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Drought Turns Spotlight On Future Of California Farms


If there is a piece of fruit, a vegetable or even a nut or two on your dinner table tonight, there's a good chance it was grown in California. That state has endured four years of extreme drought. And while some of California's agriculture industry is suffering, a few farmers have found a way to adapt and even thrive in the dry conditions. Ben Bergman of member KPCC has this report.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Tom Rogers' 175-acre orchard right in the middle of California might very well be the farm of the future, a future where almonds are likely to be the state's number-one crop.

TOM ROGERS: These were some of the first almonds planted in this area, and this has been a good crop for us.

BERGMAN: In the '70s, Rogers' father made a prescient decision. He ditched the low-value cotton, cord and alfalfa his father grew and planted almonds. Thanks to strong demand from Asia, they've become a very lucrative crop. The downside is the trees require constant watering.

ROGERS: It's a scary time. I mean, we're very concerned about what's going on.

BERGMAN: Because Rogers now relies 100 percent on groundwater.

ROGERS: By comparison, other years, groundwater amounted to maybe 10 to 25 percent of our annual water usage.

BERGMAN: And do you have an idea how much groundwater is left?

ROGERS: No. I'm going to be very honest - my bottom line answer is I have no clue how long the water's going to last.

BERGMAN: So this year, Rogers made a major investment, installing a precise high-tech irrigation system that lets him stretch what little water he has as much as possible. In the middle of a row of almond trees, Rogers pulls a soil moisture probe out of the ground.

ROGERS: And up on top is a rain gauge and wind speed indicator. The panel out there measures the amount of sunlight.

BERGMAN: All the data gets uploaded to the Internet every 15 minutes, which allows Rogers to specify exactly how much water the trees need. Instead of getting soaked once a week with sprinklers, his nearly 15,000 trees get tiny doses of water every day.

HEATHER COOLEY: In essence, they're spoon-feeding the tree.

BERGMAN: Heather Cooley is with the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank. More efficient irrigation techniques and a shift towards more valuable crops like almonds are big reasons why despite spending her life studying water in California, Cooley is bullish on the state's agricultural industry.

COOLEY: We can continue to have a very strong, robust agricultural sector in California using less water than we do today.

BERGMAN: In California's Central Valley, fifth-generation farmer Philip Bowles has been installing more drip irrigation every year, and he's happy with the results. He's cut his farm's total water use by about 25 percent in the last decade while doubling the per-acre yield.

PHILIP BOWLES: Water's a big expense for us. We don't want to use any more than we have to.

BERGMAN: Bowles is tired of farmers getting a bad rap these days for using 80 percent of the state's water. Everyone needs to eat after all, and he says people are making much too big a deal out of the drought.

BOWLES: The system that we have can be adapted. It doesn't have to be blown up. It doesn't have to be abandoned. There's still, you know, a lot of water in the state, and people overlook that.

BERGMAN: And it's not just farmers who think that way. A team of researchers led by Jay Lund at the University of California, Davis used computer modeling to see what would happen if there was a 72-year mega-drought. Lund says they were surprised how minor the overall impacts would be.

JAY LUND: California, particularly with its very large infrastructure system that can move water around pretty well relative to other states, can accommodate some pretty big water shocks.

BERGMAN: Scientists recently announced it's been more than 500 years since California has been this dry. Yet, last year, California's agriculture industry had its second-highest revenues ever. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Bergman