Squeezed By Drought, California Farmers Switch To Less Thirsty Crops : The Salt Water scarcity is leading farmers away from planting staples and towards planting higher-value, lower-water specialty crops. Think wine grapes and pomegranates instead of citrus and avocados.
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Squeezed By Drought, California Farmers Switch To Less Thirsty Crops

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Squeezed By Drought, California Farmers Switch To Less Thirsty Crops

Squeezed By Drought, California Farmers Switch To Less Thirsty Crops

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

California's drought is forcing many of its farmers to rethink how they go about their business. Water scarcity is leading farmers away from planting staple crops and towards specialty crops. Lesley McClurg of Capital Public Radio reports.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Grapefruit trees shade the entrance to Triple B Ranches winery in northern San Diego County. The tasting room is a converted kitchen festooned with country knick-knacks.

DEBBIE BROOMELL: So this is our 2012 Viognier. And the Viognier vineyard is right behind the winery here.

MCCLURG: Debbie Broomell runs the boutique winery with her father, Gary. Their quaint vineyard is only a few years old. For three generations, the Broomells have grown citrus, but it's been hard to stay in the black growing oranges.

GARY BROOMELL: With the water problems and all the things that are going on, we're looking for something that takes a little less water, and grapes seem to be it.

D. BROOMELL: It's all trying to just kind of keep farming. How do we keep farming?

MCCLURG: Water in the area is some of the most expensive in the state. The price has more than doubled in recent years. And vineyards require 25 percent less water than citrus. As a result, the number of wineries in San Diego County has tripled in recent years. But the savings might not be enough to ensure survival for the Broomells. Debbie points to a shallow well in the middle of some grapevines.

D. BROOMELL: Dad's been cranking it down because a water table's been dropping, and we're keeping our fingers crossed that they can kind of keep producing through the summer.

MCCLURG: As the drought continues, the Broomells might have to pull out of citrus altogether. They're considering less thirsty crops like persimmons as an alternative.

ERIC LARSON: So you end up driving by these 400-acre citrus groves. They're just abandoned there.

MCCLURG: That's what we're looking at right there.

LARSON: That's what we're looking at right there because they've turned the water off.

MCCLURG: Eric Larson, from the California Farm Bureau, takes me on a drive nearby through the San Pasqaul Valley. Historically, citrus and avocados have been the two leading crops in northern San Diego County. But several thousand acres of citrus and more than 10,000 acres of avocados have been taken out of production. But not all farmers are giving up.

LARSON: Here's where a citrus grove was - was pulled out and converted into a nursery. So nurseries are a much higher value crop here.

MCCLURG: Farmers are also planting unusual crops like pomegranates and a Mexican fruit called pitahaya or dragon fruit.

LARSON: Uses very, very little water. I guess I could best describe it as a cactus with fruit on it. They're getting a lot of money per pound for it.

MCCLURG: Larson says it's important to remember that not long ago, avocados were a specialty crop.

LARSON: And it was hard to sell those things. They were called alligator pears. People didn't know what they were. They got 2 or 3 cents a pound for them.

MCCLURG: But he says the avocado's popularity exploded as the country's Latino population grew and more and more Mexican restaurants opened. Daniel Sumner, an economist at UC Davis, says the drought is intensifying a trend that was already unfolding.

DANIEL SUMNER: The context is what we produce in California has been changing for 200 years. You go back 140 years ago, California was the second-biggest wheat state in the country. The Central Valley was dry-land wheat farming. We were second to Kansas.

MCCLURG: As late as the 1980s, California was a leading cotton producer at 1.5 million acres. This year's cotton crop is expected to be about a tenth of that.

SUMNER: It doesn't compete these days with almonds, pistachios, wine grapes, processing tomatoes et. cetera.

MCCLURG: But even though high-water crops like almonds are under scrutiny, Sumner expects dry times and high water prices to continue to push California's farmland away from row crops and pasture to higher-value orchards and vineyards. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Escondido, Calif.

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