Climate change and the California drought cause farmers to experience record early harvests

Will these changes impact grape, almond and major California crops?

Wonderful pistachios, yes, but thanks to the drought there may be fewer to crunch.

Wonderful pistachios, yes, but thanks to the drought there may be fewer to crunch.

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On July 24, winemaker Abe Schoener began picking his first pinot grigio grapes. It was the earliest start of harvest in Schoener's grape-growing career.

Other Sacramento and California farmers also have experienced record early harvests, thanks to exceptionally warm weather during the winter, spring and summer. Some say these changes offer farmers and scientists a glimpse of what could become the norm as climate change trends advance.

In February, for instance, balmy winter weather caused rapid ripening of oranges. This coincided with a dockworkers’ strike at coastal ports, so millions of pounds of fruit destined for Asia rotted before or during the trans-Pacific voyage.

Later, in April, farmer Ed George, of The Peach Farm in Winters, harvested his first cherries late in the month—weeks earlier than usual. In Corning, fig farmer Bob Steinacher of Maywood Farms usually begins harvesting his main crop of fruit in early- to mid-August. But this year, Steinacher was in his 170-acre orchard picking figs on July 6.

Early harvests are not necessarily a bad thing. However, they are significant because they are among the first visible symptoms of what will probably lead to a dramatic rearrangement of California’s agricultural geography and water-use policies.

Decreased snowpack in the mountains will mean less late-summer stored water. As water supplies become increasingly stressed, agricultural industries will wither in places. Growing regions will probably shift northward, arid regions will become less productive and measures will likely be taken to regulate use of water.

Will climate change alter Sacramento’s farm-to-fork breadbasket of veggies, fruits, nuts and more?

In some cases, the global-warming phenomenon that is causing sea level rise and, recently, deadly Asian heat waves actually may be creating benefits for local farmers.

While winter chill hours are required by many temperate fruit trees—such as most stone fruits—in order to produce large, healthy crops, George says the absence of cold this year actually resulted in a better crop: The fruits were fewer, but bigger.

“It made it easier for me,” he said. “I was harvesting bigger fruit and less of them. If your crop is too big you get a bunch of marbles.”

Schoener, who grows grapes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region for his Vacaville-based winery The Scholium Project, may also be enjoying a sweet spot of climate change.

While global warming is expected to make areas currently known for good wine unsuitable for grape growing in the future, the heat has allowed Schoener to produce wine with lower alcohol levels than usual. This is because high temperatures in recent years have accelerated summer maturation of his fruit, making it possible to harvest early—and in doing so produce full-flavored wine with less alcohol, an increasingly marketable quality in the wine business.

For Phil Rhodes, a farmer in Visalia, the unusually warm year has produced one of his best fig crops in memory. He has more fruit than usual, and the figs are fatter and sweeter.

However, the near absence of frost during the winter didn’t help Rhodes’ Asian pears. The trees, like cherries and peaches, need cold weather to set blossoms, and so they largely failed to bloom. Now, Rhodes expects a harvest volume just 30 percent of normal.

Indeed, the overall effects of warming on California’s most lucrative fruit crops are likely to be negative ones.

The pistachio industry, for one, is starting to suffer.

After the balmy winter and spring of 2014, the state’s pistachio crop was thick with blanks—empty shells that result when erratic temperatures throw male and female trees out of sync during bloom time. Gurreet Brar, the UC Extension farm adviser for nut crops in Fresno County, says samplings of pre-harvest 2015 pistachios are showing a high percentage of blanks, as well.

Brar says the almond industry may also be facing troubles as winters and springs become warmer.

Although almond trees are a heat-loving plant with a low requirement for chill hours, Brar says the trees pollinate less effectively during heat spells. He also says there is evidence that bees may be less effective as pollinators during warmer weather. Bees are essential for almond farmers, who pay to have millions of beehives shipped into the state from around the world during the winter bloom period.

The almond industry, in cooperation with the UC extension system, is conducting trials of about 30 new almond varieties and rootstocks that could be used to replace those that lose productivity or otherwise suffer under long-term warming trends. Some of the rootstocks show increased tolerance for high salinity levels in the soil.

“And about 10 of [the varieties] are self-fruitful,” Brar said. That means they will self-pollinate, without the assistance of bees.

While one or two anomalously hot years don’t prove anything about global climate change, the evidence that the Earth is warming seems to be stacking up as 2015 blazes by on the heels of other very warm years.

The 10 warmest years ever recorded have occurred in the past 17 years, and in California, the average April-to-September temperature has increased about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Temperatures have climbed about 1.5 degrees in the Sacramento area, while the southern deserts and coast are now 3 degrees warmer than they were in 1900.

Gregory Jones, a climatologist with Southern Oregon University, told SN&R he believes the record early harvest in the West Coast wine industry is one of the early manifestations of global warming. He notes that just three years in California since 1995 have been cooler than the long-term statewide average, while most have been a little warmer. 2010, he says, was a cooler one, while 2012, 2013 and 2014 were all warmer than average.

Now, 2015 is pacing to be the hottest year in recorded global history, Jones says.

It may hardly be a coincidence that the state’s warmest years have come with its most severe drought, and water supply problems are likely to plague farmers in the future.

Roger Boulton, a professor of enology at UC Davis, says creating a water market in which all users pay a fair rate would be a first—and very big—step toward long-term water use sustainability, since it would incentivize intensive users—like growers of alfalfa and almonds—to improve their water use efficiency.

“Under the current system, smaller communities and cities pay a lot for water so that big growers in agriculture can get water very cheaply,” Boulton said. “If people who use lots of water had to pay more for it, they’d probably think harder about how to use less of it.”

Agricultural industries, Boulton predicts, will shift geographically if a water market is created. A vineyard in Bakersfield, he explains, might need two or three times the applied water of a vineyard in Mendocino County—and farmers who must pay fairly for their water will move out of arid regions.

Such a purchasing system will select for crops that use relatively little water—like figs, which generally require about half the applied water that almonds take. Still, even farmers growing such efficient crops are already in trouble. Rhodes’ current well reaches just 150 feet of depth, and with the region’s water table now at 130 feet and dropping about a foot per month, he guesses he will be sucking dry air by the end of summer.

So the fig farmer drilled a new one 300 feet deep.

“That should get me another 10 years,” he says.

For now, the effects of warming on many farmers are almost negligible, resulting only in earlier harvest schedules.

“Harvest date is not a big deal when we have warning,” said Daniel Sumner, a professor of UC Davis’ Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Picking fruit earlier in the year is a cheap and efficient way to adapt to warming trends, he says.

The long-term solution to adapting to warming and drought may be more complex and expensive. Breeding new fruit varieties with more tolerance of aridity, pests and other adverse conditions will be important, says Katherine Pope, orchard adviser with the UC Extension program in Woodland.

However, breeding resilience into crops will take a very long time. “It takes at least 10 to 25 years to really have confidence in a new variety,” Pope said. That, she says, is because of the slow growing pace of trees, and the fact that with most fruit tree species it takes several years just to produce the first fruits. On top of that, fruit varieties that go through successful trial runs in, say, the Davis area may fail in a slightly different climate.

Pope explains that many traits which could be valuable in a drier, warmer future—like drought- and heat-tolerant rootstocks—already exist in many wild and cultivated varieties of tree crop species.

“The genes are out there,” she said. “It’s just going to take a while to get the solutions to market.”