After a winter season that’s already brought record rainfall and a swift change from the past six years of drought, you might assume farmers in the Valley are overjoyed. But the business of knowing what to plant – when to plant it – and how to prepare for future growing seasons is never easy – even during the rainiest of years. KSEE24’s John Shrable takes an in-depth look at how the state’s climate trends both past and present impact the agriculture industry in our backyard.

By JOHN SHRABLE | February 23, 2017

It’s one of the most unpredictable climates in the country. It’s a common sight on the west end of the Central Valley. Fallow fields are an indisputable sign that conditions haven’t been as productive as in years past. But this year, many of these fallowed fields are filled with water – a sign of this season’s changes.

Now, these fluctuations in climate from one season to another are obvious, but how is the Valley’s climate changing in the long-term?

The sun peeks out for the first time after a few rainy days at the errotabere ranches in Fresno county.

Errotabere Ranches

“Our family has been farming here since the late 20s, and when my father and those preceding him were farming – this what pretty much cotton, alfalfa and barley,” said Daniel Errotabere of Errotabere Ranches.

Errotabere is adjusting to a new normal this winter – a wet and rainy season as compared to the drought that gripped the state the past six years.

Drought that – in some cases – changed how farmers planted their crops for the winter season and what crops they ended up growing.

“We’ve had to downsize; we’ve lost some tomato acres during that period of time. We used to grow a lot of lettuce; we don’t grow anymore because the water’s become so uncertain,” Errotabere said.

“We don’t grow anymore because the water’s become so uncertain”

Despite being historic, there are many who believe droughts in years to come could be even more severe due to subtle changes in the region’s climate.

“The problem that we face is that this is subtle. I’ve lived long enough now that I can go to places that no longer exist,” said Peter K. Van de Water, a professor at Fresno State.

California is a state with a climate in flux, and eras of dryer and wetter years have been going on before people even started growing crops in the state.

“If we go back in time, there have been periods in which we are really wet.” Van de Water said. “Historically, in the 1860s there were a set of major storms that came into California and basically put enough water into the Valley that you could sail from Sacramento to Fresno. But we haven’t seen conditions like that in a very long time.”

Van de Water looks at core samples that have been taken from the bottom of former lake beds across the western United States – telling the tale of a much wetter climate not too long ago.

“This represents a period of time. So in the lake itself, you have stuff that is falling down into the lake onto the top of it – so it builds up over time,” Van de Water said. “This is the oldest part of that lake, and this is the top of it or the youngest part of the lake.”

Variations in organic matter – such as the presence of pollens – can tell what the climate was like during certain eras.

“In terms of animals and vegetation, they are very similar to things that we would now expect in areas like central Washington, northern Washington and southern Canada,” Van de Water said.

Here in the Central Valley is a burgeoning industry that required infrastructure, such a reservoirs and canals, that would supply life giving water to the rich soils across a dry region.

“The whole idea was to have the district fully planted, operational, producing jobs, producing food – being an economic impact to the community,” said Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District.

“There’s a huge demand for some of the permanent crops over some of the smaller crops that are hand harvested”

Changes in what kind of crops have been grown in the Valley since this time are not just due to weather factors. Demand and water allocation also have a major impact.

“There’s a huge demand for some of the permanent crops over some of the smaller crops that are hand harvested,” Holman said.

Pistachios are a good example of a crop which has changed the valley ag landscape. As demand for the nuts surged over the past 30 to 40 years, field after field of cropland was converted to pistachio orchards.

“There’s no other crop in the U.S. that have had the rise that California pistachios have had, to go from essentially nothing in the 1960s to 300,000 acres now,” said Bob Klein of the California Pistachio Research Board.

Pistachios thrive in dry and hot conditions, but they also need at least 800 hours of temperatures below 45 degrees – or “chill.” And although demand is high, and this winter has offered up plenty of water, one thing it hasn’t offered up is chill. And chill is what these trees need in order to go dormant.

“Into the 1990s and 1980s, chill usually ran about 1,000 or 1,200 hours of chill. We haven’t seen that for a long time,” Klein said.

Yet another factor – who is getting water and who isn’t?

“We’ve been fallowing quite a bit of land to the degree about a third of our operation has been left out because we just didn’t have the water,” Errotabere said.

Many in Valley agricultural circles will refer to the drought as a “regulatory drought” – pointing fingers less at climate change and more at where it’s ending up.

“Going forward, we’ve already raised temperatures a couple degrees. This warming has been caused primarily by greenhouse gasses.”

Holman said it’s “the regulatory restrictions that are in place that put a priority of water into other places besides farming.”

Others point figures more directly at the human influence on long term changes in climate.

Van de Water said, “Going forward, we’ve already raised temperatures a couple degrees. This warming has been caused primarily by greenhouse gasses.”

Although rains have offered hope, years of hard times for Valley farmers won’t easily be forgotten – nor these issues easily solved.

Errotabere said, “We also go into the assumption that it may be normal or it may be below normal; we are pretty conservative with our planning because we don’t know if the water will be there when our final planning stage comes in.”

WestWide Drought Tracker

But how do we balance the new normal of a higher population, the needs of agriculture, as well as the potential of dryer times? Regardless of perspective, everyone agrees it’s going to take adjusting to these changes, and that’s going to take a lot of work.

“If we’re going to have some stability in farming – and I think as California as a whole – we’re going to have to do some heavy planning on how the operations of the projects service their customers – at the same time recognizing droughts are a regular phenomenon,” Errotabere said.

Recent Pistachio Yields

  • 2015 – Record low crops due to lack of chill (270 million pounds, record low yield per acre)
  • 2016 – Record crop yield with sufficient chill (900 million pounds)
  • 2017 – Sufficient water but not enough chill
Van de Water said, “Farmers understand more than anybody else. And being on the land is an eye-opening experience because you get the sense of what’s coming, what’s going and what’s been around.”

As far as water goes, the solution for lack of water storage that is most often suggested is to construct new reservoirs… But when it comes to adjusting to what kind of weather farmers can expect in years to come, nobody can really know for sure how kind mother nature will be to our state’s farmers.


Amount in Inches. 72 month period ending in December, 1900 – 2016 – Westmap – Data from PRISM

Mean Temperature

Temperature in fahrenheit. 72 month period ending in December, 1900 – 2016 – Westmap – Data from PRISM




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