In Terra Bella, a 'gentleman farmer' struggles to cope during drought

Los Angeles TimesJuly 4, 2014 

"How am I supposed to just sit here and watch everything turn brown and die?" asks pistachio farmer Fred Lujan.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ — Los Angeles Times

— At first they called Fred Lujan a gentleman farmer.

The retired barber washed his tractor every night and parked it in the garage, a source of gentle amusement to the veteran growers around him. He called his pistachio trees his babies, his girls, and gave them names.

"Come on, Suzanne," he'd say to his wife in the evenings. "Let's have a glass of wine and sit outside and watch our girls grow."

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Back when he was still learning to take corners while tilling, he sliced one of the saplings. The other farmers told him to pull it out, the tree wouldn't make it. But he wrapped the trunk in mud and water and tape the way his grandfather, born on an Indian reservation, had taught him.

He named the tree Survivor.

Eight years later, Survivor and the other trees were ready to give their first mature crop. In February, the 10-acre orchard was sprouting spring leaves.

Then a man from the irrigation district came and sealed off Lujan's water meter. A green tag read "No Irrigation Water Is Available This Year." There was a $10,000 fine for breaking the seal.

For the first time in the more than half a century that the federal government had been diverting Sierra Nevada water to farmers, there would be no deliveries to most Central Valley irrigation districts. In the third year of drought, there wasn't enough water to go around.

It was a blow to the entire region, but a possible death knell to Terra Bella, whose pistachio and citrus groves are watered only by rain and the government's canals.

"How am I supposed to just sit here and watch everything turn brown and die?" asked Lujan, 68.

• • •

Survivor died in June.

Not having water during the first heat spell was too much stress for the injured tree. Lujan took it hard. It seemed like a harbinger.

He planned to look for a job the next week, beginning on Tuesday -- barbershops are closed on Mondays.

"You can never quit," he said. "I'll beg, borrow or steal to keep my trees alive."

Driving to town, he noticed Setton Farms, which had a pistachio-processing plant in Terra Bella, had planted new trees -- about all the way to Bakersfield, it seemed to Lujan.

Back when Lujan still had his barber shop, one of his clients was a lifelong farmer, Mike Smith. He had always liked Smith because he had a big laugh and a hard handshake.

Three years ago, Smith started a job as liaison between growers and Setton Farms. Lujan decided to talk to him.

"He's an up-and-up guy. I figured if he can help, he will, and if not, he'll tell me."

Smith delivered Lujan's plea, and Setton Farms agreed to advance the Lujans 10 acre-feet of the emergency water the company had bought, and let them pay for it after harvest.

"I was ecstatic to be able to help Fred. He's real. Just a very genuine person, and you may have noticed he's never met a stranger," Smith said. "But in my heart of hearts, I know this is only a band-aid. What happens next year? What if it doesn't rain? The small guys can't hang on."

In his job, Smith drives from one end of the Central Valley to the other.

"I see the dying trees, the burned-out shrubs. I talk to all the other Freds -- there are a lot of them," he said. "My fear -- and it's a real fear -- is that if it doesn't rain next year, this valley will face a reality that will rival the Great Depression."

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The reporter can be reached at diana.marcum@latimes.com or @DianaMarcum on Twitter.

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