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Drought losses mounting in Sonoma County agricultural sector

Snapshot of Sonoma County agricultural losses amid drought

The fallout of a severe two-year drought continues to widen and intensify for Sonoma County’s vineyards, farms and ranches. Here’s a rundown of the hardships so far:

– Dairies and ranches are selling off cows to confront feed shortages as rangeland withers and demand for irrigated hay and alfalfa drives up costs.

– Grape growers have been told to halt diversions from the Russian River as vineyards turn increasingly to groundwater. Drought-related strain on vines includes undeveloped grape clusters and rising disease pressure.

– Farmers are leaving more land fallow, opting for more drought-tolerant crops and trying to stretch already thin irrigation supplies.

– Dairies and farms are drilling new wells, relying on backup and delivered supplies. Some irrigation sources, including reclaimed water, are likely to undergo further cuts.

After farming squash, corn, melons, peppers and tomatoes by his father’s side since childhood, Gabriel Castañeda is stepping out largely on his own this year.

With water in such short supply, his dad, Humberto, thought he might forgo raising summer fruits and vegetables this season and focus only on the 15 acres of wine grapes he grows near Fulton instead.

But Gabe Castañeda, who had helped his father build Humberto Castañeda Produce into Sonoma County’s largest produce grower, wanted to see what he could do to keep the family’s 40-year farming tradition alive — even if on a very reduced scale.

He committed to planting 17 acres this spring — a little under 10% of what he and his father usually grow on the land they lease west of Fulton. Family members helped plant the crop because they’re going without seasonal workers and irrigating with a smaller share of the reclaimed water they buy from the city of Santa Rosa.

There won’t be peppers, which are expensive to seed and would need to have been started before the Castañedas knew whether they would have enough water to nurture them to maturity. But there will be a crop to be harvested and distributed to groceries and markets around the county if he is smart about his water use, said the younger Castañeda, 27.

“It is what it is,” he said. “All we’ve got to do is keep going.”

This is a time for difficult choices for many in Sonoma County’s nearly $1 billion agricultural industry — where people devoted to making things grow instead find they’re having to let some things go this year.

Plants and animals require water, and with supplies around the region diminishing by the day, Sonoma County’s 2,000-plus agricultural producers are all touched by intensifying drought.

Whether they’re in the business of beef or milk, the grapes that create the region’s distinctive wines, or the vegetables and flowers that turn up at farmers markets and grocery stores, most of the ranchers and growers behind the county’s agricultural bounty are having to cut back this year and get by with less. Some just hope to survive.

“People are making really hard decisions,” said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Deciding whether to let that block of grapes go or whether to sell 50 cows — it’s tough. There’s a lot of tough decisions being made right now.”

Hillsides at the Bucher dairy were irrigated earlier in the spring, but are now turning brown, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Hillsides at the Bucher dairy were irrigated earlier in the spring, but are now turning brown, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

The past two years have brought paltry rainfall to Sonoma County — so little, the seasons combined are equal to about one normal season of 32 inches or so. The dearth of water affects everyone differently, depending on what they grow, how it’s watered and where their water comes from.

But producers are unified in the scramble to adapt, by turning to different water sources or curtailing their operations to make do with what they have, often at significant loss.

More woes for grape growers

After a disastrous grape harvest in 2020, due primarily to smoke damage from massive wildfires, further losses are likely this year. Many growers are running short on stored water or were recently prohibited from using the Russian River as a source for irrigation and are abandoning some vines, dropping the fruit early or even cutting back the canes.

Grape growers are seeing drought impacts, including undeveloped clusters and increased disease pressure, and generally are anticipating a lighter crop, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

“They will manage their crop to maintain quality over quantity,” Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith said.

Dairyman John Bucher shuts down his drip irrigation at Bucher Farms in Healdsburg, Wednesday, May 26, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dairyman John Bucher shuts down his drip irrigation at Bucher Farms in Healdsburg, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

In general, established vines, as well as fruit trees and orchards, are likely to fare better than annual crops, their roots finding what little moisture may be in the soil more readily than annuals, boosting their chances of survival, Smith said.

But the commissioner’s office already has documented sizable losses in forage, feed and grain crops, much of it grown to feed livestock on the same ranch as the animals for which they provide nutrition.

Based on an ongoing survey maintained by the county, field, forage and silage crop losses already have reached the 70%-to-85% range — enough to have a clear and direct impact on the amount of livestock kept locally.

Dairies in for major blow

Ranchers have been culling their herds as a result.

Snapshot of Sonoma County agricultural losses amid drought

The fallout of a severe two-year drought continues to widen and intensify for Sonoma County’s vineyards, farms and ranches. Here’s a rundown of the hardships so far:

– Dairies and ranches are selling off cows to confront feed shortages as rangeland withers and demand for irrigated hay and alfalfa drives up costs.

– Grape growers have been told to halt diversions from the Russian River as vineyards turn increasingly to groundwater. Drought-related strain on vines includes undeveloped grape clusters and rising disease pressure.

– Farmers are leaving more land fallow, opting for more drought-tolerant crops and trying to stretch already thin irrigation supplies.

– Dairies and farms are drilling new wells, relying on backup and delivered supplies. Some irrigation sources, including reclaimed water, are likely to undergo further cuts.

In the rural “dairy belt’ of southwest Sonoma County, where winter rains usually transform the landscape into a blanket of brilliant green, struggling dairy ranchers turned to trucking water to dried lands early this spring just to water their cows — their storage ponds running low even as rangeland browned earlier than usual.

The Two Rock area west of Petaluma, where many of the county’s more than 60 dairies are concentrated, has fewer deep-water wells because of its geomorphology, so several farmers there have acquired tankers or trucker time and have been buying water from the city for their cows in what some worry could be a temporary solution as domestic water conservation comes into play.

But even those who have water supplies, like Healdsburg-area dairy rancher John Bucher, are under pressure to provide for their livestock.

Dairyman John Bucher of Bucher Farms in Healdsburg watches moisture-starved clouds float over his parched hillsides, Wednesday, May 26, 2021 in Healdsburg.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dairyman John Bucher of Bucher Farms in Healdsburg watches moisture-starved clouds float over his parched hillsides, Wednesday, May 26, 2021 in Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

On dryland pastures and unirrigated rangeland, there’s been less grass growing for animals to eat, and it’s grown for a shorter period of time. Ranchers also have had less water to irrigate pastures and fields where they cultivate forage, including hay that might be cut three, even four times a season in a normal year.

Bucher, whose family owns vineyards and 360 acres of dairy lands on Westside Road near the Russian River, thinks he can manage to keep his cows watered with what he can draw from two groundwater wells.

But concerns about feeding his milking cows and younger stock already have prompted him to reduce the herd by about 10%, beginning in February and March.

“We were just trying to stay ahead of the curve … just trying to navigate through this dry spring,” said Bucher, who still has about 1,300 head, including 650 producing cows. “There was just no extra grass.”

The feed issue is especially challenging for the county’s many certified organic dairies, where cows over 6 months old must spend at least 120 days on pasture, he and others said. But there will be stiff competition from both conventional and organic ranchers for any feed they can find this year, given the reach of the drought and the extent of its impact on supply.

Searching for livestock feed

Most of the western U.S. already is in severe drought, including areas that usually supply hay and other livestock feed to California — the Central Valley, the Klamath River Basin and Nevada.

Dairyman Doug Berreta said some brokers already are saying they may have to look to Utah and Idaho for hay.

“They’re going to have to go farther,” he said. “I hope we’re not going to have to haul it over the Rocky Mountains. If we have to do that, I just don’t know how we’re going to afford it.”

Javier Lopez, left, assistant manager with Bucher Farms in Healdsburg, uses almond hulls as a fiber supplement for range cattle, amid the drought-parched hillsides. John Bucher, background,  moves the feed into position, Wed. May 26, 2021 in Healdsburg.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Javier Lopez, left, assistant manager with Bucher Farms in Healdsburg, uses almond hulls as a fiber supplement for range cattle, amid the drought-parched hillsides. John Bucher, background, moves the feed into position, Wed. May 26, 2021 in Healdsburg. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

At the Beretta Family Dairy in west Santa Rosa, the cows usually graze “clear into October,” thanks to a reliable supply of reclaimed waste water from the city, the third-generation dairyman said.

By the time the city fulfilled its contract deliveries to The Geysers energy-producing steamfields, it did not have enough recycled waste water to provide what it usually does to 60 or so agricultural users who usually irrigate with municipal supplies each year.

Beretta’s allotment, last year reduced by 30%, was cut another 30% to 40% this year, he said. That means there’s been little water to irrigate about 200 acres of hay and silage usually put up for winter to feed about 300 milking cows and 450 to 500 younger animals at the ranch right now, he said.

“That’s a huge hit to us,” he said.

The family managed to harvest some feed in April, about 25% less than last year, but he’s already sold about 20 milk cows and has 20 more pregnant heifers heading off to Washington state this week. He says he’s going to incur tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs to feed the cows he does wind up with — and is worried there won’t be enough food to buy.

Herds on the auction block

Jim Mickelson, whose family raises Hereford seed stock near Bodega and Valley Ford, said he expects to sell “about 150 head by the time we’re done.”

Mickelson’s daughter, Jamie, raises beef for farmers markets, restaurants and direct-to-consumer sales, and between them, they have about 600 head, he said.

In addition to ranching, he’s in the pump and well business and dug himself a new well a few months back, which may give him enough water to get through the year.

But the skyrocketing cost of feeding them all this year, along with reduced demand for bulls, “doesn’t make economic sense,” he said.

Many of the cows have names and personalities, and it’s painful to let them go, he said, but the ranch will probably carry 20% or 25% fewer head by the end of the year.

“It’s a tough year,” said Mickelson. “But what’s really going to be tough is if we don’t get rain this fall. If we don’t get rain this fall, it’s going to be disaster.”

Stretching meager supplies

Outside Petaluma, sustainable farming pioneer Bob Cannard sounded grim about the prospects for Green String Farm, the produce growing operation he has maintained for decades at the edge of town.

With so little rainwater stored this year, he and his partner have planted only what can be watered from a well usually used to wash produce at the farm stand open five days a week.

“If that little well goes dry, that will be it,” he said.

He’s got a bit of overwintered garlic that will soon be gone and some spinach on a small farm in Sonoma, as well.

But the majority of the main farm is not planted, and Cannard is worried about the state of the region at large and what he sees as an ongoing transition from fertile flood plain to desert.

As for Green String Farm, “it’s a very serious matter,” he said. “I hope not to have to close.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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