William Bourdeau Speaks Out About SGMA

William Bourdeau: Surface Water Must Be Tied to SGMA

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

William Bourdeau is Vice President of Harris Farms, a Director of Westlands Water District, and Chairman of the Board of the California Water Alliance. Bourdeau recently talked to California Ag Today about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which will force growers in 2040 to keep the water levels in their wells in balance and not allow over-drafting.

William Bourdeau

“It’s mostly about living and growing up in the community and hearing about what the people did when I was still young,” Bourdeau said. “I understand that we were over-drafting the aquifer in the early days of agriculture on the west side of the valley and some very innovative, pioneering individuals figured out how to solve the problem. They built the Central Valley Project and delivered surface water. And if you look at the statistics, the problem was nearly solved. It’s only started to become a problem when the surface water deliveries have been cut off as a result of the biological opinions.”

“I can’t understand why that we can’t solve this problem. And I do think surface deliveries need to be tied into SGMA,” he said.

Bourdeau said he believes that the problem can be solved and not be detrimental to the environment.

“But any solution must consider humans and our needs … surface deliveries need to be incorporated into the plan,” Bourdeau added. “We need to use sound science, and it needs to be peer-reviewed.

“We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to preserve a domestic food supply capability. I think it’s in our national interest. … It’s a national security issue,” he said.

Bourdeau believes that we need to get away from looking at these very narrow issues and look at the big picture.

“We must find a way to do what’s best, and not all the decisions are going to be desirable, but I do think we can. We can make decisions that solve the problem and don’t take this wonderful resource out of production.

As a director for Westlands Water District, Bourdeau said no stones will be unturned for compliance to SGMA.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to make sure that we manage this situation to the best of our ability and our growers are represented in a way that they will succeed in the long term,” he said.

The Water Chase for Harris Farms Onions

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

Harris Farms Prepares For the Future

A Conversation with Steve Hamm, Controller of Harris Farms, Coalinga

CaliforniaAgToday: How long have you been working with Harris Farms?

Steve Hamm: I’ve been with Harris since December of 2013, so a year and a half. I have the freshest face on the farm!

CAT: That was the first year with zero water allocation; could that have been the worst time to start?

Hamm: I do not think it was a bad time to come in–even though 2013-2014 definitely was a hard hit, now look at 2015. I think it is an important time for me to be here. There are a lot of ways we used to do business that probably made sense under different scenarios. Now, whether we are looking at cost allocation or geographical diversification, we are thinking differently than before and challenging a lot of old assumptions, such as how much to plant, and how much water to carry over, and what are normal prices. A few years ago, people would laugh at $400-500/acre-foot of water; now you are paying triple that price.

CAT: Makes you think differently, doesn’t it?

Hamm: Everything is being challenged. I think when I started, it was a good time to ask questions–just within Harris Farms. Why do we do it this way, why do we do it that way? Have we considered this? And sometimes there is nothing you can really do to change, but other times, all it takes is really challenging old assumptions.

We are getting into some things we probably would not have considered a few years ago–just kind of the new reality. I really think about the future and making financial plans. Luckily, we are diversified, so if we don’t get Westside water, we’ll be OK. We’ve got the beef operation, plus hospitality with the Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant in Coalinga, and other ranches for farming, so corporate will be OK. But looking at this farm here on the Westside, we’re all hoping next year the rains will come.

It reminds me of that old Jewish saying, “Next year…. in Jerusalem.” How many centuries did they say that before it happened? I wonder will the rains will come 2016? What if it is 2018? Are we preparing ourselves for that?

West Side Farmer/Rancher Says Drought is Tragedy

John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch, recently weighed in about how the drought is affecting his farming operation in Coalinga.

“This is probably the most depressing time I’ve seen in agriculture on the West Side,” he said. “We have employees that have been here for 30 or 40 years who are facing getting laid off.”No Water Logo

Harris said he and his crew have spent a lot effort to develop trees, which are doing well, that are facing the chance of being taken out.

Harris lamented, “You drive around and there’s nothing green.”

“It’s just a tragedy,” he said, “but we’re just trying to sort out how best to cope with it. We’re looking at drilling more holes and trying to buy water here and there.”

“There are just a few things we can do but nothing that is a real silver bullet,” Harris commented. “We’re probably 70% fallow right now.”

In terms of a bright side, Harris said, “If there’s anything good about it, this makes it so bad that it becomes so evident that the Endangered Species Act needs to be changed. It brings it home that you just can’t live with that.”