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— “When you’ve got 100 trees to an acre, you’re not going to pull out each one and replant it and wait for it to come into production again. The economics of avocado growing just won’t allow that.”

Bender points out that many farmers are already replacing aged or root-rotted trees anyway, and he is making arrangements for another test run in which he plans to water a South African salt-tolerant rootstock in a grove near Fallbrook. If the experiment shows high yields under salty irrigation, the future of the region’s avocado groves could brighten dramatically.

After all, the delta water shortage is not going to end anytime soon, says Arant. “The situation with the delta smelt is not going to be rectified until they separate the pumping facilities from the fish, whether the drought ends or not.”

The best-case scenario, Arant believes, will be if the state builds the long-discussed peripheral canal, which could be completed, at the earliest, 10 or 12 years down the road. As for the thousands of acres of stumped trees, they may need to come out.

“There is no economic sense in keeping your trees stumped for ten years or more,” said Arant. “Farmers don’t water trees just to keep them alive. They water them to get fruit. They’re businessmen.”

Though the local subsurface supply of groundwater is notoriously salty, the Stehlys have tapped into it and simultaneously invested in several nanofiltration pumps, devices that desalinate water at 300 gallons or more per minute and could keep their 1200 certified organic acres of avocados, berries, and citrus vibrant even in the driest of times. Jerome Stehly, however, says the investment has cost “too much,” and as for the river water from Northern California, Stehly sees it as a hoarded resource.

“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “They have extra water, and we can’t get it. If they were truly concerned about the environment, they would think about the impacts of importing all our food from South America.”

United States avocado consumption has increased nationwide at 15 to 20 percent per year this century, and consumption totaled one billion pounds in 2007. This year, Americans will consume still more of the fruit, and projected figures of 1.5 and 2 billion pounds per year are already in sight. In 1997, NAFTA opened the United States market to Mexican avocados, and today much of the national supply is imported, with California fruit constituting on average only 300 to 400 million pounds per year, though 2006 produced a record crop of nearly 601 million pounds. Chilean fruit also feeds the domestic demand, and Peru may gain access to our market in 2010. The Avocado Commission’s Witney believes that the 12-month ready supply now provided with the help of producers in the tropics and the Southern Hemisphere may invigorate the domestic avocado market — perhaps even benefit local farmers.

“We used to have to fight for shelf space each season. Now it’s available all year.”

Yet, California’s avocado acreage has declined from 65,000 acres in late 2006 to 58,000 today. Some farmers have abandoned or sold their orchards, Witney notes. The Steeds may stump even more of their trees to get by, and growers like Jerome Stehly don’t plan to put more in the ground unless the water shortage is alleviated.

“We’re going to wait and see,” he says.

Some farmers are switching crops, as fruits like grapes and blackberries require just one-fourth the water needed by avocados, but many of the county’s orchards grow on land too steep and rugged to be cost-efficiently replanted, says Stehly.

“There’s no replacement crop for them,” he says. “What you’re going to see are a lot of brown hills.”

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