Drought forces California farmers to idle cropland
The Farm Bureau is similarly projecting between 400,000 and 500,000 acres of irrigated land being fallowed, Wenger said.
Broccoli and Cantaloupes Hit Hard
Hardest hit would be such annual row crops as tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, cantaloupes, garlic, peppers and corn. Wade said consumers can also expect higher prices and reduced selection at grocery stores, particularly for products such as almonds, raisins, walnuts and olives.
He said the potential total value of unplanted crops was hard to calculate. But his group estimates the overall impact of idled farmland will run roughly $5 billion in direct costs of lost production and indirect effects through the region's economy.
An economic toll of that magnitude would put about 40 percent of all agricultural jobs in the Central Valley at risk, or about 117,000 people directly employed in farm production, processing and transportation, he said.
Wenger declined to venture an estimate of economic losses. But he said, "It's going to be a sizeable number that we've never seen before, and it's going to ripple through the local economies, especially where agriculture is the name of the game."
By contrast, a California drought in 2009 resulted in an estimated 269,000 acres of cropland idled, $368 million in lost farm revenues and total reduced economic output of $796 million, according to a study from the University of California at Davis cited by Wade. Nearly 10,000 jobs were lost.
Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, said the agency is working with UC Davis to develop real-time impact assessments.
"We are anticipating significantly higher economic impacts, compared to the 2009 drought, for the agricultural sector," he said.
The current water shortage could be made worse by the fact that many farmers have switched from annual field crops to orchard-style produce, such as almonds and olives, which cannot simply be left fallow from one year to the next.
Many growers face the choice of either shutting off irrigation to their older, less-producing trees to save the younger ones, or spreading less water across their groves and accepting smaller overall yields.
Orange and lemon growers, who just weathered a damaging week long blast of sub-freezing temperatures in December, are fairly safe for now but worried about running short of water for next year's crop, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.
The recent cold snap cost the Central Valley growers, who account for most of the nation's fresh citrus fruit, about $441 million in lost revenues, out of about $1.5 billion in annual production, the trade group said.
Still, the losses paled in comparison with a severe freeze in December 1990 that damaged citrus trees so badly that growers lost two years of production.
Livestock producers are facing their own drought-related difficulties, including scant winter rain they rely on to grow grass for grazing their herds, industry officials say. Beef producers are being forced to ship much of their stock back East, while dairy producers face higher costs to purchase hay and feed.
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