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Sonoma County farmers feel widespread economic pain of drought and prolonged pandemic

The past few years have been rough for Sonoma County’s farmers and agricultural workforce. Wildfires, the COVID pandemic and crushing drought have made the process of shepherding a crop to maturity daunting – but so far, not impossible.

“We’re close to wrapping up,” said Cameron Mauritson, a partner at Mauritson Farms. Mauritson cultivates about 500 acres of premium wine grapes in the Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and the Rockpile viticultural region near Lake Sonoma. Yields for 2021 are down 15 to 30%, Mauritson said, but the quality is superb.

Unlike last year, there’s less fear of “smoke tainted” fruit due to wildfires.

That said, water – or the lack of it – weighed heavily on growers’ minds this year, particularly for grape growers along the Russian River, where severe irrigation strictures have been enforced, curtailing stream water rights that stretch back decades.

“Everyone had concerns,” said Mauritson. “We’ve had to deal with water curtailments on three of our properties. Luckily, wine grapes don’t use much water compared to other crops, and we’re always refining our tools to use less water to make our vineyards more sustainable.”

With the crop largely in, Mauritson’s greatest worry is next year. Soils were dry when the growing season began, meaning that the vines struggled to produce the foliage and canes needed to manufacture and store nutrients through the fall

“There wasn’t much canopy this year, and the canes were smaller,” said Mauritson. “That means fewer carbohydrates were stored, and that will likely limit crop capacity next year.”

Dennis Murphy, a partner at Murphy Ranch and Vineyards in the Alexander Valley, negotiated the growing season with minimal stress due to groundwater pumping and access to a pond.

“That supplemented the water we got from the Russian River, so the year is concluding pretty well,” said Murphy, who farms 150 acres of vines. “The wineries have been ready for us when we needed to deliver grapes, and the fruit is beautiful.”

That said, the larger Russian River viticultural community is experiencing considerable pain, Murphy continued.

“I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d say that about half the growers along the river are lacking any alternative water sources,” he said. “They’ve been able to eke by, but it’s been tough. We really need to look at alternative methods of storage – not just on private holdings, but at Lake Mendocino (which impounds water on the Russian River near Ukiah). Improvements at the lake – particularly a spillway on the dam so the reservoir wouldn’t have to be drawn down each winter to prevent overtopping, and perhaps even raising the dam – could go a long way to improving our water security.”

A painting of Luther Burbank hangs in the barn at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 as Wayne James opens up the farmstead for the day. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A painting of Luther Burbank hangs in the barn at Tierra Vegetables, Friday, July 9, 2021 as Wayne James opens up the farmstead for the day. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Terry Harrison, a member of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and a retired grape and vegetable grower, thinks the drought should convince farmers to reconsider an option that was once a standard practice in the county: eschewing irrigation altogether.

“We dry farmed grapes for 20 years on West Side Road (near Healdsburg),” said Harrison. “We were neophytes, so I can’t pretend we knew what we were doing. But we watered the first couple of years to get the vines started, and then we stopped irrigating. We were on deep clay alluvial soil, and we had deep-rooted rootstock, and the vines did fine.”

Harrison acknowledged that soil profile and fruit or vegetable variety will determine if dry – or near dry – farming is feasible, but said the practice is suitable for a wide range of crops.

“Along with our grapes, we also grew pumpkins,” he said. “We’d only water them twice, and we had very good crops. Tomatoes typically don’t need a lot of water, and we should also remember that virtually all the Gravenstein orchards in Sebastopol were once dry farmed. It can be a practical option.”

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore says the North Coast is at an inflection point on water, and immediate steps should be taken to further curtail unnecessary uses.

“For starters, I think we should ban lawns,” he said. “Even though we’ve made huge gains in recent years through the installation of low-flow toilets and showers and other initiatives, we’re still using way too much water on ornamental landscaping. We need to embrace the idea of permanent conservation”

Gore said county agriculture also needs more alternative water sources such as offsite reservoirs and the implementation of a Flood-Managed Aquifer Recharge (Flood-MAR) program for the Russian River – diverting water from the river during high winter flows to areas that will allow percolation to local aquifers for later pumping.

Gore also said ever-tightening wastewater regulations are providing an opportunity for extensive water recycling. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, he observed, has essentially laid down a marker to county residents: quit polluting the Russian River. And despite protests that septic tank and sewage system upgrades are too costly to undertake, Gore said, it’s clear that the clean-up will proceed.

“Sewage disposal along the Russian has been a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, but change is here,” he said. “That’s going to result in a lot of wastewater that can be treated and made available at different price points. We’re going to have to design better transport systems and identify the most cost-effective places for use. For example, we might determine that it’s best to divert some of the recycled water now going to The Geysers for power production to viticulture.”

Gore thinks dry farming vineyards and orchards might be suitable for limited sites, but maintains the practice isn’t a panacea for the county’s agricultural water deficits.

“It just doesn’t reflect the economic realities for this area,” Gore said. “Vineyards with even moderate irrigation will produce six to eight tons of fruit per acre compared to one or two tons for dry-farmed vineyards. Given our land prices and production costs, you can’t run a profitable operation at two tons an acre.”

Wayne James, of Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa, can water only one row of crops at a time due to issues with his well pump on Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Friday, July 9, 2021. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Wayne James, of Tierra Vegetables in Santa Rosa, can water only one row of crops at a time due to issues with his well pump on Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Friday, July 9, 2021. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Simultaneous with the drought, the pandemic wreaked havoc on Sonoma County agriculture – and not just vineyards.

“The cost of labor has skyrocketed,” said Wayne James, who runs Tierra Vegetables, a well-known source for specialty produce, with his sister, Lee James.

“It started with the wildfires in 2017,” James said. “There was a huge demand for construction after the fires, and anyone who could swing a hammer got $18 to $20 an hour minimum, no experience required. And the pandemic has only made it worse. We can’t afford to pay $18 an hour to workers on our farm – it just isn’t sustainable, given what we receive for our crops.”

James isn’t suffering much from the drought, given that the land he farms overlays a well-charged aquifer. But his large electric pump has broken down; he has already sunk $30,000 into a new pump, and installation may require another $30,000. Meanwhile, he squeaks by with a small diesel pump.

News of their plight recently led to a fundraising drive among the exclusive Bay Area restaurants that constitute Tierra’s core customer base – but donations aren’t a sound business plan, James said.

“The money we raised basically allowed us to pay off our debts and meet payroll,” he said. “But it’s just a temporary reprieve. The pandemic put hundreds of restaurant employees out of work but that didn’t really expand our pool of qualified candidates, and it slashed our profits because we lost a lot of customers.”

And though restaurants are opening back up, the demand for Tierra’s produce still hasn’t hit pre-pandemic levels – and it’s harder than ever to find workers.

“I understand their situation, and I understand why they have to go where they’ll receive the best pay,” James said. “But our business has always been based on artisanal food that requires a lot of hand labor. And the price of food isn’t close to keeping up with the price of labor. It’s getting to the point where we just can’t compete.”

Gore said the business and labor woes triggered by the coronavirus could prove long term.

“I think that’s because there are two wine industries,” Gore said. “The first consists of big wineries, the ones that crowd the supermarket shelves with their products. The second is the one that exemplifies Sonoma County, and it consists of small, high-end wineries that are closely intertwined with local restaurants and inns and tour companies. It’s an industry of limited bottlings and wine clubs and special events. It’s really a hospitality industry. And the Sonoma County hospitality industry is hurting, because people haven’t been returning in the numbers we had pre-pandemic.”

But at the same time, added Gore, “Our farmers and ranchers are resilient, and I think they’ll ultimately adapt, as they’ve always adapted to both Mother Nature and varying business cycles. If anyone has the capacity to ride these challenging waves to the future, it’s them. We just need to make sure they have the support – including smart, flexible regulations – to ensure they succeed.”

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