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The $9.99 watermelon

Drought poised to send food prices up

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POSTED March 25, 2014 12:41 a.m.

Sticker shock, courtesy of the drought, is coming to a supermarket near you.

Seedless watermelon was selling Monday at SaveMart stores in Manteca for $9.99. It is a full $2 over prices from the same time period in 2013.

And while the price reflects the scarcity of watermelon that are now coming out of a specific region in Mexico, it is an indicator of higher food prices that are in store for California and American consumers as a whole thanks to the drought. The assumption by some that fruit and vegetables from elsewhere will replace California crops with minimum impact on prices fails to take into account production issues in other regions of the globe plus worldwide consumer demand.

California grown watermelons won’t start hitting the market until May. Paul Gomes, the farm manager for George Perry & Sons of Manteca that has established itself as the West Coast’s largest broker of melons, expects the valley watermelon crop to be close to normal with prices not to go much higher than 2013 levels.

But that won’t be the case for many crops, such as canning tomatoes and almonds.

“It isn’t just a question of not enough water but the quality of water,” Gomes noted.

That’s why canning tomatoes and other row crops extremely susceptible to salinity in water are expected to have significant drops in yield.

What concerns Gomes and others like him that help manage California agriculture that pumps $43.5 billion annually into the state economy in terms of crop value before the multiplier effect to related jobs are factored into the equation, is next year.

“If this drought continues for another year, there will be major problems,” Gomes noted.

California, specifically the San Joaquin Valley, grows roughly 50 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetable production. Based on federal Department of Agriculture commercial crop figures California grows 100 percent of the almonds, 99 percent of the artichokes, 99 percent of the walnuts, 97 percent of the plums, 97 percent of the kiwis, 95 percent of the celery, 95 percent of all leaf lettuce, 95 percent of all tomatoes used for caning and other processed purposes, 95 percent of the garlic, 89 percent of the cauliflower, 88 percent of the fresh strawberries, 84 percent of the peaches, 83 percent of the Romaine lettuce, 71 percent of the spinach, 69 percent of the carrots, and the list goes on and on.

 

One out of every 10 acres is going fallow

At least a 10th of the state’s 6 million acres of Central Valley farmland will be fallow this year. Elsewhere, growers with high value orchards are switching from trying to produce a crop this year to a strategy that will keep their investments alive.

That’s because a third year of drought has prompted unprecedented decisions by the Central Valley Water Project and State Water Project not to deliver any water to agricultural users. The CVP is cutting off water to a million acres of farmland plus 28 million urban users throughout the state.

“We have to deal with what we have,” Gomes said of water supplies.”This is it.”

Gomes noted it would take a “miracle” – roughly 24 inches of rain between now and May 1— to reverse the situation.

“What we need is snow,” Gomes said.

The Sierra snowpack constitutes 60 percent of the state’s water storage. The Department of Water Resources reports statewide the snowpack is at 24 percent of normal as of Monday, while at the same time reservoirs are at historic lows.

The snow survey on April 1 is considered critical because that typically represents the end of the bulk of the snow season in the Sierra.

One of the few relative bright spots for farm water supplies in the entire Central Valley are the farms around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon that are served by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

 

Almond growers elsewhere simply trying to save trees

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields has indicated the district – thanks to aggressive water conservation projects implemented in the last five years as well as a 105-year zealous commitment to protecting and developing water rights on the Stanislaus River watershed – will be able to deliver 30 inches of water to district almond growers this year.

That’s critical as 30 inches is required for a grower to bring a full crop to market.

By contrast other area water purveyors have told their almond growers they will only receive:

• six inches in the Merced Irrigation District.

• 18 inches in the Modesto Irrigation District.

• 20 inches in the Turlock Irrigation District.

Farther south in the San Joaquin Valley, where irrigation districts rely heavily on CVP and SWP projects, almond growers aren’t even worried about getting a crop to market. They are concentrating on keeping their trees alive. Part of their strategy involves ripping out orchards that still have productive life left so the water saved can go to keeping other trees alive.

Economists are anticipating the California drought will impact food prices across the board. That’s because as people shy away from fruits and vegetables due to the cost and reduced supply they eat more grain products that stress the ability to meet demand. At the same time, drought conditions elsewhere in the West are impacting beef prices.

“It’s very serious,” Gomes said in terms of jobs and the economy. “Most people don’t understand how valuable agriculture is to California.”

Nor do they get the connection between massive reservoirs that allow the delivery of water to create significantly larger yields in California’s Mediterranean climate than elsewhere in the United States. The longer growing season and more suitable soils give California farmers the ability to produce substantially higher yields per acre for practically every crop. That ranges from 60 percent more spinach per acre to 50 percent more lemons per acre.

“It (abundant water) has allowed Californians to have cheap food,” Gomes said.

The drought is now poised to change that through higher food prices.

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