What is in this article?:
- Cardella Ranch is a family-owned, 3,000-acre farm with two-thirds row crops and one-third permanent crops located near Mendota, Calif.
- The mix includes 1,000 acres of processing and fresh tomatoes, 500 acres of almonds, 300 acres of fresh-market onions, 150 acres of Pima cotton, and 500 acres of wine grapes.
- Ninety-eight percent of the grapes are sold to large wineries throughout California. Nathan Cardella crafts the remainder into estate wine.
- Cardella wines have earned 20-plus awards including gold medals for Sangiovese and Merlot at last year’s 2011 Finger Lakes (New York) International Wine Competition.
In addition to California’s ongoing battle with drought, the water shortage is also caused by environmental activists who advocate maintaining water in the Delta region to the north for fish habitat — reducing water releases to the south.
“The water outlook on the West Side is grim,” Cardella explained. “The politics surrounding the water issue forces farmers to speculate on which crops to grow without knowing if the water will be available. Current dead orchards illustrate where some farmers guessed wrong.”
In 2010, the Cardellas fallowed 1,000 acres due to water reductions. No acreage was fallowed last year. About 700 acres are fallowed this year with a 40 percent federal water allocation.
Overall, the Cardellas have managed to stay above water despite the water shortage by striking a balance between permanent and row crops. When the federal water allocation is zero percent, the row crop fields can be fallowed while the trees and vines are watered.
Nathan Cardella credits the farm’s miserly use of water on several other factors. The farm’s 100 percent use of surface and subsurface irrigation saves large amounts of water annually. Surface drip irrigation waters the orchards and vineyards. Subsurface drip waters the row crops.
The area’s heavy Panoche sandy-loam soil has good water-holding capacity which also helps. The use of tomato transplants, instead of seeds, save several inches of water annually on the 1,000 acres of tomatoes.
“We look at water like a truck driver looks at diesel,” Cardella said. “We can tell you almost to the gallon how much we are spending. We are as efficient with water as we can be, but the noose is still getting tighter.”
Cardella added, “Water is a sore subject out here. It dominates conversations. When farmers gather, they talk about water instead of which growing methods do and do not work.”
The price tag this year for federal water for the Cardellas is $120 per acre foot. The Cardellas purchased additional surface water on the open market at $350 per acre foot.
Well water is a last resort. It cost about $200 per acre foot to lift water from 800-foot to 1,000-foot-deep wells to the surface, then treat the water for high sodium content (1,800 parts per million), and run the water to the fields.
In the vineyards, Cardella wine grapes grown for the large wineries receive 2.5 to 2.75 acre feet of water annually. The grapes for estate wines, which are grown differently, can get by with 1 to 1.5 acre feet of water.
The annual rainfall in the area measures about 8 inches annually.