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Farmers face year of challenge in 2008


Last updated 1/10/2008 at Noon

Fallbrook farmers had their share of challenges in 2007. The January frost and the Rice Canyon Fire in October caused setbacks for growers but did not dampen their determination. With a new year upon us, agriculture growers are gearing up for a new set of challenges.

Looking back, it is estimated that San Diego County had $100 million in frost damage and $40 million in fire damage during 2007, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “These are not big numbers within the agriculture economy, but for those growers who got hurt, they got hurt badly.”

According to Larson, the crop that suffered the most was avocados. After avocados, cut flower growers sustained the next highest damage, and nurseries growing container plants faced their problems. “Citrus growers were hurt the least,” said Larson.

In Larson’s opinion, ornamental nursery crops are the big moneymakers in Fallbrook, followed by avocados. The reason behind this is that ornamental nursery crops are worth more per acre.

As far as Larson is concerned, water is the major concern for 2008.

“These water cutbacks are going to overshadow anything we saw from the freezes and the fires in 2007,” he said. “Across the board, farmers will need to take the 30-percent cut in water.”

Not wanting to sound pessimistic, what Larson is greatly concerned about is the general public’s lack of conservation efforts.

At this point in time, Larson believes the water cut to growers will be survivable. “I do not think that they will lose 30 percent of their production,” he said. “They may lose 15 to 20 percent.” If these cutbacks are not enough, farmers may face even worse water cutbacks, he added.

“It’s widely known if the public doesn’t step up and conserve, the farmers will have to take an even larger hit.”

If the public is issued a 15-percent mandatory water cutback, explained Larson, it will mean a 40-percent cutback to farmers.

If those conservation efforts still prove inefficient, the pubic could face a 20-percent cutback, which means farmers get a 50-percent reduction.

“And that point, we will see a massive loss of farmland in San Diego County; farmers will leave,” said Larson. “At this point, the fate of the farmers really does lie in the hands of the public.”

We have a fragile water system, said Larson. “Two years ago we had a wet year, and now we are out of water; the system is that weak.”

It is imperative, he notes, that Californians understand they need to improve the water infrastructure.

“The whole community has to step up and help out,” he said.

For the public, Larson recommends voluntary cutbacks by conserving water, not over-watering their landscaping and supporting state water projects.

Tony Godfrey, co-owner of Olive Hill Greenhouses, specializes in potted plants, with bromeliads being their most popular. The year 2007 produced a little less than 2006 for this grower.

“It’s tough with the economy slowing down, and the fire did not help us either,” said Godfrey.

Though they did not sustain fire damage, it did disrupt three days of shipping.

As far as water conservation, Godfrey says he saves as much water as he can every day. “We use our well water, which is a big part of the water and reclaimed sewage water at our facility.”

Despite the water issues, Godfrey’s goal of building a new greenhouse may materialize in 2008.

“If push comes to shove, I am going to need to buy one or two water trucks and start pumping water at the sanitation district,” he said. “If things get really bad, that is what we will have to do.”

Janet Kister, co-owner of Sunlet Nursery and board member of the California Farm Bureau, is usually optimistic about a new year but admits having some reservations concerning 2008.

Although the nursery industry did fairly well in 2007, with challenges including the diaprepes root weevil, freeze and fire, she views 2008 as one that will be far more difficult for growers.

The first obstacle facing nurseries, as with all growers, is the 30-percent water cutback.

“A great majority of us have been conserving for years,” said Kister. “To cut back 30 percent on top of the conservation we have already done is extremely challenging.”

At Sunlet, Kister says they are cutting off watering landscape, removing parts of the landscape and, sadly, cutting production.

“We are looking for alternate sources for water; we are doing everything possible that we can in terms of even how we manage the product,” she explained.

For instance, instead of having product spread out over four blocks, Sunlet is consolidating product, as soon as they can, to one block.

“But with this comes additional labor,” she says, “and the next concern is the availability of workers.”

Because Congress has not come up with fixed immigration reform, Kister, among other growers, is growing worried. “We have to put a lot of extra labor into our nursery to be able to conserve water, since it takes extra labor to manage the product.”

The decline of new construction over the past two years has had a negative impact on the nursery industry also. No new homes mean no new landscaping.

Another daily concern, Kister said, is actionable pests. Finding pests such as the fruit fly or light brown apple moth can trigger a dreaded quarantine. “Actionable pests are a big problem.”

Based on the outlooks shared by these respected growers, 2008 looks to present a significant challenge. The issues of water cutbacks, lack of documented workers, need for constant vigilance regarding invasive pests and sluggish economy weigh heavily on the agricultural community.

“I’m hoping we can just get through 2008 and maintain,” said Kister.


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