Elemental Concerns | CUESA

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November 09, 2007

Elemental Concerns

2007 has been a trying year for many California farmers, their fate at the mercy of the elements. This year, fire, ice, and water have caused damage and raised concerns across the state. In January, record-breaking low temperatures and devastated harvests were the subject of countless news stories. Citrus and avocado growers whose subtropical crops do not fare well in sustained freezes were among the hardest hit.

2007 has been a trying year for many California farmers, their fate at the mercy of the elements. This year, fire, ice, and water have caused damage and raised concerns across the state. In January, record-breaking low temperatures and devastated harvests were the subject of countless news stories. Citrus and avocado growers whose subtropical crops do not fare well in sustained freezes were among the hardest hit.

fireLast month, some of the same farmers found themselves in a strangely opposite yet remarkably similar situation. Ten months after the freeze, fire wreaked havoc in Southern California. The region, which is parched from a dry year, heated up as strong, scorching Santa Ana winds swept through Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernadino, Riverside and San Diego counties. Ensuing fires charred nearly half a million acres, and farms sustained damage from the wind, the blaze, the lack of electricity, and the inability to access their farms.

No Ferry Plaza Farmers Market farms burned in the fires, but some are feeling effects. Vince and Vicki Bernard of Bernard Ranches in Riverside missed a week at the farmers’ market because they were not allowed to travel the road to their orchard to pick fruit. The fires just narrowly missed one of their properties, burning some of their neighbors’ trees but stopping just short of theirs.

Ironically, Brokaw Nursery, which sells subtropical fruits at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and also operates a much larger nursery business, has seen an increase in business from the disasters. Farmers looking to replant orchards decimated by both freeze and fire have placed orders for avocado rootstock that far surpass the Brokaws’ production capacity this season. The farm is scrambling to keep up. Brokaw Nursery was spared fire damage this year, but they will never forget their own brush with wildfires in 1985, when part of their Santa Paula nursery burned.

waterIce and fire leave ruin in their paths, but farmers can’t do without the element of water, and cutbacks are imminent for Southern California farmers due to an August court ruling. A Fresno judge has ordered significant restrictions to the flow of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The cutbacks are an effort to save the Delta smelt, a species of fish that once thrived in the Delta, but is now listed as an endangered species as a result of development, water pumps, and invasive species, among other factors. During 2008, the water supply to Southern California may be cut by as much as 35 percent. (Click here to read a recent SF Chronicle article about this decision and the state of the Delta >)

“The San Francisco Bay-Delta cannot properly perform its vital function of providing clean water for the people of California, if it is so degraded that it cannot even support the tiny Delta smelt,” said Barry Nelson, of the NRDC, a plaintiff in the case. “After years of increased diversions of fresh water from the Delta, resulting in a sicker and sicker ecosystem, we finally have a judge’s order to give our water supply a break.”

The health of the Delta is important to everyone, but for Southern California farmers who have come to depend on the flows, the news is hard to take. “We’re anticipating losing some trees,” says Vicki Bernard. Farmers are expected to take an estimated 82,000 acres out of cultivation as a result of the new restrictions, and consumers and industry will also need to conserve. Water is life—for people, plants, and fish alike. Adjustments will be difficult, but with perseverance, solutions can surely be found that will allow all three to thrive.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »