California is in the fourth year of a serious drought, which began in 2012 and has been exacerbated by the exceptionally hot weather. We get a lot of questions about how we are coping.
The state has periodically suffered droughts. Over the last century, the most serious ones occurred from 1929 to 1934, from 1976 to 1977, and from 1987 to 1992. The 1929 drought followed years of drier than normal weather. The 1976 drought was relatively short, but rainfall was lower than during any period on record. The 1987 drought was the worst since the 1930s.
Population growth is another factor complicating the current drought. At the beginning of the 1976 drought, California had a population of 22 million. By the beginning of the 1987 drought, California’s population had grown to almost 28 million. The state now has 39 million people turning on spigots. Surpluses are quickly exhausted. Dry years have greater impact.
Conservation will not make it rain, but can buy time. That will not save us from the effects of a drought lasting 200 years that some predict is coming. But ranchers and farmers are an ornery bunch and not easily discouraged. Working the land requires deep faith, undying optimism, stubborn courage and, increasingly, imagination.
Facing restrictions on water use, frustrated city dwellers point out that urban areas consume only 20 percent of the state’s water while agriculture consumes 80 percent. But that measures only what comes out of the faucet. Water is required to grow the food that people eat. When you drink that glass of orange juice or eat that healthy salad, you are consuming the amount of water required to grow it. Eliminate agriculture and you may have plenty to drink, but you will starve. Nonetheless, ranchers and farmers need to get increasingly smart about conservation.
There are several ways farms can save water: by increasing efficiency—getting exactly the right amount of water to the right place and not a drop more; by holding moisture in the soil longer, and by increasing the ability of the plants to absorb water more efficiently.
What are we doing at Fairview Orchards? All three things. Last year, we replaced the aging irrigation system that came with the property. The new technology comes from Israel, where they know a thing or two about farming in the desert. A powerful new pump and pressure compensating micro-emitters maintain constant pressure, pushing water to the most distant trees without overwatering those close to the pump.
Miles of irrigation lines means leaks. Couplings come loose under pressure. Thirsty animals chew at them. We have replaced every line of irrigation hose and are relentless about tracking down the smallest leaks. Every tree has its own micro-emitter that provides the precise amount of water needed during the watering cycle. We pump liquid organic fertilizer through the same system. And we water at night to reduce evaporation loss.
The result? Last year, we were able to double the number of trees while at the same time reducing total water consumption.
We are now spreading mulch six to eight inches thick around every tree to reduce evaporation and keep the soil moist. According to research, this can reduce water requirements by 25 percent.
We are also “re-engineering” the soil by adding biochar—a type of charcoal used for soil amendment—that increases the soil’s capacity to hold moisture and creates a more hospitable environment for good micro-organisms. A number of cities in Southern California are instituting biochar programs to conserve water.
Some scientists also recommend the addition of silicon, which can improve tolerance to environmental stress, and we plan to try that. At the same time, we are adding mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, which create a beneficial underground ecosystem and help the trees adjust to global warning.
I try to translate papers from the “Fifth International Conference on Silicon in Agriculture” into my vision of happy dirt. I imagine it to be the color of chocolate; moist but not wet, firm yet airy, and pleasantly aromatic—wait a minute, that sounds like Devil’s food cake. How about a subterranean labyrinth filled with merry microbes carrying buckets of water.
We are also experimenting by planting lemon trees in-between the avocado trees. Their roots drink at different levels, and this strategy may increase overall water efficiency. And we are increasing our percentage of lemon trees, which need less water than avocados, and putting in more pomegranate and jujube trees, which are drought-resistant.
Like everyone else, we pray for rain. Meanwhile, we are determined to explore every promising new technology or technique that enables us to save water. This is not a marketing pitch. It is a matter of survival.