Uncharted Territory in California Drought: Difficult Decisions Weigh on Ranchers
By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
March 14, 2014, 8:28:13 AM EDT
The year 2013 went down in the record books as the driest ever for the state. Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency on Jan. 17, 2014, as a result. The minimal rainfall has had significant negative ramifications on the landscape. Due to this, agriculture and livestock in the state have taken a large hit, which could have economic impacts in the years to come.
Almost half of the fruits and nuts grown in the United States come from California. The state leads the country in the production of many different crops, including almonds, artichokes, grapes, kiwi, olives, peaches, pomegranates, rice and walnuts.
In a University of California Davis study, led by Leslie Roche, postdoctoral researcher for the Department of Plant Sciences, the California Cattlemen's Association was surveyed to see how the drought conditions were impacting their businesses and ways of life.
"We basically asked ranchers, there were about 511 respondents, what are their strategies for drought management, what are their goals that they have on their ranches and what practices work for them," Roche said.
After the initial surveys, Roche's team began to conduct personal interviews with ranchers and farmers in the state. After this interview stage, the team will begin onsite ranchland health assessments to evaluate how these methods are helping to combat the drought.
So far, their results have shown that the widespread nature of this current drought is forcing difficult decisions on ranchers.
"This drought is particularly deep," said Dr. Ken Tate, professor and cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. "It's affecting ranchers across the entire state, nobody's really immune from it."
Tate explained that costs are rising for ranchers, forcing the purchase of more expensive hays, for instance. For those who cannot afford the rising costs, they are reluctantly selling off cattle that they would much rather keep.
"One of the questions that Leslie asked them was 'out of the last 10 years, how many of them have been drought?' In some parts of the state people are saying eight, nine years," Tate said.
Looking ahead, the dry winter will continue to have negative impacts on farmers and ranchers. Tate explained that many farmers who grow their own crops rely on irrigation systems, and that with a lack of snowpack this season reservoirs may not have an adequate supply of water this summer.
The state of California made $44.7 billion in 2012 off its agricultural products, more than any other state in the country. As water reserves dwindle and the cost of maintaining farms and livestock go up, production abilities will suffer.
California's leading cash commodity is its dairy industry, which went down 10 percent from 2011 to 2012. From 2011 to 2012, there were 1,000 farms lost.
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"It's really been cumulative impacts for them," Roche said. "We started talking to people last April, and we were already hearing about the drier years just in the last two years that has resulted in quite a few people, especially in Southern California, who have had to reduce their herds by almost half."
With that already occurring, Roche said, then the larger growing regions of the state entering exceptional drought this year, many are concerned about the further reduction of their crops and livestocks.
Across the country, the increased costs of production for California farmers could mean increased prices for the crops that the state provides the majority of.
Tate said that the ranchers in the study are being asked whether their current methods of sustaining will be adequate if the drought persists.
"The vast majority, 95 percent if not more, say no, that their current strategies or their past strategies are not going to be adequate going into the future. It's a bit of an uncharted territory for a lot of folks. Strategies, even past, multigenerational strategies, most people think are not going to continue being adequate going in to the future if this persists."
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