Farmers face drought crisis

04/21/2021

Farmers and ranchers are scrambling to adapt to what may prove to be the driest year in coastal Marin in the last century. Some have halted crop production or turned to dry farming, while others are considering costly mitigations such as trucking water to their parched properties to keep livestock alive.

Local, state and federal agencies are ramping up disaster assistance, and groups like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust have created new programs to fund long-term water conservation. Although coastal food producers rely on myriad sources of water, everyone is feeling the effects of the second consecutive bone-dry winter. In Inverness, 15.2 inches have fallen, less than half the average rainfall and the driest on record since 1925.

Guido Frosini of True Grass Farms in Tomales said he jumped into action in the past month, making an inventory of all the water use on his ranch. “We went from this beautiful spring to realizing in a few weeks that no, it was not going to rain,” he said. “I find that in drought, it’s a moment in time where we can have more community-driven conversations: We are in this together. Whenever there are environmental disasters, we have the opportunity to look at the systems in place and to think about how we can change them.”  

Financial aid is coming. For dairies, which generally need more water both for cleaning and for their herds to drink, Marin has made agreements with North Marin and Marin Municipal Water Districts and has set aside $50,000 for a cost-share program for trucking water. Stefan Parnay, the acting agricultural commissioner, has also requested $150,000 be pulled from the county’s general fund for broader drought relief efforts. 

Agriculture departments, cooperative extensions and resource conservation districts in Marin and Sonoma Counties have banded together to start educating ranchers and farmers on funding sources and technical assistance. Loans and grants for losses suffered will be available from programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, which this month declared a drought disaster for 50 California counties, including Marin.  

In an April letter to state legislators penned by District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, Marin requested state assistance for trucking water, purchasing organic feed while pastures are bare, and developing long-term storage and rainwater capture. Mr. Rodoni referenced a report by the California Department of Water Resources that criticized a slow response to the drought in 1976 and 1977.  

“We respectfully urge that we begin to collaborate now for the worst-case scenario and prepare to provide support to agricultural producers,” he wrote. “Our food system is the life blood of our society.” Supervisor Rodoni said vegetable production in Sonoma and Marin could be halved this year.

Scott Chang-Fleeman, who leases acreage in Bolinas for Shao Shan Farm, said he selected the property after hearing from the previous operator that the 55-year-old pond there had always filled, even during dry years. Last year, he just scraped by; this year, he has essentially no water, forcing him to downsize production from 40 crops to two. He will dry farm kabocha squash and tomatoes; his revenue will be a sixth of what he expected. 

“There just weren’t enough sustained rain events to saturate the soil to get surface runoff. Plus, there was the pattern of rainfall: a quarter-inch here and there and then a couple of dry days. None of that cumulative rainfall ran into the ponds,” Mr. Chang-Fleeman said.

He is looking for a new property to farm. 

Jesse and Moira Kuhn, who have operated Marin Roots Farm since 2003 on a lot near the Hicks Valley Fire Station, plan to cease operations this year. The irrigation ponds are dry. “This will be pretty devastating to our business this summer. We mainly specialize in leafy greens, and they all need water,” Ms. Kuhn said.

The drought years in the 1970s are the closest comparison to current conditions. In Inverness, 1976 and 1977 each recorded around 18 inches of rain. Last year, there were 23.08 inches, and this year so far 15.2 inches. That compares to a 38-inch average. 

Both North Marin and Marin Municipal Water Districts have agreed to allow ranchers to purchase untreated water from their reservoirs. Although the Nicasio Reservoir and Stafford Lake are at around half their capacity, the districts consider the anticipated reduction for agriculture nominal. For Marin Municipal water, ranchers will pay an initial fee of up to $1,400 and then 150 percent of what a residential customer pays for service; North Marin is charging the ranchers double. 

Bob Giacomini, whose family has 500 cows on 700 acres north of Point Reyes Station, said this will be the first year since starting the operation in 1959 that trucking water will be necessary. The ranch relies on springs, ponds and a well for the residence. “We will be hauling water by midsummer,” he said. “Whatever it is going to cost, we will have to do it.”

This month, MALT announced that it will provide $250,000 for longer-term water resiliency projects for coastal Marin farmers and ranchers regardless of whether their properties have land trust conservation easements. Possible projects include redeveloping existing springs that may have gone dormant, building rainwater catchment systems, and purchasing and installing water pipelines and solar pumps to help distribute water throughout a ranch to reduce the impacts of cattle on dry land. Drilling wells, though costly, would be considered, according to Eric Rubenstahl, the stewardship program manager. 

Marin has been hit by drought harder than other places in the state in several ways, according to Dr. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Northern California has received less rainfall than expected compared to the southern part of the state, and Marin does not tie into the larger state reservoirs that benefit from snowmelt. The effect on agriculture and the increased fire threat in coastal forests are among the most prominent and immediate impacts, he said. 

Rainfall in California historically has greatly varied year to year, but the effects on the landscape are predicted to intensify, according to Dr. Swain. The amount of rainfall that drops each year is not expected to change, but the patterns of when and how it falls will alter; already, rain is falling in bigger, shorter bursts. This brings an increased risk of flooding and wildfire. 

Mr. Frosini, whose cattle ranch relies on springs, seeps, a pond—which is empty—and a well for his residence, said the cost of trucking in water is prohibitive for him. He is considering reducing his herd size; he has yet to apply for assistance. 

Albert Straus, the C.E.O. of Straus Family Creamery, said that neither his local supply dairies nor his home ranch need to truck in water, at least for now. The reservoir on his Marshall ranch is around half of normal, meaning he will rely more heavily on a well drilled during the ‘70s drought. Another factor on his mind are the organic certification requirements regarding the amount of time cows must spend on pasture, which is at least 120 days a year. 

It is at times like these when Mr. Straus says many best management practices reap benefits. Building organic matter in soil, including by adding compost, can increase the amount of water retained in soil by 3.7 percent, according to the California Department of Agriculture; healthy soil can hold up to 20 times its weight in water.   

The Point Reyes National Seashore last month asked ranchers who lease its federal lands to create a drought grazing plan that will illustrate how they will meet residual dry matter standards. 

Third-generation Point Reyes beef rancher Kevin Lunny says he is not concerned about meeting those requirements, but producing enough silage for winter feed is looking unlikely for the second year in a row. That will lead to drastically increased feed costs. “It is very disheartening. We have around 200 acres planted and we were hoping to pasture some of it and also make silage and haylage for winter feed. It is not growing,” he said. 

In the ‘70s drought, Mr. Lunny said the family sold over half its herd “just to make it through.”