Harris Farms Onions Diversify to Chase Water
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Associate Editor, CaliforniaAgToday.com
Some farmers facing very little or zero water deliveries in the Central Valley are investing in crops in areas where water is more plentiful. Steve Hamm, controller for Harris Farms near Coalinga in Fresno County, noted that Harris Ranch has taken this bold move and is now reaping benefits from farming in Kern County.
Hamm told California Ag Today, “We own a couple thousand acres of land in a little town called Mettler, near the intersection of 99 and I-5,” at the foot of a grade known as ‘The Grapevine’ that starts at the mouth of Grapevine Canyon and ascends the canyon to the Tejon Pass in the Tehachapi Mountains. “It is more of a gas stop; you’ve probably breezed by it many times heading to Los Angeles.”
“Despite the name ‘Grapevine Region,’ we do not grow any grapes. We grow crops similar to what we grow on the Westside, starting with almond trees, of course. These days, especially given over-priced water and an increase in fallowed ground, record almond prices is really the only thing keeping us afloat. Like almonds, we also grow melons, carrots, onions, tomatoes and lettuce down there,” Hamm noted.
“Although we duplicate a number of crops, farming in Mettler is unique. I’ll use onions as an example. We have an onion processing plant down there to process the onions as soon as they come in from the field, so they don’t sit around for month–as in a bin. With onions, we are looking to getting through a certain tonnage per year and this is our window,” said Hamm.
“If we took onions from everybody on the Westside in Fresno County or northward,” Hamm explained, “processing them would not work efficiently. Harvest deliveries would arrive at the processing plant at the same time, resulting in a backup, and we would have to push the crop through the plant as fast as possible.”
Hamm says this inefficiency in delivering a large volume to market at one time would greatly impact prices. “What you are really looking for is a location at which you can harvest a crop when the market reaches its highest price. So, Kern County, especially south Kern County, right at the Grapevine but not quite at the granite mountain, still has good-enough soil to grow row crops like you do here in Fresno County. But Mettler is at a higher elevation, by hundreds of feet, and is also further south in latitude. Surprisingly, this combination places the Grapevine onion harvest first. So we harvest it down there, transport it up here to our packing shed, and that keeps us plenty busy for weeks until the local Fresno harvest, and that’s a huge volume.”
“These days the wholesale produce folks are looking for a year-round supply,” he continued. When they talk with an onion salesperson, they want a twelve-month supply. So our onion salesman looks into Mexico to start off the season, chasing it northward and all around California, wherever it becomes available. At the end of the season, we end up in Washington, even Canada. And when it gets too cold up there, we return to Baja Mexico. We may or may not pack each harvest, but when we geographically spread our supply, our market timing improves.”
In explaining the water chase for Harris Farms onions, Hamm said, “Kern County also has a very different water situation than the Westside of Fresno County, which is supplied by the Westlands Water District, a Federal system that delivered a zero percent water allocation last year. Our water systems in Kern County are Arvin-Edison and Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa, part of the state program, which delivered about a fifteen percent water allocation this year and five percent last year. And, unlike the Westside where the water district owns no wells, these Kern County districts have wells.”
“In addition,” he said, “we are actually part of a water bank in Kern, plus we have our own private wells, like most farmers there. But, here on the Westside, we have only two water sources; groundwater, of course, and our canal allocation that has been zero. So our Westside land is down to a single water source, not including free market trade. We are doing as much as we can in Fresno County on wells, but they have a maximum capacity–you can only run them 24 hours a day.”
“Even without buying water on the open market, we gain a lot more flexibility by diversifying with farms in Kern County that have these four water sources,” Hamm concluded.
Sources: California Ag Today interview with Steve Hamm; Harris Farms website; Wikipedia, “The Grapevine”
Featured Image: UCANR