Water shortage forces avocado growers to cut down trees

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The Metropolitan Water District plans to cut water supplies to its member agencies by 10 percent - which could mean a lot less water for you. The decision today is the result of California's nagging drought - and a federal judge's order a year ago that restricts water deliveries from the Sacramento Delta. Southern California farmers lost 30 percent of their water supply last year. KPCC's Julie Small reports avocado growers worry their industry could dry up.

[Sound of chainsaw]

Julie Small: At San Diego County's largest avocado farm, a chainsaw chews away at one of the trees. Noel Stehly winces at the sound. He and his brother Jerome own Stehly Farms.

They grow and pack certified organic berries, citrus, and avocados. The Stehly brothers inherited the farm from their father, who inherited it from his father. The avocado tree that's coming down, Noel remembers planting as a boy.

[Sound of tree cracking, shuddering]

Noel Stehly: That's not my favorite sound. (laughs) I'd rather hear fruit dropping in a bin. (laughs) But that's the reality.
Small: And how many years did it take to grow that tree?
Stehly: I think we planted these in 1980, 1981 – about 28 years old. They'll live forever. You can have a 30, 40, 60 year old tree – but not without water.

Small: Last year, the Metropolitan Water District cut the water supply for Stehly Farms by 30 percent. That left Noel Stehly without enough water for his trees. He couldn't afford to buy water from somewhere else – so he decided to cut down some of his avocado trees. So did a lot of growers.

Guy Whitney: If you stood out anywhere in the industry, you could hear chainsaws coming from all directions as trees were cut down.

Small: That's Guy Whitney with the California Avocado Commission. He says 60 percent of the state's avocados grow in the region affected by the water cuts – a swath of land from Simi Valley to the Tijuana border. These days, large patches of that land look like graveyards – with rows and rows of avocado tree stumps painted white to keep out the bugs.

Many growers chose to "stump" their trees to save water. In three years, a "stumped" tree can bear fruit again – but it's not producing a cash crop now. Guy Whitney says if California doesn't find a way to ensure a stable and affordable water supply, small farms run by family growers might not survive.

Whitney: There's a chance we're going to lose a very special segment of U.S. agriculture, California agriculture. Which has not gone corporate, which is local, which produces fruit on the land, that are very responsible farmers that have been doing this for 50 years or more. To see them taken off the land will be a permanent loss for Southern California.

Small: And will take a bite out of its economy, too. In a good year, California growers sell up to half-a-billion dollars of avocados. Packing, trucking, and packaging adds another billion-and-a-half to the economy.

The Avocado Commission's Guy Whitney says the market was growing about 10 percent a year. Then came the water cuts. This year, avocado farmers expect to harvest the smallest crop in three decades. Whitney says that could push prices higher – and push customers away.

[Sound of chainsaw cutting down trees]

Small: In San Diego County, Noel Stehly doesn't have much hope that he'll get the water he needs to put these trees back into production.

Stehly: This crisis is not, hasn't even begun.

Small: Noel Stehly expects water to grow more scarce and more expensive. That's why he's drilled two wells at Stehly Farms, and spent $100,000 on a new water-efficient irrigation system. If that doesn't work, Stehly might plow the avocado trees under – and switch to a crop that doesn't need as much water.