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Drought forces Sonoma County farmers to make adjustments to crop plans

While Sonoma County supervisors declared a drought emergency on Tuesday, local farmers already had been taking action as they grapple in an era with much less water for their crops than in previous years.

The results can be seen from the vineyards of the Alexander Valley to the pastureland of west county. There will be fewer grapes harvested than in a typical year, as vineyard managers have pruned vines and some acreage is likely to go unused.

Dairy ranchers are expecting plots of grassland will go brown earlier than usual, while others are selling a portion of their herd to better manage revenue. Vegetable growers are focusing on crops such as peppers that can be grown quickly for more profit.

It’s no wonder, because with spring in full swing, the area is only at 38% of average rainfall since Oct. 1, the beginning of the rain year. Nearly 13 inches of precipitation has been measured so far at Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport, according to the National Weather Service.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau is issuing a best practices manual for agricultural sector to help its members adapt. The group also is conducting a survey of farmers on steps already taken, such as the number of acres unplanted this year due to less available water, said the farm bureau’s executive director Tawny Tesconi, who expects that acreage to be significant and demonstrate farmers’ water reduction.

The worsening drought conditions forced a balancing act that can be seen at area vineyards, where wine grape growers are monitoring the buds that have bloomed this spring on their vines. The grapes are the region’s most lucrative crop with a value of $356 million from last year’s harvest. That was nearly half of the 2019 value, since fruit was damaged by wildfires in 2020 and left on the grapevines.

A big worry for farmers during the remainder of spring is frost protection during chilly nights. Many grape growers use sprinklers that can coat the vines in ice during the night, keeping emerging buds at a constant 32 degrees and preventing harm to them. So far, there hasn’t been that much damage this year, but growers said that they will not be free of the frost threat until late May. Then the wine grape harvest typically kicks off in mid-August.

“The cold spring nights have caused many grape growers to be up in the middle of the night managing frost protection. The lack of winter rain is a big concern for all of our grape growers,” said Karissa Kruse, executive director of trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers. “We know that there is a looming drought and everyone is already looking at water conservation efforts.”

The lack of rain has posed problems at Munselle Vineyards in Geyserville. The farm has two reservoirs extremely dry and another one about half full because of the lack of rain, said Bret Munselle, a fifth-generation grape grower with 300 vineyard acres.

“We haven’t lost any vineyards yet to forest for lack of water, but I’m certainly nervous about it,” Munselle said.

With the threat of continued drought, Munselle said his family invested in wind machines to keep the air over the vines above freezing temperature.

“Twenty years ago we had zero. Now we got seven,” he said of the wind machines, noting there about 30 of them being used in a nearby portion of Alexander Valley.

“People are worried about water, trying to conserve water. Wind machines are an option,” Munselle said. “The technology on them is better than it used to be. They’re not as loud as they used to be and they cover more acres than they used to.”

Other growers are looking to grow less fruit. That can be accomplished by not farming certain vineyard blocks or cutting questionable grapes from the vine to give remaining bunches a better chance to make it through harvest. One hillside vineyard in Alexander Valley overseen by Bevill Vineyard Management offers an example of that since its nearby pond will not provide enough water for irrigation, owner Duff Bevill said.

Workers pruned the vineyard so there would be fewer fruit-bearing vines, which means less cabernet sauvignon grapes to pick in the fall. “There’s less leaves to transpire moisture, so the vines are basically pruned to become a smaller vine this year because we can’t water them,” Bevill said, noting that trucking in water to irrigate is not a cost-effective alternative.

Bevill’s crews also mowed off the cover crops between the vines so they wouldn’t have to compete as much for the limited rainfall this winter and so far in spring.

“We're dry farming the vineyard this year that’s never been dry farmed,” Bevill said, expecting the vineyard will yield about 50% of its average crop of grapes in the fall.

While much of the focus about the drought’s effects on the county’s agribusinesses will be on vineyards, other farmers also face difficulties.

“I’m actually hearing of vegetable farmers considering planting only crops that use the least amount of water and provide the most yield,” Tesconi said.

There are also tough decisions for ranchers, whether those who own cows for milking or raise livestock for beef and lamb. In the local ag industry following grapes, milk production was valued in 2019 at $127 million and livestock and poultry brought in $74 million.

Steve Perucchi, operator of his family’s Bodega organic dairy farm, said some local dairy farms already have begun to bring in surplus water for their herd. He eventually thinks he will have to resort to water trucks, too.

“It’s a long summer and our water is really short,” Perucchi said. “We have never hauled water before, but I’m pretty sure we’ll haul water this year.”

Others have had to take a different path. That includes Doug Beretta of the Beretta Family Organic Dairy that faces a difficult year. Santa Rosa officials informed him the reclaimed water he receives from the city will be cut by 60% this year because of the drought conditions.

Given the bleak outlook, Beretta was forced to sell 20 cows in February to a Washington state rancher. That left him with a remaining herd of 300 and another 350 younger ones who will become milking cows in a couple of years. He acted fast this winter, fearing a glut of sellers across California as drought conditions worsened.

He moved to sell before the cost to raise those cows would result in his dairy taking a big loss. “There’s just a glut of animals on the market,” he said.

There will be other worries for ranchers, such as the increasing cost of organic hay combined with less pastureland to graze on, Beretta said.

Eventually, county farmers think there could be voluntary water restrictions placed on them, Bevill said. In February that occurred in neighboring Marin County, when the Marin Municipal Water District asked its customers to voluntarily cut back their water use.

That’s not as severe as the onus local cannabis growers are under, though, said Erich Pearson, CEO and chairman of SPARC, a cannabis retailer that has locations in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol plus a new one opening in Sonoma this summer.

His company also oversees management of a 3-acre cannabis farm in the Sonoma Valley, where its well water usage is metered under a specific cap monitored by the county government.

“It’s barely enough (water) to do what we have to do. … We don’t have a lot of room to change,” Pearson said. “It’s already fairly Draconian restrictions.”

While critics point to the high volume of water required for cannabis plants, Pearson said that if other types of farmers had to operate under similar restrictions the threat to the overall water supply would not be as severe.

“If everybody was doing what we are doing, we wouldn’t be talking water,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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