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SLO County farmers got creative to survive this drought. Are they ready for the next one?

Isaac Popoca, ranch manager at Morro Ranch, has weathered the drought and appreciates this year’s rainfall.
Isaac Popoca, ranch manager at Morro Ranch, has weathered the drought and appreciates this year’s rainfall. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

As winter rains replenished wells and coaxed hills into displays of brilliant green, the drought’s impact has begun to ease for many local farmers and ranchers — brightening their long-term picture.

“We are seeing reservoir levels rise, groundwater recharge, increased soil moisture and a leaching of salts in the soil that have accumulated during the drought and hindered crop production,” said Martin Settevendemie, San Luis Obispo County agricultural commissioner.

Among the agricultural products hardest hit by the drought that began in 2011 were wine grapes, avocados, dryland-farmed walnuts and cattle, according to 2015 annual crop statistics compiled by the county Department of Agriculture. Wine grapes ranked as the county’s second-highest valued crop, behind strawberries. Cattle and calves ranked third and avocados were ninth. Nut crops were not among the top 10.

For the cattle industry, a shortage of grass for grazing forced a record sell-off of cattle in 2014. By 2015, there were 55,000 head of cattle and calves countywide, compared with 120,000 the previous year.

Templeton Hills Beef owners Will Woolley and Alton Emery reduced the herd at their Templeton ranch by about half between 2013 and 2014. The business feeds its beef cattle strictly on grass, which was scarce during drought years. Its mother cows are fed supplemental hay when grazing conditions are poor in the fall and winter, a practice that was “getting far too expensive during the drought,” Woolley said.

The 2015-16 rain season brought the ranch 14 inches of rain, but “it quit early so the grass didn’t last long,” he said.

This season, Woolley estimates the ranch received about 20 inches of rain by mid-March. Templeton Hills Beef began gradually adding to its herd starting in 2015 by retaining heifers from its own mother cows. Woolley estimates that, by the end of this year, the herd will be back to predrought numbers. He declined to disclose the size of his current herd.

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Cattle at Templeton Hills Beef. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Jeff Buckingham, president of Digital West Networks, a data infrastructure company in San Luis Obispo, also owns Cerro Alto Ranch, a cattle business near Los Osos. Between 2015 and 2016, his herd fell to 35 from about 50. At the height of the drought, he estimates he was spending up to $12,000 a year on hay, as opposed to $3,000 to $6,000 in a year with average rainfall.

Buckingham is taking a conservative approach to growing his herd. Last year, he raised his numbers to 40. He is considering adding as many as five more this year.

“This year has the potential to be a really good grass year if there’s enough rain in March and April,” he said, “but a huge change would be multiple years in a row of adequate rain.”

Wine grapes

The 2015 rain season presented a double blow to county vineyards. Drought, combined with unusually cool spring temperatures, dropped wine grape yields to a low not seen since 1999, according to the county Department of Agriculture Annual Report.

Lucas Pope, vineyard manager for Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, confirmed that 2015 was a “low-yield year,” but noted that last year’s yields were improved. Average rainfall during the 2015-16 season helped to replenish the vines’ water supply.

“We were able to keep the vines growing for longer and not see water stress until after bloom when the fruit was set,” said Pope, who is hopeful that the same will be true this season. He was unable to provide specific annual yield totals because of vineyard redevelopment that results in a natural fluctuation in production.

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Lucas Pope is vineyard manager at Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles. He predicts yields from his vineyards will be higher this year. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Brian Talley is president of two agricultural operations in Arroyo Grande: Talley Vineyards and Talley Farms, which grows a variety of produce. During the drought, the wells that irrigate the farm and vineyard “became very unproductive,” he said. Consequently, the vegetable farm was forced to leave more of its land fallow, although Talley was not able to provide specific production numbers.

On the vineyard side, yields were down dramatically in 2015, but rebounded in 2016. For instance, chardonnay grape production was 4.57 tons per acre in 2014, 2.51 tons per acre in 2015 and 3.27 tons per acre in 2016. One reason for the 2015 decline was the removal of 20 acres of older chardonnay vines that suffered a hastened decline because of stress from the drought.

Talley foresees a good year for his wine grapes. Cool, damp soil is generating later bud break that could delay harvest by one to two weeks, whereas the last few years brought early harvests.

“Better to push it back a little,” he said. “It allows for better maturity of the grapes.”

Longer term, Talley is more reserved. He has slowed his replanting schedule and is moving toward more drought-tolerant root stock. The vineyard replanted modestly in 2016 and likely will not plant again until 2019.

“I’m not convinced the drought is over,” he said. “Call it farmer’s intuition.”

Avocados

Two years ago, a drive through the back roads of Morro Bay would have revealed acre after acre of what looked like dead trees — nearly limbless and absent of their usual lush foliage.

This was the result of a practice called “stumping,” which avocado farms did to temporarily reduce a tree’s water consumption. Most of the time, the foliage grows back, but stumping interrupts a tree’s fruit production for two to four years.

Shanley Farms of Morro Bay sells tens of thousands of boxes of Hass avocados each week under its Morro Bay Avocado label to high-end food service purveyors and retailers nationwide. The farm also grows passion fruit, dragon fruit, specialty coffee and finger limes on about half of its 113-acre farm.

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Isaac Popoca, ranch manager at Morro Ranch, says these Hass avocados will be at peak oil and flavor in the summer and early fall. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In 2015 and 2016, its avocado sales were down about 30 percent below average. Five to 10 percent of the avocados sold by Shanley Farms are grown on its own farm, while the rest are supplied by farms in San Luis Obispo and along the coast.

Two suppliers stumped their entire orchard, while about six stumped a portion of their trees, said Megan Shanley Warren, who owns the produce business with her sister, Rachelle Shanley Witt.

The yield from Shanley Farms’ wells dropped from more than 200 gallons per minute to less than 50 gallons per minute during the peak of the drought, but its avocado harvest did not decline and its trees experienced only moderate stress, Warren said.

One of Shanley Farms’ suppliers, Morro Ranch in Morro Bay, was not so fortunate. In 2015, the 230-acre ranch cut down 40 acres of trees and allowed them to die. Last year, the ranch’s yield was down to just over 2 million pounds, compared with its usual 3 million to 4 million, said ranch manager Isaac Popoca. The ranch, owned by the Davis family of Templeton, supplies avocados to a number of large produce distributors.

Although the ranch received 18 inches of rain last season and about 40 inches this season, Popoca has a lukewarm outlook.

“We could easily have another dry year,” he said. If normal rainfall continues next season, he said, he may replant 20 to 40 acres of trees. It will take three years for those trees to begin producing.

Warren’s father, James Shanley, who owns the land for Shanley Farms, said it is generally expected that this year’s countywide avocado crop will be less than half of the previous year’s crop. That is because of cumulative stress from years of drought, and the tendency of some avocado trees to bear heavily in alternate years.

Still, Warren observed that this year’s heavy rains have hastened the comeback of many stumped avocado trees, which may begin to produce again next year.

“You wouldn’t be able to tell they were ever stumped,” she said.

Dry-farmed walnuts

Jutta Thoerner, owner of Manzanita Manor Organics, has been producing and selling organic, dry-farmed walnuts since 1992, along with other food products such as walnut oil. The Paso Robles ranch that she owns with Cynthia Douglas covers 200 acres.

Thoerner began seeing the impact of drought in 2012. Typically, undersized walnuts, known as “babies,” make up about 5 percent of a dry-farmed walnuts crop. In 2012, babies made up 30 percent of Manzanita Manor’s harvest. The following year, the trees experienced significant branch dieback, with many producing fewer nuts or none at all.

Mild winters also increased the insect population — a considerable challenge for an organic farm that must rely on paper traps for pest control. In 2014, 100 trees died, many of them fully mature, and yields were down 25 percent.

In 2015, emboldened by the promise of El Niño rains, Thoerner replanted 125 trees, hard pruned trees with dieback issues, and grafted popular walnut varieties onto drought-tolerant rootstock.

“The rain did not come as hoped, but the timing of the rain that did fall was perfect,” she said. Yields last year inched up about 5 percent over the previous year. But those rains were not sufficient to sustain the newly planted trees through the summer. The farm was forced to irrigate them about every 10 days from May to October, using a tractor and water from Thoerner’s household well. The cost for labor and fuel: about $200 per watering.

Thoerner expects a strong harvest this season and does not anticipate having to irrigate her young trees.

“Because we replanted, grafted and pruned last year, we are in a very good position this year,” she said.

Lessons learned

Some of the optimism expressed by local farmers and ranchers doesn’t come from the weather forecast, but from lessons learned during the drought. Many have diversified their products and modified their operations in order to be more resilient should dry conditions return.

Lucas Pope of Halter Ranch Vineyard said the drought “caused us to look closely at new technologies that could help save water in the vineyard.” The winery conducted research to determine how much water its vines require in order to irrigate as little as possible. It installed a rain water collection system and a reclamation system that reuses water from the winery.

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The pond at Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles is surrounded by rolling green hills. Photos by Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“In total, we are able to supply about half of our irrigation water from these two systems,” he said.

At Cerro Alto Ranch, Buckingham is responding to the challenge of finding adequate grazing land by using cross fencing, which separates pastures into smaller areas for “high-intensity, shorter-duration grazing,” he said. The practice improves grass, especially during drought years, he said, and “is healthier for the land overall.”

At Manzanita Manor Organics, Thoerner had to brainstorm when overwhelmed by undersized walnuts. She decided to market them as “snack pieces.”

Thoerner has also developed new product lines that may fill in the gaps if drought conditions return, yet bolster business when rains are plentiful.

“Walnut butter and soaked and dehydrated-flavored walnuts are all new for 2017,” she said, “in anticipation of better harvests to come.”

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