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Sonoma County farmers facing 'heartbreaking’ crisis in drought

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

For Jim Pacheco, the telltale sign arrived in February when the creek that runs through his Chileno Valley dairy farm never flowed at all.

“For our creek not to run, I've never seen that in my lifetime,” said the 60-year-old owner of Achadinha Cheese Co., west of Petaluma. He remembers splashing in the meandering tributary to San Antonio Creek as a 6-year-old. Now, four families and three generations of Pachecos live on the farm.

“The worst drought before this was in ’76, when I was 14-15 years old. I remember my dad hauling water for 300 cows. He’d haul 18,000 to 20,000 gallons a day. This is worse than that,” Pacheco said.

With Santa Rosa having received barely one-third of its average rainfall for this time in the weather year, which began Oct. 1, and no rain likely until mid- to late fall, the most severe drought in decades is testing farmers all over the region. That’s the case whether they’re cattle ranchers, vegetable growers or vineyard managers.

“Our farmers keep overcoming one crisis after another in Sonoma County, and this is just one more sock to the chin,” said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Members are telling her that water storage is drying up much quicker than it did in the last major drought in 2014-2016. Many livestock farmers are selling off animals and thinning herds to get by. Feed prices have shot up. One dairy farmer told her he’s paying $8,000 more a month just for feed. Pacheco paid around $230 per hay bale a year ago. Now, it’s closer to $400.

As the two major local reservoirs sink well below average levels, Lake Sonoma lies at around 55% of water supply capacity and Lake Mendocino at 38%. For Rebecca Bozzelli at Lantern Farm in Cloverdale, it’s a waiting game. In early June, the vegetable and flower farmer received a letter from the state water board alerting her that her well, which pulls from the Russian River and is only around 20 years old, would be cut off if storage levels in nearby reservoirs fell below their limits.

“It was really heartbreaking because I read it and then looked out at the farm and I’ve already put all this effort into growing, all this sweat and labor, and now I might have to abandon it. It’s been really emotional. If we knew in March or February this might happen, we could have approached it differently,” said Bozzelli who has farmed tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, chard, lettuce and other vegetables for the past five years on the 3-acre property she leases along the east bank of the Russian River.

She’s working with her landlord to possibly tap an older, long-dormant well on the property, fed by an aquifer and not underflow from the Russian River. She’s also hoping to dry-farm crops like tomatoes and peppers. But that’s not an option for lettuce and flowers. Working with the Community Alliance for Farmers and other organizations, Bozzelli is also exploring options for water storage.

In west Santa Rosa, vegetable farmer Will Holloway recently found out he would only receive 25% of his regular allotment of tertiary-treated water (recycled from toilets, showers and dishwashing) from the city of Santa Rosa water treatment plant down the road.

“Vegetables need a lot of water — there’s really no way around it,” said the Longer Table Farm owner, who is well accustomed to dry-farming tomatoes that are only irrigated when planted. As a result, he spent $10,000 to upgrade the well on the 10-acre property that he leases from the city of Santa Rosa.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Holloway. “Not only during a drought do you have less water available, but it takes more water to do the same thing — because you don’t have the same amount of water in the soil from the winter. We made a water budget early on and I kind of got a slap in the face by reality and realized it’s going to take four times as much water just to hydrate the soil and plant the first time than it normally would.”

Growing grapes for wineries in Dry Creek and Alexander valleys, longtime vineyard manager Duff Bevill heavily pruned much of the 1,200 acres he oversees so vines will produce fewer grapes — sometimes half as much as usual — and need less water. At one hillside vineyard, a pond that typically fills up to 20 acre-feet of water only rose to 1.4 acre-feet, roughly enough water to cover a football field 1 foot deep. That’s not enough to fully irrigate the entire vineyard even once. As the drought wears on, he’s relying on technology like neutron probes to monitor moisture levels in the soil and pressure chambers to see how much water the vines can get by with.

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

Not far away, Paul Bernier is continuing his age-old practice of dry farming around 35 acres of vines in Dry Creek Valley, a technique he picked up from Italian immigrants many decades ago.

“I’m not worried about the drought,” he said. As proof, he digs beneath the ground in his Canyon Road vineyard to reveal darker, moist dirt just 6 inches under the burnt orange dusty topsoil. It’s the result of regularly composting with leftover grape pomace and oyster shells, growing waist-high cover crops and cultivating and disking the soil to help retain moisture during the dry season.

In the rolling hills of Valley Ford and Bodega, rancher Joe Pozzi is constantly checking on the seven small springs that fill feed troughs for his hundreds of cattle and sheep in remote stretches on his property.

“A lot of them are down to a trickle, only like maybe 10% of what they’re supposed to be at this time of year and others are starting to dry up. It’s just too early in the season for this,” said Pozzi, who is still waiting to decide whether to sell off around 30% of his cattle and sheep to make ends meet. He’s also hoping for possible federal drought aid from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency.

Trucks are hauling water up and down roads all over the county, including to Achadinha Cheese Co. where all three reserve ponds are currently filled. In April, Pacheco and his family started hauling water once a month. Now it’s once a week at 3,500 gallons. Soon it will be twice a week, he said. They already raised cheese prices at the beginning of the year but he’s hesitant to raise prices twice in one year.

“If it doesn’t rain come October or November, we’re gonna be in trouble,” Pacheco said. “I will probably sell off most of our animals, just keeping enough to make cheese.”

In Cloverdale, Bozzelli hopes to learn her fate in July. But she’s already decided, “If I have to turn off the water, I’ll make a call to people and say, ‘OK, all the onions I have in the ground, I got 10 days to get these out and sell them.’ Hopefully the community rallies behind that,” she said. “The idea is to get everything out of the fields and sell it or give it away or donate it or however it gets to someone’s mouth. Then we farm the rest of it for the rest of the season and pray that it rains again.”

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