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California Drought Solutions Start from the Ground Up

Specialty Food Association News
Emily Crowe
August 4, 2016

Since 2011, the state of California has been dealing with extreme heat, little precipitation, and unwavering drought conditions. While this year’s drought is said to be subsiding in some parts of the state, the fallout has driven farmers, manufacturers, and retailers in California and beyond to seek creative solutions and alternatives to continue producing the state’s signature specialty commodities.

Native Commodities

According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state is the leading producer of 75 agricultural commodities in the United States, and is the nation’s sole producer of 12 commodities, including almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes, and walnuts.

With myriad unique geographical regions within the state, certain areas and certain crops have been hit worse than others this year. "It's really a battle of where you are located and the water resources that you have allocated to your orchard," explains David Doll, a University of California extension advisor. Farms on the west side of the state, for example, have been running under reduced water allocation for as long as Doll can remember.

In May, the State Water Resources Control Board suspended a mandatory statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water use in favor of letting local municipalities set their own standards for water conservation. Officials stand by the fact that the drought conditions are here to stay due to climate change, and according to the board’s emergency conservation regulation, emergency measures will remain in place through the end of January 2017.

That being the case, Doll explains that any loss of water can have a negative effect on the amount of crop yield. "Every time we have water reductions off the optimal water demand of the tree, we do see a reduction in yield," he says.

How Farmers, Producers and Retailers are Affected

To make up for a lack of crops, ingredients, and products on the shelves, farmers, producers, and retailers are coming up with creative solutions. "We're used to it, but it's always an issue,” says Jane St. Claire, owner of Savor California, an online community showcasing the state’s specialty producers. “Because it's always been an issue, California has always been in the forefront of good water use practices."

From high-tech tools such as moisture sensors put into the ground to automatically sense a plant’s water needs to aerial and thermal imaging to determine which areas of a given field are stressed, Californians are working hard to combat issues as they arise. As St. Claire explains, rice producer Rue and Forsman Ranch has begun using driverless tractors guided by GPS to create a gentle slope on their rice field, which uses less water and also makes the rice fields hospitable to migrating birds.

"All these kind of tools are helping us refine and use our irrigation systems to the highest efficiency possible, which in turn is allowing us to use the water with the highest efficiency possible," Doll explains.

While farmers are making strides against the drought’s effects, specialty producers are still feeling the pinch when it comes to sourcing a sufficient amount of ingredients. “Earth and Vine relies a huge amount on the success on California growers,” says the condiment company’s owner Tressa Cooper. “If it grows in California, we source it from California farmers. [The drought] has had a major impact on our farmers and growers, unfortunately.”

Cooper has seen peaches, apricots, and other stone fruits hit especially hard this year, which has led her to seek out new relationships with farmers who are still experiencing normal production. Cooper says she has learned to be open and honest in her communication with both farmers and retailers, and also how to prioritize products.

“You can't beat Mother Nature,” she says. “This is a crazy, crazy business and you oftentimes have to say ‘Okay, that's what we have to deal with and we're going to push this other product this year.’”

For San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, water use and drought management have factored heavily into its business decisions, from responsible sourcing to pricing and product promotion. Liz Martinez, the market’s director of product, says the company has instituted water-saving measures in its own business and is also working hard to educate customers about responsible practices and the premium that is sometimes placed on California commodities.

“We celebrate the limited quantity of water-dependent products we do carry, like California grass-fed beef and cherries,” Martinez says. “This comes hand in hand with education and explanation to guests about price – limited quantity usually causes price to increase.”

 

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