Why they're stumping San Diego's avocado trees

The guacamole crisis

— Throughout last winter and spring, one could put one’s ear to the wind almost anywhere in North County and hear the buzz of chainsaws as avocado farmers cut down their trees.

While this tropical fruit has beaten the odds in Southern California’s desert climate for decades, the local avocado industry has taken a turn for the worse. Orchards heavily damaged by drought, frost, and fire produced a 2008 crop just 57 percent of average, and the 2009 harvest is not expected to be much better, say industry eyeballers. The most recent hit taken by the county’s 23,000 acres of avocado farms was a 30 percent cutback on water allocation in January at the direction of U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who ordered reduced pumping from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to protect the threatened delta smelt. Judge Wanger’s action has in turn sparked a drastic, last-resort tactic of grove management called “stumping.” To ensure the survival of at least some of their trees, farmers began sawing down as much as 40 percent of their acreage after stripping the trees of fruit early in the year.

Stumping does not kill an avocado tree but merely leaves a dormant relic three to five feet tall. Lacking fruit, flowers, or foliage, such trees immediately cease guzzling water, allowing surrounding trees full access to the available supply. According to Guy Witney, director of industry affairs with the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, stumped trees will spring back to life and begin producing fruit again in two or three years.

“This is just a means of temporarily halting their use of resources,” said Witney. “The hope is to keep cutting them back until the water issue resolves.”

But no one knows when that might happen. The current state of affairs began on the tail end of the drought that lasted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when Southern Californian farmers made a deal with the Metropolitan Water District, or Met, which receives water imports from the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta before selling it to local users. Called the Interim Agricultural Water Program, the contract allowed farmers to sign an agreement that reduced their water rates by $137 per acre-foot beginning in 1994, with the understanding that in the case of a water shortage their supply would be the first to get cut. In that year, wholesale water rates ran approximately $385 per acre-foot, and approximately 3000 local farmers signed the contract. Among avocado growers, who require three to four acre-feet of water per acre per year, the deal was a good one — until late 2007, that is, when Met gave notice of the impending water cuts. Avocado harvest in California runs nearly all year, peaking in July; however, this year many farmers picked the last of their ripe fruits early in the year, then revved up their chainsaws.

But to the dismay of many growers, even their remaining trees are struggling.

“For growers in districts relying entirely on MWD supplies and required to take the full 30 percent cutbacks, this was drastic action, which will have dire results on the industry for some years ahead,” said Witney, who added that the expected low yields for 2009 combined with bills to pay will make for a “double whammy for the farmers.”

Noel Stehly, who operates the family ranch in Valley Center with his brothers, stumped 40 acres of their avocado trees, which cover 800 acres in total. They might have cut five times as many trees, but Stehly sees stumping as a lost cause.

“The guys who stumped a third of their trees are fooling themselves to think that we’ll solve the water issue within three years, when their trees come back into production and they need that water again,” Stehly said. “Even if we get a peripheral canal from the delta, it’ll be ten years before we get it flowing.”

Bill and Carol Steed of Fairfield Farms near Valley Center were already deep into the financial commitment of boosting their farm acreage and had just planted 25 acres of blueberries when the January water cuts hit. Thus, their situation has been compounded, leaving the Steeds with only one-quarter of the water they now need for their berries, citrus, and avocados.

And the water could be reduced further. Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, expects mandatory cuts of 10 percent or more by mid-2009. The interim water program’s fine print stipulates that residential users alone will bear this second round of cutbacks up to the level of 15 percent, at which point farmers who signed the agreement will absorb the next round, taking a cutback to 40 percent of their preshortage water flow. However, Larson says that until January 15 farmers will have the option to renege on their water-contract terms, thereby incurring full water rates but in turn receiving access to all the water they need. Farmers who back out of their contracts will be subject to the same water-rationing cutbacks as residential users. Many local farmers are taking this route, says Larson.

Larson believes solutions are at hand, however.

“I’d like to see greater urban use of reclaimed sewage water, which would leave more water from the Sacramento and the Colorado for farmers.”

Others have discussed moving San Diego’s reclaimed water directly to the farmland, but no one yet has volunteered to build the piping system capable of pumping water 40 miles uphill from coastal urban zones to the orchards. The other problem inherent in using reclaimed water is its high salinity and chloride levels, for avocado fruit yield is known to suffer when the trees are doused with briny water.

In late 2006, researchers with the UC Davis Extension were making progress in identifying salt-tolerant strains of avocado rootstock. The extension’s primary farm advisor, Dr. Gary Bender, had begun to zero in on a promising Israeli rootstock when the severe frost of January 2007 killed his young grove and cut short the investigation.

But replacing rootstock across thousands of acres of avocado trees might not be economically feasible anyway, said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District.

“When you’ve got 100 trees to an acre, you’re not going to pull out each one and replant it and wait for it to come into production again. The economics of avocado growing just won’t allow that.”

Bender points out that many farmers are already replacing aged or root-rotted trees anyway, and he is making arrangements for another test run in which he plans to water a South African salt-tolerant rootstock in a grove near Fallbrook. If the experiment shows high yields under salty irrigation, the future of the region’s avocado groves could brighten dramatically.

After all, the delta water shortage is not going to end anytime soon, says Arant. “The situation with the delta smelt is not going to be rectified until they separate the pumping facilities from the fish, whether the drought ends or not.”

The best-case scenario, Arant believes, will be if the state builds the long-discussed peripheral canal, which could be completed, at the earliest, 10 or 12 years down the road. As for the thousands of acres of stumped trees, they may need to come out.

“There is no economic sense in keeping your trees stumped for ten years or more,” said Arant. “Farmers don’t water trees just to keep them alive. They water them to get fruit. They’re businessmen.”

Though the local subsurface supply of groundwater is notoriously salty, the Stehlys have tapped into it and simultaneously invested in several nanofiltration pumps, devices that desalinate water at 300 gallons or more per minute and could keep their 1200 certified organic acres of avocados, berries, and citrus vibrant even in the driest of times. Jerome Stehly, however, says the investment has cost “too much,” and as for the river water from Northern California, Stehly sees it as a hoarded resource.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “They have extra water, and we can’t get it. If they were truly concerned about the environment, they would think about the impacts of importing all our food from South America.”

United States avocado consumption has increased nationwide at 15 to 20 percent per year this century, and consumption totaled one billion pounds in 2007. This year, Americans will consume still more of the fruit, and projected figures of 1.5 and 2 billion pounds per year are already in sight. In 1997, NAFTA opened the United States market to Mexican avocados, and today much of the national supply is imported, with California fruit constituting on average only 300 to 400 million pounds per year, though 2006 produced a record crop of nearly 601 million pounds. Chilean fruit also feeds the domestic demand, and Peru may gain access to our market in 2010. The Avocado Commission’s Witney believes that the 12-month ready supply now provided with the help of producers in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere may invigorate the domestic avocado market — perhaps even benefit local farmers.

“We used to have to fight for shelf space each season. Now it’s available all year.”

Yet, California’s avocado acreage has declined from 65,000 acres in late 2006 to 58,000 today. Some farmers have abandoned or sold their orchards, Witney notes. The Steeds may stump even more of their trees to get by, and growers like Jerome Stehly don’t plan to put more in the ground unless the water shortage is alleviated.

“We’re going to wait and see,” he says.

Some farmers are switching crops, as fruits like grapes and blackberries require just one-fourth the water needed by avocados, but many of the county’s orchards grow on land too steep and rugged to be cost-efficiently replanted, says Stehly.

“There’s no replacement crop for them,” he says. “What you’re going to see are a lot of brown hills.”

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