Mangoes and Agave in the Central Valley? California Farmers Try New Crops to Cope With Climate Change

As California’s weather patterns become more erratic, yet another problem emerges.

Early autumn rains are a problem for walnuts, destroying ripe fruit. Also, heat waves, especially after rain, can cause fruit to drop and rot. As temperatures in the Central Valley approached 115 degrees Celsius, about 40 percent of last fall’s walnut harvest was lost, according to the report. Robert BurloopCalifornia Nut Commission and Executive Director of the California Nut Commission.

Walnut growers “are worried about heatwaves and should be,” said Jarvis Sheen.

Another study from the University of California, Davis, conducted at the Wolfskill Orchard, aims to identify genes for heat tolerance in European walnut trees. The trees will be sampled using an instrument that measures photosynthesis, said Claire Heinitz, a research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The aim is to find unique individuals that maintain basic functionality even under extreme heat conditions.

This year, she said, the project will be led by researchers. Andrew McElone and Mina Momayejimay be expanded to include not only pistachios and almonds, but also heat-sensitive grapes.

Heinitz said much of the research is aimed at creating stronger root systems that can protect trees from soil pathogens, salinity and other stressors.However, breeding drought resilience Entering California’s staple crop may be a more elusive goal.

“Drought tolerance is a very difficult question because it involves all plant systems, not just roots,” says Heinitz.

Researcher Andrew McElrone uses porometers on almond tree leaves at the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard near Winters. (Rahul Lal/Karmataz)

The Future of California’s Subtropics?

The winter of 2023 was unusually cold, but does not indicate a trend towards a nut-friendly climate.

Last month, climate scientist Danielle Swain of the University of California, Los Angeles said the cold weather in the past few months was a “fluke” in a long, warm winter. In fact, he said, “now may be the coldest winter of our lives in some areas.”

If true, it could all be smooth sailing for Chiliz Wilson Jr. and her family. Mr. Wilson, his fifth-generation farmer in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, has planted thousands of avocado trees of his 12 varieties near Walnut Grove and Cortland. Now harvested almost year-round, the fruit is a key component of his family’s fruit packaging company. river maid.

Most of California’s avocados are grown between San Diego and Santa Barbara, covering approximately 50,000 acres and producing over $300 million in farm direct sales.

Wilson recalls being disappointed by her family when she pitched the avocado idea to them nearly a decade ago.

“They said, ‘No, we don’t produce here,'” he says. “So I said, ‘But that tree does.'” He pointed to a large avocado tree with fruit in view of the farm’s headquarters. They gave it a try and planted over 600 avocado trees per acre.

Wilson knows that an avocado orchard is a gamble, even in an era of global warming. “We’re about to annihilate him in one go,” Wilson said.

But this winter, the Wilsons’ avocado field has seen temperatures drop 16 times below zero, yet the trees have survived and are still producing fruit.

Avocado hanging from a tree.
Grug holds a Pinkerton avocado grown in the Sacramento Valley. (Rahul Lal/Karmataz)

Yet other fruits little known to most Americans can be great in temperate California. Charlie Lucero, who owns a home orchard in Menlo Park, is helping introduce Yanmei to Californians. A red sphere resembling a lychee with a cherry-like pit inside and a taste like pomegranate or pine resin, yangmei is usually grown in China.

Currently, Lucero works as a consultant and marketer for several Northern California growers preparing for their second harvest.

Lucero said the fruit, a relative of the bayberry, is “zero hardy” and resistant to the fungi and bacteria that plague stone fruit growers.

“A late rain doesn’t hurt us,” Lucero said of a smaller collaboration called Yang May. Carmay. “These trees are well suited to California, where the weather is less predictable.”

Lucero said it sells for about $60 a pound. Last year’s harvest totaled about 2.5 tons. He expects to double that number this year.

An orchard project near Santa Cruz is yet another glimpse into the potential future of agriculture in California.

Nate Blackmore Wildlands Farm and Nursery has several acres of land planted with mainly Latin American subtropical fruits (white sapote, ice cream beans, cherimoya, uvaia, dragon fruit and guavirova).

The main attraction of his future orchard is Lucuma wood. Native to western South America, lucuma resembles a rounded avocado with a pointed bottom and features a powdery, sweet yam-like flesh.

All of these species tolerate frost, but barely.

“With so many subtropical fruit trees, it’s terrifying to think how many will survive in the bitter cold,” Blackmore said.

Yet another tropical crop, coffee, could benefit from California’s warming climate.

Grown in orchards in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Diego counties, it doesn’t come cheap.A company uses organic coffee beans $286 per pound. But trees are hardly sustainable in those areas that rely on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River. Watering takes at least some time. several feet deep per year.

Another tropical fruit suitable for drought-prone lands is the pitaya, or dragon fruit. Grown from tropical cactus plants, it can be grown in California with just 1.5 feet of watering, which is one-third the amount of water needed for citrus and avocados, says San Diego County Farms of the University of California Cooperative Extension Program. Advisor Ramiro Lobo said: His program has distributed approximately 50,000 dragon fruit cactus cuttings to smallholder farmers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, and he has at least 1,000 acres in production.

Dry Farming to Combat Water Scarcity

Of all the pressures on California farmers, no one is more persistent and serious than the water supply. About 80% of the water Californians consume is used in agriculture. When drought hits, farmers, especially those who grow nearly four million acres of vines and fruit trees, pump water from the ground.

This has dried up thousands of drinking water wells and subsided the land. As the aquifer atrophies. The state passed a new groundwater law in 2014 and is beginning to take effect. 900,000 acres Irrigated farmland in the largely dry San Joaquin Valley has ceased production.

But for a farmer like Tristan Benson, this doesn’t matter. Based in western Sonoma County, he practices dry farming.

Benson and his partners typically harvest 20-30 tonnes of heirloom wheat and barley from the loamy hillsides to sell for bread, beer and distilling. Only a little rain is needed to grow these staples. Irrigation that other growers rely on, such as those in the Central Valley and Imperial Valley.

Benson said even the recent drought has always yielded a good harvest. “The closer you are to the coast, the better the results,” he said. The fields are planted in October or November, the seeds germinate about a week after the first heavy rains, and the ground usually stays moist until the summer harvest.

Benson’s approach could serve as a model for sustainability for other growers in California. They “plant millions of acres of trees that need water all the time, and our reservoirs have a three-year supply at most,” they said.

A Caucasian woman of about 40 with long dark brown hair, olive trousers, boots, a mauve long-sleeved top and a purple vest sits in a grassy shade between two rows of lush trees. standing on the alley
U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Claire Heinitz helps manage the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard, which brings together thousands of crop varieties used in breeding experiments. (Rahul Lal/Karmataz)

Benson believes a sensible farming model would be to grow winter crops without irrigation, then plant annual summer fruit and vegetables in irrigated fields when reservoirs fill up, as they do today. there is Apples, tomatoes, pears, grapes and potatoes can all be grown on dry farms in cool regions. Dry farming is more difficult in the interior and south, at least for most crops.

Jeff Vanden Hubel, director of regulation and economics at the Milk Producers Council, said winter farming of grain and forage crops with just a few inches of irrigation water would reduce groundwater use and feed livestock. Said it might help.

More than a quarter of the state’s forage crops are grown in areas that rely entirely on groundwater, and this dependence is likely to reduce California’s cattle population in the future, he said. . Dairy cow numbers are expected to decline by about 10% by the 2040s, when the Groundwater Act is fully enforced. “This translates to about 130,000 fewer cattle,” Vanden Hubel said.

Ferguson of the University of California, Davis said Central Valley farmers are accustomed to harvesting maximum yields because they have “more reliable water available.” Perhaps now, when water runs out or becomes more expensive, they will be forced to compromise on lower yields. ”

Daniel SumnerA professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, said California’s agricultural identity has already changed dramatically over time. In the early days of the state system, California was a major producing area. Millions of acres of rain-fed wheat (PDF). As irrigation spread, so did specialty crops that grow in hot, dry climates but require water in the summer.

Almonds now cover more than 1.6 million acres in the Central Valley, and pistachios are experiencing explosive growth, “from almost nothing to a $2 billion yield in decades,” he said. said.

He added that it’s impossible to predict what crops will be fashionable in California decades from now, “but it’s hard to imagine us continuing to be specialty crop growers. ‘ added.

economic turmoil

Climate change isn’t the only thing driving the future of California’s top industries. In the coming decades, producers will experience economic changes, competition from imports and rising labor costs.

Rising minimum wages, for example, have made it unprofitable to grow even some expensive crops like table olives in California unless machines prune the trees and pick the fruit. Manual labor can siphon 45% to 60% of gross incomeThe main reason is that olives must be handled with care.

Spain, the world’s top producer of olivesDennis Breson, vice president of Tracy-based Musco Family Olive Co., said it produces cheaper products, forcing California growers to adapt.

Bresson said mechanical harvesting is becoming the norm for many tree crops, adding: “I think eventually hand harvesting will be in the rearview mirror for many orchard crops.”

Meanwhile, the state’s strong walnut industry has been hit by a glut of supply and competition from China that has sent prices plunging. In 2013, 1 ton of walnuts sold from farm for $3,700 (PDF). Now it’s about $700 per ton. In addition, growers “are still eating 130,000 tons of the 2021 crop,” said Barrup of the California Walnut Commission and the California Walnut Commission, with some of that surplus being distributed to food banks. said that

Currently, so many walnut growers are uprooted and scheduled to be cut down that removal services are reportedly overwhelmed.

Sumner said the economic turmoil in the walnut industry “doesn’t look like it’s turning around.”

Brown suspects that labor costs and land prices will be as strong drivers of agricultural evolution as climate change. Other parts of the world produce cheaper produce, he said, which means California’s specialty will become a niche, high-quality produce.

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