October 2014 - By Ching Lee - October may be the start of a new water year, but it's the culmination of the season for many California farms that offer pumpkin patches, harvest festivals and other agritourism activities—and impacts of the drought are evident.
(Left) Fresno County farmer Troy Spencel, who operates Single Palm Pumpkin Farm, says he plans to close the pumpkin patch at the end of this season, in part because of his uncertain future water supply.
Patronage to Single Palm Pumpkin Farm in Fresno County remains strong, farmer Troy Spencel said, but this will be his last year doing the pumpkin patch. That his two daughters are grown up and leaving the farm factored into the decision to close, but uncertainty about the future of the state's water supply made the decision easier, he added.
"We haven't had a summer vacation in over nine years," Spencel said. "We just figured that with the way everything is right now with the water, it's the perfect time to say, 'This is it.'"
Because of water shortages, Spencel said he didn't plant a corn maze this year. The well that irrigates the corn also supplies water to his house, he explained, and he didn't want that well to go dry. He put up a wooden maze instead, using sheets of plywood. He said regular customers who have come to expect the corn maze were disappointed, but they also understood the tight water situation he faced.
His pumpkin production was also hurt, particularly in outer rows of the field, where some of the crop had sunburn damage and pumpkin sizes were 70 percent of normal. To provide shade and help retain moisture in the ground, he planted his rows closer together and periodically moved the vines to cover the pumpkins. Because nights in the Central Valley don't get cool enough, he said, the pumpkin shells don't get hard, making them more susceptible to sunburn.
Water deliveries from the Fresno Irrigation District were shut off in July, he noted, forcing him to pump more groundwater, which increased his production costs.
"We only charge $5 a pumpkin, any size, so I'm not making much money already to start with," he said. "With the cost of running a pump, I'll be lucky to break even."
Spencel said he's considering planting almonds and switching to a drip system after he closes the pumpkin patch, but he may have to wait until next year to plant the new orchard if this fall does not bring a brighter water outlook.
Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the University of California Small Farm Program, said some farms may be relying more on their pumpkin patches and seasonal agritourism businesses this year because yields on other crops may be down or lost due to drought.
"Everything is so dependent on the weather," she said, "but of course, even though everybody wants it to rain, pumpkin patch operators are hoping it doesn't rain the last weekend before Halloween."
Agritourism in the state continues to grow, she noted. In 2012, 1,699 farms reported income from agritourism, compared to 685 in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Income from agritourism also rose in the state—from $34.9 million in 2007 to $64.5 million in 2012.
For David Vierra, who operates Dave's Pumpkin Patch in Yolo County, the start of the season has been "a bit slow," he said, adding that with summer temperatures lingering, "people really aren't in a fall mood."
Because his farm is on the northern edge of the Sacramento Delta, Vierra said he had "ample water" for his crops, but noted that even though pumpkins are deep-rooted plants and "don't require a tremendous amount of water" to grow, more irrigation was needed this year because groundwater levels have dropped.
He's also selling more pumpkins for wholesale—the majority of his business—because of reduced acreage and production elsewhere in the state, he said.
"We're definitely seeing increased sales on the wholesale side and buyers that we haven't heard from in a while, because they can't find pumpkins from their normal suppliers," Vierra said.
San Mateo County farmer John Muller, who opens his pumpkin farm for tours and direct sales, said except for one variety that sized well, the rest of his pumpkins are smaller than usual, noting that his larger pumpkins are selling out fast "because I don't think there's a lot of 25-, 30-pound pumpkins around this year."
But he said his biggest issue this year was deer, which "literally ate one field of pumpkins from me." He said the lack of rain made nearby hills barren and coastal deer were starving and looking for feed.
School tours are a major part of San Joaquin County farmer JoAnn Cutter's agritourism business, which she said has been down the last five years because area schools now take their fall break in the middle of October and don't have the funds they once had for field trips.
Her costs will be up this year because she will be installing a new sprinkler system as part of an Environmental Quality Incentives Program project for her walnuts, her main crop. To earn extra money, her husband Jim, who's supposed to be retired, has gone back to part-time trucking, she noted.
While the drought has been a concern for growers at Apple Hill in El Dorado County, Nicole Phillips, executive director of the Apple Hill Growers Association, said the King fire—which broke out Sept. 13 and had charred nearly 98,000 acres as of last week—has been a bigger preoccupation. All Apple Hill farms have stayed open, she noted, but smoke from the fire definitely affected business at the popular fall destination, which celebrates its 50th year.
"Unfortunately, we haven't had the visitors like we're used to, but we're experiencing heavier traffic again and I think it's going to be picking up," said Phillips, whose own family operates an Apple Hill farm.
She said the biggest challenge has been trying to spread the word that Apple Hill is now smoke-free and snuffing rumors that only a few ranches are open. She noted that all roads to Apple Hill are open and what's left of the King fire "is burning quite a ways from us."
"We don't even see the smoke smoldering anymore. The air quality is great," she added. "Just getting that communication out there has been key, to get people back up here."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Reprinted with permission: California Farm Bureau Federation