.

Here’s the problem. The factoid about the almonds lacks context; a lot of other foods use much more water by weight. The one about how much water agriculture uses, meanwhile, is surprisingly subjective. Including water reserved for environmental purposes, agriculture only uses about 41 percent of the state’s water. And that figure almost certainly doesn’t capture what is happening on the ground in California agricultural areas over the past 24 months.

Orange trees in rows, with the Sierra foothills in the distance. (The Washington Post)
There’s a city in central California about an hour southeast of Fresno called Visalia. To get there, you fly into Fresno Air Terminal, FAT, and head south on the 99, between neatly planted rows of eucalyptus trees and past several smaller farming towns, including Selma, the raisin capital of the world. The air smells like manure and dust, and, if you’re like me, it will trigger your allergies. The region consistently has among the lowest air quality in America.

Visalia is in the northwest corner of Tulare County, where Mark Watte owns a farm and dairy. Watte — whose name my phone kept autocorrecting to “water” — has about 1,000 milk cows and grows alfalfa, corn and wheat as feed. He added pistachio trees about a decade ago and and recently, almonds. After struggling to keep up his output last year, he expects to have to cut back this year.

“It’s going to be 40 to 50 percent” that won’t get water, he told me by phone. “We have some crops that we just won’t irrigate. Alfalfa’s one of them. We’ll just quit irrigating it in the summer and if we don’t get water, we won’t irrigate.” The effect on his bottom line? He’ll use what water he gets to protect his highest-value crops, like those nut trees. So he expects to see a 25 percent decrease in income.

That phrase — “get water” — is an important one. Watte pays for the water he uses and, in most years, controls how much he buys. When there is no water, though, he can’t. And recently, there hasn’t been much water.

A full canal in 2008 flows past flood irrigated walnut groves. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)
On the east side of the Central Valley are the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Sequoia National Park. (When you disembark at FAT, you walk through an artificial forest meant to welcome visitors who plan to visit the mountains’ giant redwoods.) In normal years, snow falls in the mountains in the winter and then melts during the spring and summer, collecting in rivers. One of those rivers is the Kaweah, which originates up in the mountains and then collects in a man-made lake east of Visalia. The lake was formed when the county built the Terminus Dam in the 1950s in response to flooding that swept through Visalia in the 1930s. Now, it’s a key part of the region’s water system.

The map below, provided by the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District (of which Watte is vice president), shows how that water gets from the lake to the rest of the region. It’s a complicated, intricate web of natural and man-made systems. Lake Kaweah and Lake Success (formed by another dam) are in the Sierra foothills. Their water flows into rivers and canals, and is then shunted into smaller waterways. Those waterways are usually ditches, owned and maintained by about 20 ditch companies, who are to agricultural water what the delivery guy is to your pizza place: The ones who get it to your door.

The dam and lake are maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. But most of the water in the lake is the property of farmers and ditch companies, having decades ago bought storage in the lake. There’s an organization comprised of the companies and some farmers, that meets in the spring and decides how and when to release water from the lake. In good years, water can flow out of the lake, into rivers, and into ditches for 60 to 90 days, from June through August. In bad years, like 2014, it’s 20 days.

Normally, as I said above, snow falls in the Sierras and melts slowly to fill the lake. Thanks to the lack of snowfall in the Sierras over the winter and months of little rain on the valley floor, this year the lake could end up well below normal, perhaps only reaching 70,000 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot is the standard unit of measurement, representing the amount of water that can cover a one acre area one foot deep.) The lake can hold 185,000 acre-feet.

Farmers pay for a certain number of acre-feet to flow into their irrigation systems, sometimes going into storage ponds, water batteries on their land. Ditch companies and government bureaus sell water to farmers, opening and closing gates to allow the proper amount to flow into their property.

Jeff Tashjian, who grows lemons and oranges on the east side of Tulare County — and who is my brother-in-law — has seen how the price of water has changed over the course of his two decades in the business. “I can remember when water was, 50, 60 dollars an acre-foot,” he told me. The price varies by location: Farms uphill from the water source pay more, because it needs to be pumped. Farms further west from the source pay more, too, since it’s more expensive to shunt it over there.

When there’s less water, the law of supply and demand also kicks in. “Last year, they had a little water left over, and they were telling the farmers it was around $400 an acre-foot,” said Tashjian. Farmers bought it to store, in case of emergency, like a well going dry. Then the company got hold of more water. “If you want some,” he was told, “it’s $1,500 an acre-foot.” Buying water in hard times, in other words, can be as much as 30 times more expensive.

(Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District) (Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District)
The preventive measures make sense. Groundwater levels had already been dropping over time, as the graph above shows. The aquifer from which water in the area is drawn has had two million acre-feet more withdrawn than it should have, according to Watte. “The only way we can pump less water is to farm less land,” he said. “That’s looming.”

But worse drought means less water through the system of ditches and canals, which means more pumping groundwater. More pumped groundwater means wells run dry. Jeff Ritchie, who farms a wide array of crops ranging from walnuts to cotton, said that the drought is the worst he’s seen. “We’re having to go in and drill deeper to take the place of the ones that are dry,” Ritchie told me. When the canals and rivers are flush with water after heavy rain- or snowfall, the groundwater is replenished, as is seeps into the ground. With the drought, that doesn’t happen.

California prepares for mandatory water restrictions(1:38)
Amid an historic drought, Californians are preparing to face the reality of their first statewide mandatory water restrictions. (Reuters)
There’s one other way in which agriculture east of Visalia gets water: The Friant-Kern Canal. It’s marked on the map above, and brings water down from the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, past the outskirts of Visalia, and down to Bakersfield. Tashjian gets water for some of his fields from the Friant; it’s the one that saw the spike in prices in 2014. Such north-south water projects are legendary for their contentiousness in California history, of course. Last year, The Atlantic thoroughly (and fascinatingly) detailed the state and history of that system.

(Friant Water Authority) (Friant Water Authority)
In Tulare County, the problem is slightly more localized. For the first time ever last year, the Friant allocated zero percent of its contractually obligated water for irrigation in the area. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it expected another “zero allocation.”

A state decision in February not to allow increased pumping for agriculture met with protest from farmers who get water through the Friant system. State Water Resources Control Board Director Thomas Howard argued against the pumping, given the historically low population levels for certain types of fish. Which offers a nice anecdote for answering the question of how much water is used for what.

(State of California) (State of California)
Agriculture uses 80 percent of the state’s water only if you exclude water that is reserved for environmental purposes. A report from the Public Policy Institute of California (from which the graph above is derived), explains what that water is used for: “water in rivers protected as ‘wild and scenic’ under federal and state laws, water required for maintaining habitat within streams, water that supports wetlands within wildlife preserves, and water needed to maintain water quality for agricultural and urban use.” It’s everything that’s not in the bottom half of the circle above. Agriculture uses far, far more water than urban areas, but it, too, has constraints.

The limitations placed on water use for environmental purposes clearly frustrated the farmers that I spoke with. In part, that’s due to a long series of legal and political battles, which the farmers feel as though they usually lose. (They aren’t without their allies; California Republican Carly Fiorina blamed environmentalists for the state of the drought.) But the tension is particularly sharp given recent critiques of water use by agriculture.

“We do what the rest of the world can’t do so well,” Watte said. “We grow processing tomatoes. Almonds. Pistachios. Table grapes. Garlic and onions. All of these things that we supply a significant amount of the nation and the world’s supply. What would they rather have us do with that water?”

“Garbanzo beans don’t take much water,” he added. “Should we just grow garbanzo beans?”

In response to the almond critique, the Los Angeles Times created a graphic showing how much water it took to grow an ounce of various types of food. Almonds are low on the list. Beef, which requires crops be grown and then fed to the animals, as on Mark Watte’s farm, uses much more per ounce. The number of ounces of almonds produced for market, though, means they use more water statewide, as Bloomberg notes. Scale is important.

Where the blames falls for agriculture’s water use is open to interpretation. According to Watte’s data, making a cheeseburger — the lettuce, tomato, bun, cheese and meat patty — uses 698.5 gallons of water. “Who is the real consumer of that water?,” he asks. Is it the farmer? The produce itself? His implication, of course, is that it is you.

The farmers I spoke with have been and are making changes aimed at reducing their water consumption. After all, it’s expensive. Historically, walnut trees are flooded, because the roots like deep moisture. That meant literally flooding the grove and letting the water seep into the ground. (Which, at least, helps rebuild ground water.) Newer groves have microdrip systems, which costs more to install, a few thousand dollars per acre, but reduces the amount of water that’s used.

That holds for other crops, too. “Ten years ago, a common yield [of processing tomatoes] would be 40 tons to the acre using 36 to 40 inches of water,” Watte said. “Now they’ve doubled their yield using 24 inches of water.”

The Kaweah River, flowing down from the Sierras in 2007. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)
Tashjian’s citrus trees used to use furrowed irrigation, in which water would be turned on from a tap and rows of ditches would be filled with water until it seeped into the ground. It took five to six days to irrigate his entire crop. Now, he has buried irrigation lines running between the trees, with fan jets that are set to particular pressures and patterns. The irrigation only takes one day, saving both water and electricity.

Still, he’s considering other ways to cut down on water. Maybe moving the irrigation lines underneath the trees, so the water is shielded from evaporation better. (This is the Central Valley of California, after all, where temperatures routinely head north of 100 degrees in the summer.) That switch, though, might affect the trees. He’s also thought about running the irrigation at night, but that could mean being slower to detect problems. This isn’t just a drought problem for him. It’s also an economic one.

Harvesting walnuts by shaking the trees. (Philip Bump/The Washington Post)
Asked to explain why he wasn’t mandating reductions from agriculture, Gov. Brown told ABC News last Sunday that “they’re not watering their lawn or taking long showers — they’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant part of the world.”

“If you don’t want to produce any food and import it from some other place, theoretically, you could do that,” he said. “But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don’t think it’s needed.”

Incidentally, the amount of water used in California in February was down only 2.8 percent versus 2013, the lowest figure since last July. Some places, including cities down south, saw their usage go up. Wealthy Southern Californians use three times as much water as the non-wealthy, according to one study. Perhaps they deserve a nickname.

I propose: “Almonds.”

By Philip Bump

Link to original article –

California Fairs on display at the State Capitol!

The California Department of Food & Agriculture’s Division of Fairs and Expositions is proud to feature a California Fairs Exhibit at the California State Capitol March 30th-April 3rd. The exhibit features information on the network of California Fairs and 2015 fair dates.

The network of California fairs consists of 52 active District Agriculture Associations (state entities), 22 County fairs (county operated or sponsored non-profit organizations), two citrus fruit fairs established to promote the citrus industry, and the California State Fair & Exposition.

The common purpose of California’s network of fairs is to provide agricultural education to fair attendees, as well as showcase and exhibit the state’s industries and products. Fair events are continuous throughout much of the the year. The schedule began the second week in February with the Cloverdale and Indio fairs and will end with the Grand National Rodeo in Daly City during the first week of November.

California fairs also host events throughout the year, such as home shows, dog shows, and rodeos! California fairs are community-based so community groups and private entities can utilize the fairgrounds and facilities. Fairgrounds also serve as emergency staging and evacuation areas for the public, their animals, and state agencies such as CAL FIRE.

When is your fair? See the following link for fair dates and additional information.

Please enjoy the bounty that California fairs offer and stop-by the California Fairs exhibit at the State Capitol March 30th-April 3rd!

Mountain Mandarin Festival

When autumn days in the Placer County foothills are warm and the nights are cold, mandarin orange growers anxiously await the first blush of color on their fruit. Just before Thanksgiving, samples are eagerly tasted for sweetness and then long hours are spent hand-snipping each stem to bring in the first crop of the season for the Mandarin Festival (which is also the weekend before Thanksgiving)!

Mountain Mandarin

The sweet and tangy citrus scent of Mandarin oranges permeates the crisp November air during the three-day Mandarin Festival held at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn, California. The Sierra Foothills, long-known for the discovery of gold in California, are also known for their golden treasure, the Mandarin orange. The Mandarin Festival attracts 25,000 to 30,000 visitors who savor the juicy fruit, which is available only late November through January. Most growers offer the seedless Owari Satsuma variety, often called the zipper fruit because it is so easy to peel. There are many other varieties of Mandarins.

There will be a dozen or more Placer County growers bringing thousands of familiar 10-pound orange-mesh bags of the fruit — ready for travel home to friends and family. Mandarins should be plentiful, however it’s a good idea to get your bags early and then enjoy the festival. Food vendors serve up mandarin infused drinks, salads, grilled meats, ice-creams, glazed nuts, chocolate-dipped mandarins, fudge, marinades, and syrups. Many of the growers offer homemade treats and gift baskets. Quality hand-crafted items are also for sale just in time for holiday giving and home trimming at more than 250 booths.

There are cooking demonstrations throughout the festival with Mandarins as an ingredient. And, there will be feature regionally known chefs. The popular Mandarin Recipe Contest on Sunday attracts amateur cooks who bring their prepared dish to be judged.

Information hot line: (916) 663-1918

2014 Taste of Santa Clara Valley



When: Sunday, September 14th, 5-9pm

Where: Guglielmo Winery

1480 E. Main Avenue, Morgan Hill, CA

What: The “farm to fork” dinner will highlight the bounty of the farmers of the Santa Clara Valley that represent the history and future of the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Prepared by Chef Nicolai Tuban of Bon Appétit Management Company, the menu will be fully sourced from local farmers. Attendees will be able to experience fresh, local, and delicious food at the peak of the season. Proceeds from the event will support CAFF’s program work-which directly benefit California family farmers.

For Tickets Go To:




Yolo County Fair Gala Celebration

The Yolo County Fair is proud to present its 8th annual Opening Night Gala, showcasing our county’s wonderful agricultural projects and produce. Visitors from near and far converge on the Fairgrounds to enjoy first peeks at the 2014 educational booths and exhibits, as well as the Fair itself.

This Gala will be held Wednesday, August 13th, from 6:00-8:00 pm in the Agriculture Building of the Yolo County Fair Grounds. No matter what the weather is like, the Ag Building will be both the hottest and coolest place to be.

Mix and mingle with local community leaders, growers, and all your old friends from Fairs past. The Gala will feature local wines, olive oils, honey, nuts, jams, meats, produce and restaurant fare, as well as performances by some of the best local musicians. Attendees will sample the very best of our local harvests and products, see displays of some of the great work and craftsmanship our friends, neighbors, and students produced this year, and generally enjoy the evening amidst the backdrop of the fair.
This event sells out quickly, so get your tickets at the Yolo County Fair office for $15. The price goes up to $20 at the gate. For more information, please contact the Fair Office at (530) 402-2222 or Monique Garcia at (530) 867-0932

The Yolo County Fair is the largest and oldest free gate fair in California. We owe this continued success to the hundreds of dedicated volunteers, the staunch support of the County and community, and our generous sponsors and partners.

See you at the Gala!

Gaucho Certified Farmers Market

The Gaucho Certified Farmers Market at UC Santa Barbara is an avenue for staff, students, faculty, and the local community to access fresh, locally grown produce & artisan goods. The market is held every Wednesday, from 11-3pm in the Cheadle/Campbell Hall Plaza (formerly Lot 23).UCSB FM 1
The market’s mission is to bring together all facets of sustainability, helping to educate UCSB and the local community on healthy eating and living. By defining “local” as anything grown or produced in the Tri-County area (Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo), the market acts as a platform to promote the rich bounty of the Central Coast. 
Since its inception last October 2013, the market has become a resource for education and insight into sustainable food production. As a former Gaucho myself and avid supporter of local food, I came on board to help with social media/marketing. With my connections to local farmers through my “Meet Your Farmer” online column (, I was able to help connect local farmers to the market. 
This experience has been incredibly rewarding on a personal and professional level and I am eager to see the market grow for future Gauchos. I look forward to working with the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo to help showcase the amazing work of our local farmers, our staff, and the Santa Barbara community.
Rachel Hommel – Social Media Coordinator & Local Food Advocate

Growing a Community – Santa Cruz County Fair’s Community Garden

IMG_1883Growing a Community – Santa Cruz County Fair’s Community Garden

Mesa Verde Gardens now has 5 community gardens in Watsonville. One is located on the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. The first year found all plots being used by local families to raise a variety of vegetables and flowers by the end of the season in October.

Agricultural History Project helped used one plot for growing corn for demonstrations at Yesterday’s Farm during the Santa Cruz County Fair.  The seeds were planted by families during the May Day on the Farm event. The garden also has a community corn patch which Agricultural History Project helped maintain and harvest.

Cost is $6.00/month and includes 12’ x 15’ plot, water, irrigation, plants, seeds, and some tools in a community tool shed.

For more information:


Celebrating 50 years of Family Fun!


Apple Hill® Growers AssociationCelebrating 50 years of Family Fun!

Where do you go for a small farm experience, steeped in the traditions of generations and paced to the rhythm of Mother Nature? Where can you pick your own luscious berries and crisp apples, savor a hot slice of pie, sip fresh-pressed apple juice, watch your child select the perfect pumpkin or Christmas tree, or bury your nose in the fragrance of lavender or basil? Head to El Dorado County’s Apple Hill® Growers Association ranches for an old-fashioned day of make-your-own family fun.


The Apple Hill® Growers Association was created in 1964 out of a need to keep agricultural alive after a pear blight destroyed El Dorado County’s robust pear industry. The pear blight took production from 52,000 tons in 1958 to 8,435 tons in 1965. Dick Bethell, the county’s pomology specialist and farm advisor, Gene Bolster a local grower, Edio Delfino, the county’s agricultural commissioner, and Bob Tuck, a retired army officer, wanted a way to to keep their land in agriculture and to preserve their rural lifestyle. In 1962 Bolster and Delfino visited Oak Glen in Southern California to observe their successful ranch marketing program and returned to Camino armed with information which they used to gather the local farmers together to form the Association which became known as “Apple Hill”.

GOURDS (2)_cropOur ranches emphasize heritage farming and sustainability, and have diversified to enable sales outside of when apples are ripe. Products you can find at the ranches range from award-winning wines, to a myriad of blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, to pumpkins, squash and guards, to Christmas Trees, to olive oil to cherries, and there are still pears!  The ranches discovered that when people visited to purchase apples they also wanted baked treats, and so the “Matriarchs of Apple Hill” started a Smorgy- a buffet line of pies, crisps and turnovers which grew into the individual bake shops of today.

In 2014 Apple Hill® Growers celebrate their 50th Anniversary. Join the ranches in June for blueberries through December for Christmas Trees. Bring your family and your camera!The focus of the Association is agriculture and agri-tourism, offering guests an opportunity to meet the folks who grow the fruit they purchase, to enjoy a “day in the country”, and to show people who are disassociated from the source of their food the cycles of agriculture. These guests to Apple Hill® Growers see that the farmers are eating the same food they are selling, validating the interest in returning to locally sourced food. The Apple Hill® farms connect farmers to eaters.



Grazing for Solutions

SAE 2013 web 250x500 

Grazing for Solutions

Holistic Integration of Animals into Orchards and Vineyards

 The immediate and long-term benefits of integrating animals in orchard and vineyard operation – such as the use of raptors for rodent control or sheep for weed suppression – will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming Sustainable Ag Expo, November 18 and 19 at the Madonna Inn Expo Center in San Luis Obispo, California.

Held Tuesday, November 19, the Holistic Management session will provide attendees an overview of integrating animals into orchard and vineyard systems via the experience of top industry experts and farm managers.

“Farmers are always interested in learning about ‘new’ ways to diversify and expand their management toolbox. We’re excited to bring both the science and practical information of this strategy to our growers,” said Kris Beal of the Vineyard Team, which has hosted the Sustainable Ag Expo for almost a decade.

Presenting an introduction of holistic farm management will be Robert Rutherford, Sheep Specialist at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, followed by Kelly Mulville, a national leader in holistic management and vineyard grazing, who will share his practical expertise on “The Economical & Ecological Benefits of Extended-Season Vineyard Grazing.”

According to Mullville, “One of the most dramatic results of extending the grazing period in vineyards is the potential to decrease water use while increasing yield and quality. Weeds and cover crops become a resource to be harvested, adding value to both the animal and the soil.”

Finally, Chris Kerston, Managing Partner of Chaffin Family Orchards, will discuss “Integrating Animals into a Diverse Orchard System,” followed by a Q & A session.

Staged in an accessible format under one roof at the Madonna Inn Expo Center, the 9th Annual Sustainable Ag Expo offers inventive presentations and an innovative trade show targeted at farmers, agricultural professionals, and pest control advisors. The two-day educational meeting will also provide ample continuing education credits and an exhibitor showcase.  

Since its inception, the Sustainable Ag Expo has focused on the latest trends in sustainability and hot topics in California agriculture. Visit for more information, including attendee registration and the full schedule of events. The Vineyard Team can be reached at 805.466.2288.

The Vineyard Team is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable viticulture practices on the Central Coast since 1994. Visit VineyardTeam.orgto learn more about the Vineyard Team and its SIP™ (Sustainability in Practice) Program.

Fresno County Harvest Wine Journey

TRV FB Photo Fall 2013 with text 

Twin Rivers Vintners Association invites you to come experience fall in the country with our annual event “Fresno County Harvest Wine Journey”. As the grape leaves delight you with their gorgeous fall colors, the winemakers invite you to come see how we make wine and celebrate harvest with us. This year’s event is FREE! How does this work? Just visit our website and print out our map. Then, simply choose a winery to begin your wine tasting journey and go at your own pace. Each winery has something unique to offer and on this special weekend, we not only have our delicious signature wines and craft beers but vendors, music, and food. On this special Veteran’s Day weekend each winery is offering special discounts for our veterans. Fresno County Wine Journey has something to offer everyone from our 6 wineries within 5 miles West of the 99, Fresno State, two beer tasting locations, two wine tasting rooms, a winery in Sanger, and our newly added Ramos Torres in Kingsburg.

When: November 9th, 10th, and 11th 2013 from 12-5PM

Where: The Wineries of Fresno County Twin Rivers Vintners Association

Cost: FREE- Your own glass is your ticket into each winery


Need a ride? Visit our website and reserve a ticket on the wine bus and leave the driving to us.

Your Connection to California Fairs…Food, Fun, & Adventure across the State!