Citrus growers Brent Doyel and Geoffrey Galloway strolled between two vastly different orchards of mandarins — one vibrant, the other dead.
“This is a pretty good view of what happened around Terra Bella this year in the drought,” said Doyel, 50, a second-generation farmer here. “We survived, but there’s no money being made. We’re hurting.”
In the wake of the state’s third-worst drought on record, Doyel, Galloway and nearly 600 other growers in this Tulare County region sweated out an ugly, expensive summer, somehow dodging the worst of a bad situation.
So Terra Bella looks a little like a checkerboard of green and brown. Doyel’s side-by-side mandarin orchards are a good example.
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Loss of valuable tree acreage is ranging from 20% to 30%, which is far lower than initial estimates thanks to the last-minute purchases of some pricey water. Growers are praying for rain and hoping for federal lawmakers to make Northern California water easier to get.
This kind of a year makes dedicated farmers pause.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of doing something else for a living,” Doyel says. “I just don’t know what.”
Adds Galloway, 38: “I have a passion for farming. I grew up here, and I can’t fathom the idea of not farming. I want my children to grow up here. But we just can’t have another season like the last one.”
Like farmers on 3 million San Joaquin Valley acres, they faced spring and summer with zero river water. That’s a death sentence for most citrus trees unless you have wells to pump underground water — which Terra Bella growers don’t have.
Good underground water just doesn’t exist in any great supply here.
One more complication: Many Terra Bella growers already had used some of their leftover 2013 river water to raise temperatures in orchards and save trees during a killing frost last December.
Farmers in other Valley areas had the option of not growing tomatoes, onions, garlic, alfalfa and other row crops. Terra Bella growers have 7,000 acres in citrus, olives and pistachios — permanent crops that need water every year.
Folks in Terra Bella braced to lose many of their trees and most of their investments. The financial hit was anticipated to climb to nearly $60 million just the first year.
But little by little, Terra Bella Irrigation District was able to make deals. There was a purchase of Kaweah River water, then some supplies from a groundwater banking project, and finally San Joaquin River water offered by some west-Valley growers.
The district wound up buying about 11,000 acre-feet of water, about half the allotment these farmers usually buy from Millerton Lake as part of the Friant Division of the federal Central Valley Project. But most of it didn’t come cheap.
“Most years, it runs $2.5 million to $3 million,” general manager Sean Geivet said. “This year it was more like $10 million.”
Doyel lost about 50 acres of trees, which amounts to about 20% of his operation. Galloway has only 10 acres of trees, most of which survived, he said. Galloway also works as a field representative for Visalia Citrus Packing Group.
Both Doyel and Galloway said the growers who used water to protect trees during the December cold snap last year were able to get some fruit.
“The deep moisture helped them out,” Galloway said.
Now, more than ever, Terra Bella growers and most other farmers in this region are keenly aware of the statewide water supply picture, meaning they keep an eye on Northern California where much of the state’s snow and rain fall.
The drought toppled the state’s water systems like dominoes this year. River water from the north usually supplies west-Valley farmers with historic rights dating back to the 1800s. Drought and protections for dying fish prevented a lot of water from being sent to the Valley.
Without adequate Northern California water, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was forced to send Millerton Lake water to those west-side growers. That left farmers along the east side — including Terra Bella — with zero allocations. It had never happened before.
Timing of storms also is important. If protected fish, such as the delta smelt or chinook salmon, are threatened, Northern California water pumping is slowed, and water supply to the Valley is reduced.
“We need December storms,” Geivet said.
Growers also are paying a lot of attention to legislation in Washington, D.C. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently scuttled a drought bill that would have helped move water to drought-scarred areas, and east-Valley water representatives reacted.
“Nobody is happy that the wheels fell off this legislation, especially with all the many months of hard work put in by House Republican members as well as Senator Feinstein,” said Ronald D. Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, representing 15,000 east-side growers.
Back in Terra Bella, Doyel says he is making adjustments. He needs his older daughter to finish her degree in two years at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She transferred to Cal Poly after attending community college.
“Money is an issue,” Doyel said. “My wife drives an 11-year-old car. We won’t be buying another one for a while. We can’t do vacations. But there’s a lot of people who are worse off than me. All you can do now is hope it rains this winter.”