California farmers examine climate change issues

New science and research has San Joaquin Valley farmers taking a harder look at the effect that climate change may have on their industry.

If researcher's predictions hold true, the Valley's multi-billion dollar agriculture industry will be hit with longer stretches of hot temperatures, fewer colder days and shrinking water supplies.

What that means for agriculture is potentially lower yields, a loss of revenue and fewer acres being farmed.

Farmers and industry leaders say that while there is still skepticism among their ranks, they are doing what they can to stay ahead of the issue, including educating themselves, testing new fruit varieties or investing in water-saving technologies.

"You know, this is sort of like Y2K," said Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a citrus trade group. "You better figure out if it is going to affect you or not and what are the possible scenarios."

One of those scenarios is not good news for farmers. Researchers predict that rising temperatures over the next several decades could pinch the yields of some Valley crops, including an 18% drop in citrus, 6% in grapes and 9% among cherries and other orchard crops.

Nelsen said he was one of the early naysayers. The early debates about climate change were often mired in politics, or seen by farmers as an agenda pushed by the environmental community. But more credible research has caused many to take the issue more seriously.

"I am not completely buying into it," Nelsen said. "But as an industry, it behooves us to be out in front of an issue that could affect the production of citrus in the state."

Nelsen wants to know how hotter temperatures will affect the flavor of citrus fruit and how oranges will develop their vibrant color with fewer colder days.

"And do we take a second look at what possible locations might be available to grow citrus, if the San Joaquin Valley is not amenable to producing citrus anymore?" Nelsen asked.

Breeders of peaches, plums and nectarines -- major crops in the central San Joaquin Valley -- are also keeping climate change in mind as they evaluate varieties in their test trials.

Longtime fruit breeder Glen Bradford in Le Grand paid close attention to varieties of fruit that wilted this summer under a string of triple-digit temperatures. The heat caused several test varieties to brown on the inside or become dry and pithy. Bradford will weed those out from test trials.

"At the same time, we had varieties that came through 109 degrees and did fine," Bradford said. "And those will get a second look. The fact is, if we are going to have consistent climate change, than we are going to have to take that into account as plant breeders."

Along with the potential for rising temperatures, the possibility of drought exists. Valley farmers, especially those in west Fresno County, are no strangers to dry years. Several years ago, west-side growers fallowed thousands of farm acres because of a lack of water.

To maximize what little water they had, many farmers turned to irrigation equipment that was more efficient and conserved water. West-side farmer Dan Errotabere was among those who installed a system that waters his processing tomatoes below the surface of the soil, reducing the loss of water through evaporation.

Like Nelsen, Errotabere remains open to the possibility that climate change could affect farming in the future.

"We hear all kinds of interpretations of what is going on," Errotabere said. "But what it tells me is that we need to take a serious look at our water infrastructure. If we are going to be dealing with less water then we are going to have to improve our water storage systems."Karl Longley, coordinator of water resources programs for the California Water Institute at Fresno State, said there needs to be better communication between scientists and the farming community.

"People get hung up on whether climate change is man-caused, and that becomes a political issue," Longley said. "But you have to separate the political discussion, because climate change is taking place and we have to be prepared."