Drought's Toll on California Family Farms

Janet McGarry, CAFF
July 16, 2021

Just as California begins recovering from a year of pandemic and devastating wildfires, the state is facing another disaster: severe drought and record-breaking high temperatures. Small farmers who scrambled to adapt and supply healthy, local food when the pandemic shuttered restaurants and dining halls are once again facing enormous challenges.

Caiti Hachmyer of Red H Farm in South Sebastopol started a CSA in 2020, which helped her farm survive the pandemic, but the heavy workload took its toll. “From February to November, I worked seven days per week with maybe one weekend off. It was non-stop. I honestly don’t feel that I have recovered and went into a new season already being depleted.” Rebecca Bozzelli of Lantern Farm in Cloverdale also was able to pivot to selling farm boxes but not without cost. “It was a really hard year. I was playing tag team with my husband while we homeschooled our nine-year-old daughter. I’m exhausted.”

This year’s drought is turning out to be one of the worst in decades. Approximately 85% of the state is in extreme drought with 33% of the state suffering exceptional drought. In contrast to the 2016 drought, which most negatively impacted Southern California, the regions hit hardest by the current drought are the Sacramento River and North Coast watersheds, areas that normally have more water than the rest of the state. On June 15, the State Water Resources Control Board told 4,300 users to stop diverting water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta Watershed. Several weeks ago, 930 similar notices were issued for the upper Russian River basin.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the water board’s division of water rights, characterizes the drought as probably the worst in 45 years in Northern California and the Central Valley, and in other parts of the states like the Russian River, the worst since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Both low precipitation and high temperatures are contributing to the drought. April 2019 to March 2021 was one of the driest two-year periods on record and also one of the warmest. Snowpack in the Sierras, the source of approximately 33% of the state’s water, is only 5% of average resulting in water storage far below normal in major reservoirs. Temperatures soared above 100 degrees in many parts of the state in June, weeks before the typically hot months later in the year. The drought and hot weather are likely to result in another year of catastrophic wildfires. “The backdrop of all of this is fire season, which seriously impacts farmers. I’m anticipating how difficult later this summer and fall will be,” says Caiti.

Agribusiness and large farms can often adapt to drought either by purchasing water, drilling deeper wells to pump groundwater, changing crops, or fallowing fields. However, few small farmers have the financial resources to adopt these solutions.

Rebecca was recently notified by the State Water Board that she may be prohibited from pumping water from a well on the three acres that she leases. Fines for violating the order are as high as $1,000 per day of violation and $2,500 for each acre-food of water diverted. In her fifth season of growing produce and flowers with organic practices, she uses drip irrigation and has been trying to adopt dry-farming practices, changing her planting and watering practices to encourage plant roots to grow deeper. “Dry farming is hard to do in Cloverdale, where temperatures can go up to 115 degrees or higher.”

After receiving the letter, Rebecca decided to stop planting anymore and, as a result, will have no products to sell in several months. “I won’t have any money coming in then.” She is also worried about the crops currently growing on her farm. “If my water is shut off, it’s going to be a hard day. I’m going to fight to save what I can and harvest as much as possible before it all dies.” Purchasing water from another source would require installing infrastructure, storage tanks and piping to connect to the current irrigation system. “That would be a huge undertaking. I don’t have the budget. So many farmers are dealing with this issue that storage tanks may not even be available, like the toilet paper scenario in COVID.”

Caiti has also been forced to fallow some of her land. She farms 1.5 acres on two pieces of leased land using no-till agro-ecological practices including drip irrigation, cover crops and lots of mulch to conserve water and build healthy soil. She dry farms tomatoes and winter squash on one property, which sits low in the ground and typically floods every winter. “It’s usually too wet to get tractors on the fields until June.” This year, for the first time in the twelve years Caiti has farmed, a seasonal pond on the land did not fill. The soil was so dry that her cauliflower crop died.

Although her other property has a well for irrigation, the crops are being damaged by wildlife including gophers and deer suffering from the drought, “There is so much less forage that the pest pressure is incredibly intense. I am losing crops by the bed. I may need to invest in deer fencing, which is an added burden.”

California and the federal government have announced assistance to help farmers with drought, but the proposed funds are for long-term conservation programs rather than immediate relief for struggling farmers. In May, Newsom proposed a $5.1 billion package to address the drought and long-term water resilience in the state. He also proposed $100 million for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), which was not funded for the past two years. On June 10, USDA announced it will offer $41.8 million through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers in four Western states, including California, respond to drought. However, none of these proposals specifically provides emergency aid for small farmers who are already being impacted by the drought.

“I’m working with the NRCS, but it’s for long-term work not emergency relief,” says Rebecca. Caiti attended a town hall where the discussion focused on relief for farmers who raise livestock or grow perennial crops not annual crops. The funds being offered are to encourage farmers to adopt water conservation practices that she already uses on her farm. “Funds are also needed to reimburse farmers who are already using eco-practices that conserve water. It’s complicated and difficult to incorporate nuance into state and federal policies but we need to incorporate nuance into funding streams.”

The Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) has requested funds from the state specifically to assist small farmers to fix wells that have gone dry or to compensate them for lost income so that they can survive the year. The request is being debated in the current budget process. “Every day we hear from more farmers who are losing access to irrigation water, which is threatening the very farms that are growing food for local communities,” said Dave Runsten, CAFF’s policy director. “If we don’t help these farmers there will be no one to go to farmers markets or deliver CSA boxes.”

Underlying the current crisis are long-standing issues regarding regulation of water rights in the state. “It’s frustrating to see green lawns in Cloverdale. It seems that water should be prioritized by what it’s used for rather than how long you’ve had it. The priorities don’t seem fair. We need to look at more long-term solutions for using water wisely,” says Rebecca. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is designed to address water use issues, but the threats to small farm viability from this drought are advancing more quickly than these plans can address.

Caiti knows of many small farmers in her region whose water has been cut off or significantly reduced and will need emergency relief to survive. “One year without income can shut down a farm. This severe drought is going to have detrimental effects.”

This week’s article is was originally published by Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), of which CUESA is an partner member. You can take action to support farms in crisis by contributing to their California Family Farmer Emergency Fund.

Janet McGarry lives in San Francisco, where she writes about agriculture and environmental issues.

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