BAKERSFIELD, CA — Kern County Agriculture Commissioner Ruben Arroyo is wary, but upbeat.
“It’s hard to say what the future holds,” Arroyo said. “If we don’t get rain this year, the wells will run dry. People won’t have water for their homes. I think once it hits the city of Bakersfield, people will really wake up and realize how bad it is.”
Arroyo was referring, of course, to the severity of California’s drought, declared by many, including Governor Jerry Brown, to be the worst drought the state has ever seen.
The commissioner said the effects of water shortages on Kern County are so bad that farmers are making planting decisions based primarily on the amount of water they are able to receive from the water district.
“It never used to be like that,” Arroyo said. “What’s changed now with this drought is that, let’s say a farmer has 100 acres of land. Instead of asking, ‘What will I plant on my 100 acres?’, the question now is ‘How many acres of water am I going to get and which crops can be grown using the least amount of water?'”
In addition to deciding which crops to grow, Arroyo said farmers now need to decide which crops to let die.
“We’ll probably see a decrease in nut production, possibly vegetable production,” Arroyo explained. “It’s tough to set a timetable for it, but it’s coming.”
Kern County, covering just over 8,000 square miles at the southern end of the Central Valley, is the number two agricultural producing county in the United States. According to figures provided by the commissioner’s office, in 2013, 839,000 acres of everything from fruit and nut crops to livestock and poultry products were harvested in Kern County, at a total value of $6.7 billion. That number is down from the 878,000 harvested acres in 2012.
While the lack of rain throughout the state is certainly the most immediate factor affecting crop production, other forces have come to bear on the farmers of Kern County. Environmental regulations, groundwater drilling regulations, and minimal to zero water allocation all play a part in driving down production.
However, production levels are not yet down to untenable levels. Larry Starrh, a fourth-generation farmer at Starrh and Starrh Farms in Shafter, says that could change if farmers can no longer adapt.
“I think because farmers have gotten so good at producing, the engine hasn’t really slowed down yet,” Starrh said. “People haven’t really felt the pain yet. My fear is that farmers won’t have the adequate resources to produce any longer, and that’s when you’ll see production really start to decrease.”
Commissioner Arroyo said his office is not involved in the politics of water. Still, he said, all sides need to come together to find “common ground.”
“People might see $10 lettuce at the grocery store in a few years,” Arroyo said. “And all we’re going to be able to say is, ‘Sorry, but we don’t grow lettuce here anymore.'”