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Strawberry growers brace for water restrictions

By   /   Friday, May 10th, 2013  /   Comments Off

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After two years of scant rainfall, strawberries may topple from their spot as the top crop in Ventura County as growers battle severely limited water supplies.

Growers on the Oxnard Plain who depend on United Water Conservation District’s pipeline to water their strawberry crops will be down to less than half of their usual supply by October, the district told the Business Times. Because that’s the month farmers plant berry crops — and thus need more water than in any other month of the year — the water shortage is especially dire.

“This is a big deal. It’s going to be a huge problem,” said John Krist, CEO of Farm Bureau of Ventura County. “The basic problem is two years of below-average rainfall, including one year of very, very, very below average rainfall, which was last year.”

As strawberries have become increasingly lucrative — largely because of increased demand and the fact that farmers can boost yield by planting a relatively large number of berries in a small area — growers have converted thousands of acres of farmland into strawberry plots. Strawberries brought in a whopping $625.5 million in revenue in 2011, according to Ventura County’s crop report, a number that accounted for more than a third of the region’s $1.8 billion agriculture industry.

“We have tens of millions dollars invested into strawberries, and now we’re not going to have enough water,” Krist told the Business Times. “The single biggest month is October, when strawberry fields are established. They really have to water the daylights out of them.”

Most of those berries are grown on the Oxnard Plain, the area that’s most affected by the water shortage.

Santa Paula-based United Water Conservation District is responsible for managing and conserving the region’s water supply, and particularly for maintaining the resources of the Santa Clara River. About one-third of strawberry growers in Oxnard use the district’s resources. The water that goes to farmers comes mostly from groundwater wells that are supplied by Lake Piru, an artificial lake created by the Santa Felicia Dam on Piru Creek, which is a tributary of the Santa Clara River.

Water is then distributed to growers through the so-called Pumping Trough Pipeline, which consists of a big loop with distribution spouts at various places.

“We will put whatever water we have into the system,” Tony Morgan, groundwater department manager for the water district, told the Business Times. “But because the water volume will be smaller, some people may have no water and some people have only have a trickle. It’s very unlikely that everyone will have what they need.”

It’s too soon to tell how growers will deal with the effects of the drought, but United Water Conservation teamed with Farm Bureau of Ventura County and the California Strawberry Commission to host a workshop that was held on May 6 in Camarillo.

The purpose of the meeting, where both Krist and Morgan spoke, was to help famers understand the reasons for the water cutback and its implications for strawberry-growing season.

Carolyn O’Donnell, marketing manager for the state’s strawberry commission, said the agency’s goal is to get the affected parties together to work on a solution.

The hope, Krist said, is that growers and representatives of various agencies will meet in the coming months to come up with a plan to share the limited water supply. “It’s going to be a struggle this fall,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of adaptability. We’re going to have folks sit down and try to come up with ideas, but it potentially could be very dramatic.”

The shortage won’t halt the strawberry crop, as there is still some water available and there are alternative irrigation methods, but it will make for a very different planting year, and perhaps a lower berry volume than in years past.

What farmers can do

One thing growers can do is make the switch from overhead sprinklers to drip tape, which dribbles a small amount of water directly onto the berries and uses far less water.

Another option, Krist said, is for growers to stagger their strawberry harvest and grow a small amount of berries at a time.

Strawberry growers, along with other farmers who will be affected by the water shortage, will convene in the next few months to come up with a course of action.

“They’re going to have to make some business decisions,” Morgan said. “That was the purpose of the meeting — to give them a heads up.  Before they get in the mode of planting their next berry crop, we needed to let them know what the situation is going to look like.”

The last time Ventura County saw such a dry year was in 1990. According to Morgan, that time it took three years of normal rainfall for the water level to return to normal. “It could be an issue for a few years,” he said.

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