Legacy Summer 2014 – “The Browning of California Calls for New Thinking

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series to appear in the Legacy on drought and other challenges farmers face that can be mitigated through a nutrition-based management approach. Dr. Thomas T. Yamashita (“Dr. Tom”) has a Ph.D. in plant pathology and over 30 years of research and experience on the topic.

The “Browning” of California Calls for New Thinking

The unsettling truth is that the West has seen three years of severe drought and statewide water restrictions in California are coming down the pike for urban users. This as the impact of the drought continues to increase across the ever-browning golden state. While urban users are looking at pending mandatory restrictions and penalties for those who break them, state and federal agencies already have sharply reduced water shipments in California, with farmers, ranchers and some cities in the northern part of the state taking the biggest hits.

California’s $44.7 billion-a-year agriculture industry has already been severely affected by the drought. Reduced water shipments to farmers will result in $800 million in revenue losses this year in the Central Valley and the loss of 14,500 jobs, according to estimates by the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

“The possibility of El Niño hiding in the tropical Pacific will not be enough to counteract the last years of drought – there are no overnight solutions,” said Dr. Tom. “It will take years of above-average rainfall to recover. Dramatic restrictions with outside the box strategies for water usage, storage and sources will be critical to maintain California’s economy. The day has come to broaden our ideas of what water-sustainable California looks like.”

Outside the Box – the Shift

As California farmers struggle to survive in severe drought conditions, irrigation infrastructure limitations, and other environmental challenges there are some short term alternatives to maintain crop yields, while saving water and putting sustainable long term best management practices in place for when Mother Nature returns to a more favorable state. Just like farmland conservation acts like an insurance policy against losing all our prime lands to development, Dr. Tom’s strategies can also act like an insurance policy for farmers against unforeseen changes like the current drought.

The paradigm shift for many farmers may be that preparing for natural disasters will come in a new form, intense plant nutrition. With the right plant nutrition program, farmers can reduce their acreage by up to half and save water in times of drought while still increasing yield. “A 50 percent cut in acreage does not equate to a 50 percent cut in water use if the goal is to increase yield 2x,” said Dr. Tom. “An increase in irrigation frequency or what is also termed “pulsing” of irrigation will use additional water to support more yield. Some growers can do this, others cannot, or will not.”

The reasons ranging: growers are only allocated water on certain days; poor water quality in many growing areas will increase the challenge of increasing yield to make up for cutting back acres and achieve production many growers require to feed markets and contracts; growers require a learning curve and count on a level of consistency in production – they must have a home for the increase in their product; and farms are a business and markets dictate much of what a business does – many farmers are still getting returns with expensive water and would not want to lose market share by cutting back acreage.

“While we see farmers are already being highly efficient water users, if we do not turn the corner on the water situation then these drastic outside the box ideas really need to be thought about now,” said Duncan Smith, Agricultural Scientist at Sunburst Plant Disease Clinic, Inc. “The trick is getting more ideas to the state and national capitols and active solution and compromise discussions taking place. Possibly we could reach a day when we offer incentives to farmers to implement ideas like Dr. Tom has on ways to conserve water.”

“Cutting acres while increasing yield using about 30-40 percent less water, piping water from the Columbia River into the Sacramento River (Trinity or Shasta Lake) for surface water or to fill ground water, and creating additional storage in the Sierras and foothills of California are real solutions that can be started now,” said Dr. Tom. “I think it is time for California policy makers to listen to farmers and to choose reducing green lawns and landscape maintenance to add additional water to the economic powerhouse of California.”

What is possible Yield Increases for Various CA crops by increasing intensity plant nutrition:

Crop Standard Yield What is Possible
Almonds 3000 lb 9200 lb
Tomato(West side Fresno Co) 70 tns 100 tns
Grapes 9-20 tn 25-35 tn
Peaches 20 tn 40 tn

Read more about the concepts behind water conservation and nutrition-based management of farmland as a beneficial tool for farmers and consumers in our next issue of the Legacy.