Field crop acreages are declining across the state, as water shortages and uncertainties continue to challenge California growers. Water scarcity has forced farmers to fallow land and sacrifice thirsty annual crops for more drought-tolerant perennials.

According to a recent USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) report, acreages are shrinking for several major field crops. Corn, sunflower, rice and cotton are among the victims of this historic drought. California growers planted 430,000 acres of corn this year, 17 percent less than the 520,000 acres planted in 2014. Sunflower acreage has dropped by 20 percent, with 35,000 acres planted this year, compared to 44,000 acres in 2014.

 

Farmers Opt for Orchard Crops

 

Some growers have forfeited annual plantings, instead opting to use their limited water supply to irrigate perennial crops, such as nut orchards. The booming almond market in particular encourages growers to plant new orchards, as potential profits can offset the cost of water for irrigation.

Despite expanding acreage, however, nut orchards are also suffering amid the fourth year of drought. The Almond Board of California predicts that drought-related stress on trees will shrink the almond crop by about 3 percent, from 1.867 billion meat pounds last year to 1.8 billion pounds in 2015. The Almond Board’s forecast is over 10 percent lower than the 2.01 billion meat pounds harvested in 2013.

Last year, growers saw smaller kernels and more rejects than usual due to the drought and an extended heat wave. In 2015, growers reported one of the earliest blooms in memory. According to NASS research, a number of growers saw the top third of trees blossoming two weeks later than the lower two-thirds, indicating insufficient winter chill hours. Orchards require a certain number of chill hours—the cumulative number of hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit—for regular pollination, flowering, fruit yield and quality.

We recently spoke with Tom Broz of Live Earth Farm (Santa Cruz County), who started dry farming some of his older orchards this year to conserve water. He noted the impacts of reduced chill hours on his apple orchards. “This year was like no other with apple crops,” Broz said. “Some trees are completely bare, some have full range of maturity: flowers, small fruit, and large fruit.” Insufficient winter chill is just one of many impacts of climate change that challenge California agriculture.

Jutta's walnut trees. Photo courtesy of MMOrganics.

Jutta’s walnut trees. Photo courtesy of MMOrganics.

It’s not just reduced chill hours threatening orchard crops. Stress from drought and the rising cost of water is making orchard maintenance increasingly difficult. At our Summit in March, Jutta Thoerner of Manzanita Manor Organics (San Luis Obispo County) discussed her recent experience dry farming walnuts. “The yield of my walnuts has been continuously going down over the last four years,” she said, noting her 2015 yield was about 30 percent lower than her usual crop.

Thriving in a Changing Climate

Though farmers and ranchers are skilled at adapting to variability, climate change presents unusually unpredictable and extreme challenges that require new knowledge and funding support systems that emphasize a whole-farm system approach.

There are some examples of new programs that seek to support growers in becoming more drought and climate resilient. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has launched a cap-and-trade funded program to support on-farm water conservation, another important response by the state of California to climate change impacts affecting growers. USDA also recently announced its investment of $21 million Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds in on-farm water conservation efforts. The EQIP allocations will support irrigation efficiency, prescribed grazing, and building soil health through cover crops and reduced tillage.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared July 15, 2015 on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website.