Drought is sucking life out of Washington state agriculture

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Sunday, April 15, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Drought is sucking life out of state agriculture

by Lynda V. Mapes Seattle Times staff reporter GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES Charlie de la Chapelle of Zillah in a pond bed: "If we need more land, we can buy it. If we need more people, we can get them. But if we need more water, what can we do?" ZILLAH, Yakima County - This orchard should be humming with workers - testing irrigation lines and wind machines, spraying for bugs, pruning spring growth and setting out smudge pots to keep frost from killing tender blossoms that bring this year's crop. Instead, grower Kevin Gay, 44, walks long rows of trees alone. Tumbleweeds cram between trunks and weeds grow unchecked. He's deep in debt and the bank came through with only a portion of what he needs to get through the year.

Then came the drought.

Gay and hundreds of other growers in Washington are so-called junior water-right holders. In a drought they have to cut back their water supply while growers with senior rights continue to water their crops. It's a matter of who got there first when the rights were issued, the earliest applicants getting the primary access.

This year's drought is the coup de grâce after a series of blows pummeled Washington agriculture. Many segments of the industry were in trouble before the cost of power, natural gas, diesel, gasoline and fertilizer all went up in the past year.

"You have an earthquake over there and everybody jumps as though you stuck a knife in them. People just can't work fast enough to fix those marble columns," said grower Tom Carpenter Jr. about Seattle and the damaged state Capitol.

"Well this is an earthquake over here that is just as real and shakes just as hard. There are people involved in this thing."

Agriculture has been in the grip of an undertow since the Asian economic crisis sank export markets and prices in 1996. The state Department of Agriculture has estimated an unprecedented 26,000 acres of the state's 172,000 acres of apples may be abandoned this year.

The strong dollar in recent years has made U.S. agriculture exports less competitive in the world market. New competition in the fruit industry, especially from China, is eroding markets even as trade barriers block access to new opportunity.

Consolidation of buyers has worsened things. Fifteen years ago, there were 900 buyers and about 300 sellers of apples in Washington. Last year, 12 buyers accounted for 85 percent of all purchases from roughly 260 sellers, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Prices for many crops, from wheat to hops to apples, are below the cost of production.

All growers get hurt in a drought but most at risk are growers of perennial crops, such as grapes and tree fruit. If their vines and trees die, they must replant and endure years of lost income before new trees and vines reach bearing age.

The expression "betting the farm" is real here, and hundreds of families who have lived on the land for generations wonder whether they are finally about to lose.

"You never think it's going to happen to you," said Mark Holtzinger, president of C.M. Holtzinger Fruit Co. in Yakima, a third-generation fruit-growing and packing operation. "It's not because people don't work hard."

After Holtzinger lost his field manager to suicide last year, he offered depression and suicide-awareness counseling to growers who pack fruit at his warehouse.

"I promised myself I wouldn't let it happen to anyone else," Holtzinger said. "This thing will make people do stupid things."

Survival strategies

A drying wind knifes across the sagebrush country and blasts tumbleweeds in the door of a Zillah restaurant, where growers gather around plastic plates of Mexican food.

They press closer to a visiting university irrigation expert, rapt as if he were a preacher delivering the secret of new life.

What happens if they reduce water to their fruit trees by 40 percent? By 50 percent? What is the best way to measure soil moisture? How fast will roots respond if they can get any moisture? How little water can the trees get and still survive?

The real question, unspoken: How little water can I get and still survive?

These growers don't know if they will get 28 percent of their usual allotment, as little as 6 percent - or if the water will be off for weeks at a time. It's only April and the Rosa Irrigation District already is operating at its lowest water flows ever, said Tom Monroe, assistant manager.

Growers such as Gay are down to 43 gallons a minute from their usual 400. Gay is watering 40-acre orchards with the equivalent output of 20 lawn sprinklers.

Throughout the growing season, growers on the Rosa will be informed daily how much water, if any, they will be allowed. Ditch riders will travel farm to farm to dispense the bad news.

"You just listen to them vent," Monroe said of farmers. "There's nothing you can do to make it better."

Growers are trying everything to get through this year: Science, to most efficiently use the water they get. Deep-water wells, to supplement irrigation allotments. Triage, to let crops die in order to have water for more valuable varieties.

And, regionwide, growers are laying off crews to save money.

"Everyone has been concentrating on the plight of the industry and nobody's even remotely thinking about the farmworkers and their children," said Tomas Villanueva of the state Department of Social and Health Services in Toppenish.

In Mattawa, a town of 2,600 that swells to more than 5,000 at harvest, even longtime resident farmworker families are leaving.

"There just isn't the work," said Mayor Judy Esser.

About 600 acres of surrounding orchard have been bulldozed. The food bank is serving hundreds of families, unheard of in spring, when workers are usually pruning and bringing home a paycheck, Villanueva said.

"If the earth is dry we don't have work," said worker Rafael Pacheto, 69, pausing from planting hop roots for grower Carpenter of Zillah.

"It is all up to him," Pacheto said, pointing skyward. He plants hop roots with a prayer book tucked in his shirt pocket.

Carpenter's grandparents homesteaded this ground in 1868, bringing hop roots from New York to begin some of the first plantings in the Yakima Valley. A father of five sons, Carpenter built the farm to more than 1,000 acres of hops, apples, pears, wine grapes and cherries.

To him, solutions to the water problem should have been pursued years ago. Officials should have built storage capacity high in the Cascade Mountains so more water would be available in the Rosa for both people and fish.

Drain on the system

Demand on the irrigation district has grown with conversion from row crops, such as corn and wheat, to higher-value perennial crops such as tree fruit, hops and wine grapes.

Desperate to save those plantings in the last dry year, 1994, farmers drilled 130 emergency wells. That means more demand on the aquifer.

The drought this year could be worse for at least two other reasons:

• The maximum water allotments for farmers on the Rosa started out at 38 percent this year, the level set in 1994, but already have been cut to 28 percent because of low runoff from scant snowpack.

• Steelhead and bull trout have been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act since 1994, putting new demands on irrigators to leave water in streams and rivers.

Piles of studies and endless meetings to address the competing needs of fish and agriculture are of no use now, Carpenter said. "I have boxes of paper. Walls of files. Farmers are results-oriented."

Efforts by the state have been too little and too late to prevent crisis, many growers say. Last week, Oregon growers in the Klamath Irrigation District, which includes some of the most drought-stricken farmland in the region, went to U.S. District Court to protest federal irrigation reductions intended to protect fish.

From orchards to woodpiles

Mount Adams floats snow-draped over picture-perfect farm country: good soil with a south-facing slope to soak up the sun and grow sweet apples, cherries, pears and grapes.

It seems an unlikely stop in what Zillah grower Rob Lynch calls his orchard country "death and destruction tour."

Then it comes into view: a 40-acre orchard bulldozed into rows.

Holtzinger, the Yakima warehouse and orchard operator, knocked down the trees just as Washington's Department of Agriculture certified them for their first year of organic production.

"Everyone thought organic was going to save the ranch," Lynch said.

But as production for organic delicious apples jumped, the price dived - even below the cost of conventional red- and golden-delicious apples, the cheapest apples in the stores.

Down the road, workers are cutting up other orchards, not with hand pruners but chainsaws. These apple trees will be firewood.

Some growers are managing to stay afloat. Lynch grows a carefully selected range of organic tree fruit and markets some directly to stores, bypassing the middleman. His white peaches were a big hit last year. One Seattle grocery chain thought they would sell one pallet a week and instead clamored for three a day.

Lynch has wells to supplement irrigation from the Rosa. But the wells are more than 1,000 feet deep and the power bills for pumping water to the surface, usually $10,000 or $12,000 a season, could double in the energy crunch.

Lynch isn't even sure how much water those wells will produce because of new wells punched since 1994.

"If everyone else around me starts sucking on the aquifer, I could be toast," Lynch said.

`The buzzards are coming'

Pete Groeneweg of Outlook, Yakima County, looks at the $75,000 in irrigation equipment he bought for fields he doesn't know if he can irrigate.

His usual crop of corn and beans take too much water. He would rather save water for his mint, which brings a higher price, or for the new fruit trees he put in last year. So he planted wheat, the cheapest crop to grow.

He wonders if he can get out of a contract to buy $6,000 worth of new fruit trees. Wonders whether to cancel or keep an order for posts and wire to trellis them. That's $10,000 more.

"One year like this, it could take you five, six years to recoup what you lost. Look at all that money and time, that's what you think about while you lay in bed at night. Or when you're on the tractor your mind is rolling too."

Gay, the fruit grower, says he's down to about 2-1/2 hours of sleep a night.

Neighbors notice the weeds and unpruned trees in his orchard. "It's embarrassing," Gay said. "Everyone drives by, and they see it. I had a guy come by and ask if I wanted to sell some equipment. The buzzards are coming."

He goes through the gamut of emotions, including determination to hang on for the sake of his three kids, ages 17, 13 and 10, and elderly parents, who still live on the farm. "I was born in my mom and dad's house. I planted these trees, grew most of the rootstock. I was out here with my dad when I was 6 years old; I drove the tractor when I was 10.

"If I go broke I never want to come back here again. I couldn't stand to see it."

Lynda Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 15, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ