By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
BARSTOW, Calif. (DTN) -- The vineyards, peaches and orange groves are gone from San Bernardino, Upland, Duarte and Pasadena, replaced by homes and concrete. The citrus associations dissolved a long time ago.
"There were orchards and vineyards that were everywhere along that stretch, but most of it is just gone," said Glen Duncan, who helped produce a historical book, "Images of America, Route 66 in California."
"A few people have old orange or lemon trees in their backyards, but that's about it," said Duncan.
Route 66 stretches across the high desert and through to valleys on the other side of the San Bernardino Mountains before blending into the weaving interstates and highways of greater Los Angeles. Any reflection of the old highway heading to Santa Monica Pier gets lost in the intensity of daily Los Angeles interstate traffic.
Farmers are becoming an endangered species in San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties. The counties were once known for their great fruit orchards. In the 1940 Ag Census, as the country was still coming out of the Great Depression that drove migrant workers to California agriculture, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties combined for nearly 159,000 acres of fruit trees, as well as millions of grape vines. Almost all of that fruit production has disappeared in the area. The two counties now account for less than 7,000 acres in fruit orchards.
"When I was growing up, there were vineyards and orchards until you got to the foothills around Ontario," said Barstow dairy farmer Eldert Van Dam. "The land just got too valuable is what it amounts to. That's all been taken over by sprawl."
Most commercial agriculture along Route 66 effectively ends around Barstow and the Mojave Desert where at least some farms can still tap the underlying aquifer to irrigate alfalfa and feed the remaining area dairies.
Van Dam, 57, started on his own hauling hay for dairies in Chino, Calif., when he was able to finally develop his own dairy outside of Barstow. Van Dam's operation milks about 2,000 cows three times a day. He gets most of his alfalfa from a farm in Utah, about 350 miles away. "We import all of our feed. We don't grow any of our own. We have a little bit of pasture for dry cows, but that's about it."
Van Dam's father came from Holland in 1947 to work in southern California dairies. The outskirts of Los Angeles were filled with dairy operations, he recalled. "There was a lot of immigration from Holland back then in the Torrance, Cerritos and Artesia areas back then," Van Dam said. "It was called Dairy Valley back in the '50s and '60s. There were a lot of little dairies and processors until urbanization pushed it out."
You can still see remnants of past dairy or other livestock operations between Barstow and Victorville, but most of them have vanished. There used to be 200 dairies in the Mojave River valley, Van Dam said.
"This is a dwindling thing," Van Dam said. "The water issues are tough. California in general is tough."
FARMERS ARE GOING NUTS
Joe Harter, 59, grows mostly alfalfa and small grains on about 1,100 acres under pivot near Newberry Springs, about 20 miles southeast of Barstow along Route 66. His latest venture, however, is to try growing some pistachio trees.
Harter's latest potential venture may be a pistachio orchard. Marketers pitched to Harter to consider putting some land into the nut trees. It's a big decision that would effectively delay any revenue from a field for five years while waiting for the trees to mature.
"I know they think this would be a good area for it," he said. "They are anxious for us to put some pistachios in here."
By the same token, Harter noted he would have that much less hay to sell to area livestock and dairy producers.
Nut trees overall have taken off over the past decade or so in California. Acres for nut trees are up about 400,000 acres statewide, often at the expense of hay acres that have fallen by a comparable volume. Almonds, walnuts and pistachios are all in the list of top five exports from California, along with dairy products and wine. Pistachio sales have seen double-digit growth annually in both U.S. and Asian markets.
REGULATORY PRESSURES ABOUND
Van Dam lamented the regulatory challenges in California. He noted that when Gov. Jerry Brown cut state agency budgets, the agencies made up for shortfalls by raising fees.
"There's a guy standing at every corner trying to pick something out of your pocket," Van Dam said of California's regulatory scheme.
California regulations look at water usage, waste discharge and air quality. Farmers are awaiting regulations that could force them to phase out their tractors, equipment and trucks that operate with older diesel engines.
California is implementing regulations to reduce particle matter from diesel engines. Farmers for now are exempt, but will come under the law in 2023. By Jan. 1, 2015, farmers will have to sign up their vehicles with the California Air Resources Board to qualify for the current exemption.
"I'm not sure what's going to be coming down, but just on trucks, I have a 2005 diesel that I understand would be regulated," Harter said.
The easiest option may be to sell the vehicle out of state.
"We've been trying to replace tractors as we can with the newer engines. We don't want to get hit all at one time."
Then there are the inspectors. Van Dam laughed when recalling a state inspector who suggested the dairy could conserve water by not washing his cows so much. "This is a food product I'm making. We have to produce milk the best we can. No common sense."
He added, "You can whip a skunk with a stick, but did you really win?"
ADJUDICATION WHITTLES WATER RIGHTS
Harter used to send more of his hay to dairies in Chino, a Los Angeles suburb, but a lot of those dairies have gone away there as well.
"With the cities and the growth and everything that has gone on, a lot of the agriculture has gone down," he said.
For more than 20 years now, Harter and other area farmers have been wrapped up in court rulings over groundwater rights. The cities of Barstow and Victorville began litigating over big housing developments that would risk downstream flows along the Mojave River and aquifer recharge. A water agency was formed to oversee water rights. All irrigators were drawn into a lawsuit, which led to adjudication of water rights.
"We had to come in and prove our water rights by the water we have been pumping," Harter said.
Harter believed there was an underlying right to water. In the end, water rights were determined by the courts and everyone in the system had to reduce their irrigation by 20%. As the years have progressed, studies have concluded that the drawdown of water in the basin is still greater than the recharge, so the allocation keeps getting ratcheted down. The allocation now is down to 57.5% of the original water right.
"They want us to be in balance, so they keep telling us we have to reduce," he said. "They keep working us down."
The fear moving forward is that allocations could whittle down to about 35%. Lately, several organizations have come together trying to create a sustainability plan for the Baja basin. Farmers, along with the Mojave Water Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation and local USDA agencies, are each discussing what can be done to ensure farming remains part of the high desert economy.
"We're all trying to come up with ways to sustain the agricultural system," Harter said. "We're trying to make sure they don't shut this thing down so much that we're eventually driven out of business here."
Harter and other groundwater irrigators are about to get a new layer of oversight. The California Legislature in late August passed a new law giving the state the power to regulate groundwater. Under the bill, water agencies such as the Mojave agency must have plans to control pumping overdrafts. State officials, however, would now have authority to approve the plans and also step in if they think the local agencies aren't effectively regulating usage.
"Water is always going to be the big factor in growth here," Harter said. "It's tough because it's getting harder to protect your water rights."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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