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— Throughout last winter and spring, one could put one’s ear to the wind almost anywhere in North County and hear the buzz of chainsaws as avocado farmers cut down their trees.

While this tropical fruit has beaten the odds in Southern California’s desert climate for decades, the local avocado industry has taken a turn for the worse. Orchards heavily damaged by drought, frost, and fire produced a 2008 crop just 57 percent of average, and the 2009 harvest is not expected to be much better, say industry eyeballers. The most recent hit taken by the county’s 23,000 acres of avocado farms was a 30 percent cutback on water allocation in January at the direction of U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who ordered reduced pumping from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta to protect the threatened delta smelt. Judge Wanger’s action has in turn sparked a drastic, last-resort tactic of grove management called “stumping.” To ensure the survival of at least some of their trees, farmers began sawing down as much as 40 percent of their acreage after stripping the trees of fruit early in the year.

Stumping does not kill an avocado tree but merely leaves a dormant relic three to five feet tall. Lacking fruit, flowers, or foliage, such trees immediately cease guzzling water, allowing surrounding trees full access to the available supply. According to Guy Witney, director of industry affairs with the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, stumped trees will spring back to life and begin producing fruit again in two or three years.

“This is just a means of temporarily halting their use of resources,” said Witney. “The hope is to keep cutting them back until the water issue resolves.”

But no one knows when that might happen. The current state of affairs began on the tail end of the drought that lasted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, when Southern Californian farmers made a deal with the Metropolitan Water District, or Met, which receives water imports from the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta before selling it to local users. Called the Interim Agricultural Water Program, the contract allowed farmers to sign an agreement that reduced their water rates by $137 per acre-foot beginning in 1994, with the understanding that in the case of a water shortage their supply would be the first to get cut. In that year, wholesale water rates ran approximately $385 per acre-foot, and approximately 3000 local farmers signed the contract. Among avocado growers, who require three to four acre-feet of water per acre per year, the deal was a good one — until late 2007, that is, when Met gave notice of the impending water cuts. Avocado harvest in California runs nearly all year, peaking in July; however, this year many farmers picked the last of their ripe fruits early in the year, then revved up their chainsaws.

But to the dismay of many growers, even their remaining trees are struggling.

“For growers in districts relying entirely on MWD supplies and required to take the full 30 percent cutbacks, this was drastic action, which will have dire results on the industry for some years ahead,” said Witney, who added that the expected low yields for 2009 combined with bills to pay will make for a “double whammy for the farmers.”

Noel Stehly, who operates the family ranch in Valley Center with his brothers, stumped 40 acres of their avocado trees, which cover 800 acres in total. They might have cut five times as many trees, but Stehly sees stumping as a lost cause.

“The guys who stumped a third of their trees are fooling themselves to think that we’ll solve the water issue within three years, when their trees come back into production and they need that water again,” Stehly said. “Even if we get a peripheral canal from the delta, it’ll be ten years before we get it flowing.”

Bill and Carol Steed of Fairfield Farms near Valley Center were already deep into the financial commitment of boosting their farm acreage and had just planted 25 acres of blueberries when the January water cuts hit. Thus, their situation has been compounded, leaving the Steeds with only one-quarter of the water they now need for their berries, citrus, and avocados.

And the water could be reduced further. Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, expects mandatory cuts of 10 percent or more by mid-2009. The interim water program’s fine print stipulates that residential users alone will bear this second round of cutbacks up to the level of 15 percent, at which point farmers who signed the agreement will absorb the next round, taking a cutback to 40 percent of their preshortage water flow. However, Larson says that until January 15 farmers will have the option to renege on their water-contract terms, thereby incurring full water rates but in turn receiving access to all the water they need. Farmers who back out of their contracts will be subject to the same water-rationing cutbacks as residential users. Many local farmers are taking this route, says Larson.

Larson believes solutions are at hand, however.

“I’d like to see greater urban use of reclaimed sewage water, which would leave more water from the Sacramento and the Colorado for farmers.”

Others have discussed moving San Diego’s reclaimed water directly to the farmland, but no one yet has volunteered to build the piping system capable of pumping water 40 miles uphill from coastal urban zones to the orchards. The other problem inherent in using reclaimed water is its high salinity and chloride levels, for avocado fruit yield is known to suffer when the trees are doused with briny water.

In late 2006, researchers with the UC Davis Extension were making progress in identifying salt-tolerant strains of avocado rootstock. The extension’s primary farm advisor, Dr. Gary Bender, had begun to zero in on a promising Israeli rootstock when the severe frost of January 2007 killed his young grove and cut short the investigation.

But replacing rootstock across thousands of acres of avocado trees might not be economically feasible anyway, said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District.

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