This is how a California farmers’ market looks when there isn’t enough water for thirsty crops
Samanta Helou Hernandez
What if the wells fail and the river’s closed for business? What if the water level gets worse and the pump guy’s busy? Our West Coast editor walks her regular market route to survey farmers on how they’re getting by, and what happens if the heavens refuse to open up.
My food trajectory is pretty simple. Chicago: tired, overcooked produce. Ann Arbor: tired, overcooked produce. Santa Monica, California, Technicolor year-round abundance that I am still not used to after most of my life here. Every Wednesday I’m at the farmers’ market when it opens, and every Wednesday I buy more produce than makes sense.
Photography by Samanta Helou Hernandez.
Pictured above: foot traffic at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
How impractical am I, you might ask. Here’s how: I often walk back to my car to offload a large basket full of goods so I can make a second pass and buy more. I am not a vegetarian, but animal protein has to fight for a toehold on the plate.
Like any long-time regular, I know the market layout by heart, the long east-west section of Arizona Avenue, with stalls on both sides of the street, and the shorter intersecting row on Second Street. There are 85 farmers, some year-round, others seasonal, but I’ve come to rely on about a dozen, with the occasional foray to an outlier for passion fruit or pistachios. My regular farmers are what Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter would call my “weak ties,” not friends and family but not strangers, either, familiar faces who know me as the pints of cherry tomatoes I always buy, the bitter greens and tart stone fruit, the Satsuma tangerines rather than the Pixies.
Lately the market is even better than usual, simply because it is usual, again: No more long wait as volunteers enforce occupancy limits, no more one-way lines and warnings not to touch the produce; the market feels like the market. At the same time, it’s worse because of the drought. A pall hangs over the festivities.
I was sidetracked, at a market on July 14, not by a tempting item but by the absence of one; funny, how you register a void where your brain expects to see a basket of Jimmy Nardello peppers. The guy working the booth for Flora Bella Farms apologized, but there would be no Jimmy Nardellos on display this season because there wasn’t enough water. The yield of the long, thin-skinned sweet pepper, in recent years a darling of local chefs, was so low that even restaurants had gone begging. Civilians who wanted a pound or two didn’t stand a chance. In market parlance, the Jimmy Nardellos would not make it to the table.
A week after that the table was even emptier, and word got out: Next week there would be no table at all. In late July, a month before the season should have ended, Flora Bella had no crops left to sell. Dawn and James Birch’s farm was on enforced hiatus, having succumbed to the lack of water at least until October. Dawn spent that final Wednesday fielding the equivalent of condolence calls, as regulars, both pros and amateurs, showed up to commiserate in hushed tones, or lob glass-half-full predictions, or buy up all of one variety of pepper because it was the only way they could think of to show support.
Samanta Helou Hernandez
“We forget that California is a desert,” said Debby Takikawa, who owns The Garden Of. . . . . farm with her husband, Shu, even as Mother Nature gives us a harsh reminder.
“This is the worst I’ve seen,” said Troy Regier, who’s grown stone fruit and citrus since 1987 on a farm his dad started in 1976. “And I was born into farming.”
My regular route involves a speedwalk east, as I scope out who has what and decide what to buy where. Only when I get to the top end of the market do I turn around, take money out of my pocket, and shop my way back to the car. That’s what I did, on Flora Bella’s final Wednesday, but the conversations with my weak ties changed. No more talk about the wonderful tomatoes or peppers—questions, instead, about how and whether they were getting by, and what the future holds if the heavens refuse to open up.
Drought is a climate crisis, vividly depicted in maps that show how bad things are. Drought is also a personal crisis, market stand by market stand, for farmers who have been at it for decades, if not generations.
Too much depends on luck, which is in short supply. The cliché about what makes a successful restaurant—location, location, location—pertains here, to some extent, though Munak Ranch’s proximity to the Salinas River means nothing because there’s no water to fill its wells. Wells, in turn, can be a lifesaver unless they aren’t—too shallow is one problem, too deep is, potentially, another, and the price of a new well is both prohibitive and cheaper than a dead field. New farming practices hold some promise, but it’s not clear if even the best behavior can outpace a continued shortage.
These farmers live in a world where success means staying ahead of what happened to Flora Bella, where no one anticipates a well-hydrated future; they’ll settle for figuring out a well-managed one. Drought is a climate crisis, vividly depicted in maps that show how bad things are. Drought is also a personal crisis, market stand by market stand, for farmers who have been at it for decades, if not generations.
The Garden Of. . . . .
70 acres, founded 1990
Debby and Shu Takikawa, owners
Main crops: lettuces, carrots, melons
There’s a crowd at Debby and Shu Takikawa’s market stand at eight sharp, as the wholesaler buyers depart and locals can start grabbing three heads of lettuce for five dollars; one head might be sensible, but surely I’ll need two, and at that point why not save a dollar and get all three? The Takikawas have owned their Santa Ynez Valley farm for 31 years, after seven years at another farm—but they’re about to reinvent it, because sticking with the status quo spells doom.
“This is a downhill battle, and we’re losing it,” said Debby. “We’re going to run out of water. People don’t like to say it, but it’s true.” They do not intend to wait for the apocalypse, so they’re in a phase she calls “experimenting,” as they try new ways to grow established crops and consider planting new ones.
They used to rely on overhead watering. Now they use it to get the seedlings established and then switch to a dripline system, which directs water down into the roots instead of spraying it into the air. “We minimize the overhead, but it’s a process,” said Debby, not a quick fix. “You can’t make overnight changes, because you could lose everything.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez
After they harvest a crop, there’s still a dripline full of valuable water—and rather than let it sit and drain for a week, they’ve bought a little machine “that goes down the row and squeezes the excess water out,” said Debby. “There’s so much water left in it that we can cut out one entire irrigation every time we harvest a crop, two and a half times a year for the entire 70 acres.”
A transition to no-till growing could decrease water use by 30 percent, but that approach works better with crops like corn and soy beans, “big seeds and big sprouts,” she said, not lettuce or carrots. “Nobody does row crops with no-till, and it might not be easy. But we’re going to try it, mess around with it. I don’t know how we’d do tiny seeds like carrots, but we already have some beans in the ground, and we’ll see what happens. No guarantees.”
The Takikawas have changed the density of some of their crops, as well. The Garden Of. . . . . used to plant two rows of spinach on an 18-inch bed. Now they grow eight rows in that same space—a better crop-to-water ratio but a challenge for an organic farm that won’t use weed killer, which is how conventional farms manage this kind of planting. A traditional cultivation machine can’t get rid of weeds in a crowded row like this without damaging the crop, so the couple invested in a specialized, smaller cultivation machine, “kind of like a mixmaster that works horizontally,” said Debby, “that disturbs the top half inch or inch of soil, takes away little tiny weeds right before the carrots germinate, but won’t stir up new weed seeds down below.”
“This is a downhill battle, and we’re losing it. We’re going to run out of water. People don’t like to say it, but it’s true.”
“We have to be more intentional,” she said. “We’re asking more of the soil.”
Debby says she and her husband are energized, not exhausted, by the challenge—“I’m never bored”—even as she doubts that new practices will be enough. She has hit on a bigger solution that sounded outlandish to her, at first, until it didn’t anymore. “People have said, ‘water will become the new oil,’ and it has,” she said. “Let’s figure out how to pipe it from places with an excess of water. It’s a pretty long pipeline—we’re talking east of the Mississippi—but we pipe other things. I can’t imagine how it would happen, but we pipe oil all over the world.”
Garcia Organic Farm
29 acres, founded 1989
Juan, Armando, and Leticia Garcia, owners
Main crops: Mandarins, oranges, grapefruits
Letitia Garcia’s father-in-law bought 10 acres in 1989 “when the land was bare, just mountains and rocks,” she said, and he had to get permits to build roads to access the property and a house in which his family could live. He planted citrus trees, and as soon as he had the money he bought 10 more adjacent acres, followed by nine again, in 2003.
Samanta Helou Hernandez
More important, given today’s well-drillers’ wait-lists and higher costs, he built wells. Not that they were cheap, back then; only that there was less of a sense of panic, less waiting in line. It was something a farmer did to get a farm up and running—despite rising costs from one well to the next, and outlays to keep the wells working. “He’s told me that in 2002 it was about $60,000 for the last well,” said Leticia, “and in the last five years it’s been over $10,000 to repair. Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to have a well,’ but they don’t think about the cost, or about electricity prices, which have gone up in San Diego County.”
The wells are deep enough, at 430, 380, and 280 feet, to sustain the farm’s yield from between 2,000 and 2,500 trees, primarily citrus, some avocado and plum. The Garcias, who have sold at the Santa Monica market for 20 years in addition to selling to Baldor, a large wholesale supplier, have spent much of the strapped summer feeling that Juan’s early decisions have protected them from the worst of the drought. A neighbor just drilled down 1,000 feet to get to a water supply—which might mean the Garcias picked an excellent location, with water levels they can reach from their existing wells, or might mean that the neighbor is planning for an even drier future, and the Garcias will at some point have to adjust. But for now it’s business as usual, which in context qualifies as great news.
Weiser Family Farms
180 acres, owned and leased, founded 1977
The Weiser family, owners
Tehachapi and Lamont
Main crops: potatoes, melons, carrots, specialty broccoli and cauliflower
Demand for Weiser Farms specialty produce is robust: chefs proudly list “Weiser potatoes” on their menus to distinguish them from just any spud. The supply side of the equation is okay, at the moment, as long as you don’t stare too far into the future. And as long as you don’t want corn.
“We didn’t grow any corn at all this year,” said Alex Weiser, who with his sister and brother works the farm his parents started. “We grew it last year, we usually grow maybe 15-20 acres, but it takes a lot of water.” The farm has managed to irrigate its other crops with well water—there are four between the farms’ two locations, one at 280 feet, the rest at 400 feet—but the electricity needed to pump it boosts the cost. “Water from water projects could be as low as $40 an acre-foot,” said Weiser, “but from wells about $160 an acre-foot.” He’s not complaining, though, not when he considers what he sees and hears around him.
“I drive through farmland and hear tales of what other people are going through,” he said, “and I’m afraid. I see trees being pulled out, vineyards being pulled out, people with what little water they have just trying to keep their trees alive, giving them a minimum amount of water to get through this period, hoping it’ll be better in the future. People are scrambling. There’s a lot of dancing going on.”
His two-step involves judging when to water, because pressure might drop if he and a neighbor are at it at the same time; he often opts for night watering, because there’s less evaporation than during the superheated day. The farm relies on drip irrigation wherever possible, and on captured water at the Tehachapi location, where fall and winter rainfall support cover crops.
“I drive through farmland and hear tales of what other people are going through, and I’m afraid. I see trees being pulled out, vineyards being pulled out, people with what little water they have just trying to keep their trees alive, giving them a minimum amount of water to get through this period, hoping it’ll be better in the future.”
But his schedule goes out the window when bigger neighbors turn on the tap. “The bigger growers dig wells that are 1,000 feet deep, they can afford it, and when they’re pumping it affects all the other wells,” he said. “All these straws in the ground, sucking water from the same aquifer.”
The stampede to drill down further isn’t necessarily the answer, though, because not all water is created equal. “Old-timers talk about digging 400 feet,” he said, “and that was plenty deep because the water level was at 100 feet. Now, it depends on the property. And a lot of the time, when you go deeper with wells, you have higher levels of salt and boron. You’re not getting quality water.”
Short-term, he said, “we’re very fortunate.” Down the line, he faces the same endgame as other small farmers. “We’re in fear,” he said.
Flora Bella Farms
10 acres, founded 1989
Dawn and James Birch, owners
Main crops: peppers, tomatoes, arugula, melon
Dawn and James Birch played a sad game of dominos on their 10-acre farm this summer, as they abandoned one crop after another, starting with the thirstiest. About eight weeks ago, they stopped watering the arugula and basil plants. After that, the melon fields, which pleased the local wildlife, who suffered alongside the Birch family. “The animals had nothing growing on the hillsides, and at first we fought to keep them out of the melon field, but then we just surrendered it to them,” said Dawn. “Probably one-tenth of our acreage gone to deer, primarily, and wild turkeys, ground squirrels, more skunks than we’ve ever seen, even the birds, the ravens.”
They abandoned those plants to divert water to tomatoes and peppers, but it wasn’t enough, so they sacrificed the eggplant, the okra, the cucumbers. They gave up on some pepper varieties. They let half the cherry tomatoes go.
“Right now this minute?” said Dawn. “One hundred percent of my farm is dead.”
“You give the driller $10,000 to get a place on the calendar, and when they hit $10,000 of work they’re going to stop and say, ‘What’re we going to do here?’”
If the Kaweah River’s north fork had held for one month more, that, combined with the water in Flora Bella’s holding ponds, would have gotten them through the summer without resorting to planticide. They have the oldest water rights to the river, and their seniority put them at the front of the line. But there was no water from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt to replenish the river, and it depleted in mid-July. At this point the holding ponds are “little mud holes,” said Dawn.
Samanta Helou Hernandez
She and James are left trying to get water out of a rock. The farm sits at the base of a granite mountain slope, where they hope “to find a place where water seeps through enough cracks in the rock to create a permanent flow,” said Dawn. “It might mean six gallons a minute, might mean 10. A very low-yielding well, but we’d be happy with that, it would dribble into our holding ponds.”
They hired a well-driller who had to postpone once, because he was running behind schedule, and then drilled down to 400 feet on their property without hitting water. They decided to keep going to 600 feet, and plan to purchase two water tanks—one 1,000- and one 5,000-gallon tank—to store more of what they hope to get.
The only certainty, here, is cost. “You give the driller $10,000 to get a place on the calendar, and when they hit $10,000 of work they’re going to stop and say, ‘What’re we going to do here?’ So we looked at the side of the mountain, at drier and greener areas, and where it’s greener we assume there’s more water. So we follow that line, and then pull out the copper dowsing rods and walk, and mark.”
“Hopefully, by the time we’re ready for winter planting, the fields will be ready to accept them. If that doesn’t happen, I have no solution.”
If it doesn’t work, they will have to wait for temperatures to cool down in the mountains. Trees and brush will need less runoff from natural mountain springs, so water will flow to the river, instead. By mid-September, things should be a bit better.
She and her husband have no choice but to operate as though relief is coming, from one source or another. “We’re optimists,” she said, even as her market table emptied out for the last time this summer. She was headed home to get seeds for winter greens into trays to germinate, so that they’d be four inches tall and ready to go into the fields this fall. “Hopefully, by the time we’re ready for winter planting, the fields will be ready to accept them,” she said, with a shrug. “If that doesn’t happen, I have no solution.”
Coleman Family Farms
Romeo and Fidela Coleman, owners, founded 1963
Carpinteria and Ojai
Specialty greens, lettuces, and herbs
Cavolo nero, or black kale, and spigarello, an Italian broccoli, were Romeo Coleman’s first summer casualties. They didn’t grow well on the water he had, yield was down, bugs were having a field day and he couldn’t spare extra water to get rid of them. Buggy specialty greens were not something he was prepared to sell to the restaurants who rely on him as one of the few suppliers of those crops, or to civilians like me, so he gave them up. About four years ago he started to skip a portion of the summer, he said, “but this is the longest gap I’ve done so far, and getting it in the ground earlier isn’t working out.”
The family’s Carpinteria farm, on land Romeo’s father bought in 1963, runs off a private well shared by 12 properties, half of them agricultural. Until now, Coleman could take as much water as the farm required, but that will likely end as the state starts a planned monitoring system to see what’s being taken out of the aquifer.
“You know what comes next after monitoring,” he said, anticipating cutbacks in Carpinteria. “If they start putting caps on what we can take, that’s going to affect yield. But I can’t change my day to day based on that. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”
“We’re trying to comply with keeping under the allotment in Ojai, but doing that means I’m growing less product on the property. And that’s not going to work because I pay full price for the property even if I’m not growing on all of it.”
His leased acreage in nearby Ojai is already on a water diet. A meter at the entrance to the farm tracks monthly inflow from Lake Casitas, and he gets less each year. “About five years ago, the water district started giving us an allotment based on past history of usage, to determine an allotment we can use from July of one year to July of the next,” said Coleman. And then they started to cut—first 15 percent, to 85 percent of the previous average, with “a little bit more” in each of the intervening years.
“I’m not sure what they’ll do this year,” he said, as he waited for the first water bill to reflect his new allotment, “because it’s one of the worst years for us in terms of rain.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez
“We’re trying to comply with keeping under the allotment in Ojai, but doing that means I’m growing less product on the property,” said Coleman. “And that’s not going to work because I pay full price for the property even if I’m not growing on all of it. There’s going to be a point where I can’t grow enough to keep the property and pay people, but I don’t think we’re close to that now.”
Which doesn’t mean he feels safe. “I worry that if the drought keeps going on there’s going to be a point where I can’t, because the water level keeps going down.”
Regier Family Farms
30 acres, founded 1971
Troy Regier, owner
Main crops: stone fruit and mandarins
“It’s a race to the finish,” said Troy Regier, who crosses his fingers that what little water he has will enable him to complete the summer stone fruit season. It’s been over 100 degrees every day this summer, after a winter without the snowpack that usually replenishes the water supply, and peaches and nectarines need a weekly drink. At this point he’s reduced to superstition, because the practical alternatives either don’t work or won’t work in time.
Reiger has had to pump well water all summer because there was no water from the Sierra Nevada water project that usually provides half his summer supply. “It trickled a little,” he said, “but none to the farmers. The trickle was to replenish the water table.” He wasn’t surprised by the shortfall; everyone saw trouble coming. He depends, instead, on three wells, the deepest at 300 feet—and with the water table at 120 feet, he feels confident about its supply. The shallower two? “They could go dry at any time,” he said. “The water district’s going to shut off the King’s River that helps replenish our water table,” he said. “It’s down to 20 percent full right now.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez
His worst-case scenario is no scenario at all, given that he’d be standing in a long line for the expensive next step, a newer, even deeper well. “I can call the pump guy out,” he said, “but I hear it’s a two- to three-month wait for a new well.” The stone fruit harvest usually runs from May 1 to mid-September, and that’s where the finger-crossing comes in. If the wells fail him and the river’s closed for business, if the water level gets worse and the pump guy’s busy, he faces a short season by default.
He usually has mandarins from November through March, which depend on the snowpack that was a trickle last year, so he hopes history won’t repeat itself and wonders how long the new-well line will be by then. It’s something of a showdown, and it doesn’t end with him: Troy has three daughters who work this and other farmers’ markets, and his eldest and her husband are “showing interest,” he said, in becoming the fourth generation to run the farm.
Samanta Helou Hernandez
80 acres, founded 1986
Pearl Munak, owner
Main crops: tomatoes, melons
A healthy heirloom tomato plant is six feet tall and laden with the tomatoes that make Munak Ranch’s seasonal return to the farmers’ market a cause for celebration, and crowds. Pints of Sungold cherry tomatoes barely settle onto the table before someone snatches them up, while customers debate the relative appeal of the striated pineapple tomato, the persimmon, the Brandywine Red, the green zebra, the Celebrity. They might grab a melon as well, but the tomatoes are the main draw.
This year there are fewer of them, harvested from plants that top out at four, maybe four and a half feet, according to ranch foreman Victor Gomez, who has worked at the farm alongside his father, Hugo, for almost half his life. Tomatoes and melons have shallow roots that rely on underground moisture, and this summer they aren’t getting what they need to thrive.
In less parched circumstances, Munak Ranch sits in an enviable position, just a half mile from the Salinas River. Its two wells are relatively shallow, one at about 40 feet, one at 90, because that should be deep enough to connect to the nearby water supply. This year it wasn’t. “We used to have plenty of water, but not anymore,” said Gomez, “and that’s our only water source, the river.”
Samanta Helou Hernandez
Low water combined with blistering temperatures, around 100, required cutting back on melons, particularly watermelons, because they need too much water. Victor and his father and Pearl Munak also decided it was time for a third well, which seemed smarter than trying to deepen the existing ones but is still an expensive fishing expedition.
“The company that drills said we should go to 100 feet,” said Gomez. “But if they find a hard level they have to go through, underground, then the contract changes, and they’re not charging per foot but $400 per hour. And once you start, it’d be worse to leave it halfway than to finish the job. We need it. We’ll have to keep going.”
Until there’s a new well, the shrinkage math is simple: Munak Ranch doesn’t have enough water to farm its full 80 acres; right now they cultivate about 45 acres every season. The cutbacks started four summers ago, but this season has the dubious distinction of being the worst.
And what about the rest of us, the people who line up on the buying side of the market tables and have water needs of our own—some of us with low-flow toilets and xeriscape front yards, some of us stepping out of a long, hot bath to savor a cool summer drink in a manicured, watered back yard? Pinched farmers would like us to remember that our habits impact their water resources—and as the drought deepens, they’re getting impatient with the more flagrant among us.
There’s a Covid-19 vaccine analogy here: Just as the vaccinated population has started to lose its temper with unvaccinated people and the threat they represent, small farmers look past their property lines and wonder how people could be so irresponsible.
Samanta Helou Hernandez
When Debby Takikawa was a little girl, in the 1950s, the land around her family farm was vacant, “a grassy hillside with oak trees scattered around, that’s all there was.” Now it’s full of homes, which isn’t what bothers her. “It’s the landscaping, new trees, very verdant. And that’s all ground water,” she said. People could opt for drought-resistant plants instead. It would help.
Dawn Birch has more of an edge in her voice when she talks about collective responsibility, and she dismisses talk of top-down policy change as individuals “copping out” on their role in the ongoing drama. Change has to bubble up from the bottom as well, she insists, if market farmers are going to survive.
“People who don’t know the trouble say, ‘This isn’t my problem,’” she said. “But it is, this is our problem. This isn’t just Mother Nature. This is people.”