As Their Wells Dry Up, California’s Small Farms Seek Emergency Relief
Greta Moran, Civil Eats
September 9, 2021
This story is excerpted from a longer story at Civil Eats.
At the base of the Smith Mountain in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Rebecca and Tory Torosian own a small farm known for its citrus and stone fruit. In the summer, they usually irrigate primarily with runoff from the Kings River, by way of a canal. But this year, as California contends with a historic drought, the irrigation district did not run any water, cutting them off. In turn, the Torosians decided to stop irrigating their citrus trees—five acres of oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit they’ve cultivated for years. And without irrigation, the trees won’t make it through the long, hot dry season.
“By the end of the summer, they’ll be bone-dry. They’ll be a fire hazard,” said Tory Torosian, of the orchard. “It makes me sick that we’re having to abandon [the trees].”
The loss of their oro blanco grapefruit, beloved by locals at farmers’ markets, is especially heart-wrenching. “We’ve had them for 20 years. People look forward to them every winter,” said Torosian. Yet despite their regional fame, they weren’t bringing in the income to be worth the water consumed, so they made a tough economic calculation and let them go. “The extra water it would take to keep them alive would put a burden on everything else,” said Torosian.
For the remainder of the crops on the 80-acre Tory Farms, the Torosians are relying on groundwater drawn from two agricultural wells that are nearing empty. As a result, the well’s motor is operating on overdrive—producing only 70 gallons per minute, compared to a typical rate of 1,200 gallons per minute—to pull the remaining water from the well. As the pump’s motor runs for a longer period, their energy bill balloons, adding what Torosian expects will be 30 percent more to their operating costs. “We’re going to be scraping the barrel,” said Torosian.
As the drought deepens, a number of small-scale farmers in California have found themselves in a similar position: scraping the barrel. Earlier this year, we reported that farmers in the state are coping with the drought by fallowing land, transitioning to less thirsty crops, and trucking in water. Since then, California Governor Gavin Newsom has expanded the emergency drought declaration to include more counties, as surface water has been curtailed and groundwater levels have dropped, but the state has yet to include relief earmarked for small farmers in the budget.
As it stands, California’s $3.14 billion water infrastructure and drought relief package—$2.4 billion of which has already been appropriated—does not provide emergency funds directed specifically to small farmers dealing with water scarcity. This year’s package is part of a four-year investment in response to the drought and climate crisis, which Governor Newsom proposed in May. However, there is currently a window of opportunity to address the gap: $731 million remains to be allocated for specific activities within budget negotiations that will be finalized by September 10.
“We’re scrambling to make sure that small farmers aren’t left out of the package,” said Paul Towers, the executive director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. In the meantime, CAFF is offering grants of $5,000 for small farmers in a disaster, including a pool of $250,000 set aside for 45 drought-afflicted farms. “We see ourselves as a stopgap, hopefully,” said Towers.
By keeping small farmers in business, Towers adds, the proposed relief would also support other aspects of California’s regional food systems—its locally sourced restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets. “There are 76,000 different farms in California, the majority of which are small. They really are the backbone of our local food system,” he said. And yet, Towers worries that “without support to weather the drought, they may not be able to keep growing food for California.”
California Assemblymember Richard Bloom indicated that conversations are underway to address some of the concerns raised by CAFF and other advocates.
“I can’t get into specifics, but the Assembly and Senate are negotiating with the Administration on substantial investments to help Californians—including small farms—respond to the drought conditions and transition to more sustainable agriculture,” wrote Bloom, in an email.
Hundreds of Agricultural Wells Could Go Dry
After two exceptionally dry winters, limited snowpack has resulted in historically low surface water available to be pumped through California’s system of canals and reservoirs. On August 3, regulators voted to curtail water rights—access to stream and river water, known as “surface water”—to thousands of Californians, many of them farmers. In the Central Valley, the state’s large agricultural region, many irrigation districts either cut their seasons short or didn’t deliver any surface water at all.
For example, the Fresno Irrigation District (FID), one of the largest in the Central Valley, only offered standard water deliveries in June, and gave farmers in some service areas the option of paying for the aptly named “hardship water” in July. Typically, their water delivery season lasts for six months. The hardship water costs $125 per acre-foot of water, more than five times the cost of their standard water deliveries.
When, like the Torosians, small farmers turn to groundwater, they tend to get, quite literally, the short end of the stick.
Support Tory Farms at the Ferry Plaza Farmers on Saturdays and the Mission Community Market on Thursdays.