Second-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer John Diener refuses to accept the adage that history repeats itself.

History repeating itself will eventually mean the demise of the richest agricultural valley in America.

Diener, 58, farms on the West Side of the San Joaquin where he and his neighbors are fighting with one hand for fresh irrigation water to grow crops, while with the other they are challenged to economically dispose of subsurface, perched water.

Diener farms out of Five Points, Calif. He is doing everything he can think of to survive two opposing dilemmas that are like a vise squeezing him and his peers in the middle. However, is it more than personal. At stake is a major food source for a nation, and he is passionate there is no alternative but to successfully meet both challenges.

“Thirty percent of the all the processing tomatoes grown in the U.S. are produced in Fresno County; 30 percent of the country’s grapes are produced here,” he says, listing two of the myriad of facts that make Fresno County the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation.

He bristles at the notion that somehow growing food in the San Joaquin Valley is bad. Without its bounty, people will take to the streets and riot for food, he believes.

Lost in the battles over getting water to irrigate and the equally important farmland drainage issue is the unmistakable truth that it is the climate that makes the Valley so enviably productive. Diener believes most people are unaware of this one fact that makes the Valley so productive.

There is nothing you cannot grow in abundance in the San Joaquin Valley if you have the water and drainage, Diener says.

Agriculturally, California is a “Mediterranean” climate, much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of modern civilization. Today it is the dusty, desolate Iraq we see on television daily. In 2,400 B.C., the Tigris and Euphrates rivers fed water to the rich Mesopotamian valleys, which also had a Mediterranean climate. With water, a highly diversified agriculture became a key part of the birth of civilization as we know it today.

However, as John Letey, distinguished professor of soil physics at the University of California, pointed out in an article in California Agriculture, ancient history records “the turning white of the fields” of those rich valleys from salt buildup due to a lack of drainage.

“The story of Mesopotamia is ancient, but it could be repeated in California,” wrote Letey, who said 4.5 million acres of irrigated California cropland, primarily on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, are affected by saline soils or saline irrigation water. Already, Letey said tens of thousands of productive agricultural acres are “clearly at risk.”

Although imported irrigation water is relatively low in salt, Letey says 1.9 million metric tons are imported daily into the San Joaquin from irrigation water and other sources. This is the equivalent of 57 railroad cars of salt. The problem is compounded by the Valley’s alluvial soils originating from mountains that were once below sea level.

It doesn’t take history to tell Diener what his San Joaquin Valley is facing. He has seen it first hand. Land his father and uncle farmed is no longer productive from salt buildup due to a lack of drainage. He has also reclaimed salted ground to make it productive once again.

Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management

Diener refuses to accept the fact that the Valley he grew up in and now farms will become a modern day Mesopotamia.

Solutions are available and complex. Salt-laden, perched water can be gravity collected with perforated drain pipes. That water may be blended with clean water and used again to irrigate crops. If it is too salty, it can be piped to evaporation ponds where the brine is reduced to solids. A third way to dispose of the perched water would be to pipe it to the ocean.

Diener wants history reversed using a fourth method. He believes it will be from something called Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management (IFDM). A test site for the idea is nestled in a corner of his 5,000-acre Red Rock Ranch.

IFDM sounds simple; separate the salts from farmland drain water; sell the byproduct solids to industry, and either use the cleaned up water for farming or sell it as fresh water to the cities.

Either make IFDM work or quit farming, believes Diener. Costs and environmental roadblocks assure that there will never be a Valley-wide drain built to take salty water out of the San Joaquin to the ocean. Evaporation ponds for drain water are an alternative and are used in many areas. However, this takes land out of production. A rule of thumb is it takes from 5 percent to as much as 10 percent of the drained land for evaporation ponds. If you drain 100 acres, it will require five to 10 acres to be taken out of production forever as evaporation ponds. Potentially this invites ecological disaster from high concentrations of minerals in surface ponds.

Diener’s vision for the $3 million IFDM pilot project he is funding along with a host of federal and state agencies is to eventually adapt what is learned there to the entire Valley.

The IFDM project will use water purification systems like those used in hospitals and ion exchange technology to separate out the solids, which will be then be sold into industry. It reminds you of the hog farmer who proclaims he sells “everything but the squeal” from his hog operation.

“One of the products we will get from this process is soda ash, which is used in making glass. There are glass factories in California who will by the soda ash,” said Diener. Another byproduct of this process will be an acid used to clean the equipment used in processing tomato canneries.

His goal is to make IFDM pay for itself either through the sale of salt byproducts or the water. With California facing a major water availability crisis, there would be no shortage of willing municipal and agricultural buyers.

Everything Diener wants to achieve from the drain water mitigation project he calls “basic chemistry.” About 1,700 tons of salts are generated from irrigation on a section of land every year. “What we want to do is harvest that salt and do something with it … generate income from it.”

As Diener talked about the daunting goal of the IFDM process, electricity generating windmills whirled at the site, begging the parallel of Diener to “Don Quixote” and the errant fictional character’s tilting at windmills and roving journeys. After all, people have been trying to solve the drainage issue for 4,000 years.

Diener may have been insulted by the comparison, but he laughed at it.

John Diener — agricultural realist

“I like to think of myself as a realist,” he said. He does not waste time lamenting the past — like failure to build a Valley-wide drainage system to take salty water out of the region — but only sees a future of challenges to be conquered.

The Diener family is one of five to carve out farms in the Five Points area over the past century. John has been farming on his own for 30 years. His uncle and father started farming 60 years earlier.

Diener is familiar with Cervantes, as well as “Don Quixote” and its Spanish Catholic Church ties. His career took him initially to a seminary where he prepared to be a priest. He took another career path later. He finished his education with an ag econ degree at the University of California, Davis. Out of college, he was a pest control adviser for a major agchem retailer while starting to farm on his own.

He laughs at the apparent dichotomy between farming and the priesthood. “There is really not a lot of difference. You pray a lot in both professions.”

Diener’s best years of farming were the 1980s. His first year of farming was in 1980. With 300 acres he made 5 tons per acre on Yecoro Rojo wheat and sold it for $160 per ton. His cotton yielded 3.5 bales, and he sold it for 78 cents per pound. Water cost $11 per acre foot. Labor was $5.50 per hour. Yields are about the same today. Costs have doubled, tripled and quadrupled.

“Water has always been an issue for the Valley,” he noted. Water conservation and drainage are imperative to survive and that is why he is a founding director of the West Side Resource Conservation District, which acts as the conduit to programs to win government funding so farmers can upgrade their irrigation and drainage systems to stay in business.

Irrigation innovations

Diener has long been recognized over the years for his innovations. Talk to anyone on the West Side and the word “leader” will be used to describe him.

His latest commendation is the Leopold Conservation Award. This recognition centered on the drainage project. It also notes his pioneering efforts in conservation tillage as well as overhead, mechanical irrigation with center pivots.

Center pivots date bask to the 1950s and were tried early on in California. They did not work like they have in the Midwest and the Texas Panhandle for a variety of reasons. However, with sophisticated sprinkler packages that can be developed for each span to match application rates for California’s wide array of soil types, drop tubes to move the sprinkler from the top of the pivots to just above the ground, and boom systems to keep water off drive wheels and minimize machines getting stuck — California farmers are taking another look at mechanical irrigation.

However, wheels can still bog down. “I asked people with center pivots what they do and they said they put rocks or gravel down in the wheel tracks. I have spent my whole life getting rocks out of fields. I am not going to put rocks or gravel back on the land,” he laughed. Diener’s solution was to scatter orchard pruning chippings in the wheel tracks. He developed a small spreader to pull behind a tractor to deposit the chips.

“They decompose, and we put down more chips. However, eventually the tracks firm up and you don’t really need the chips,” he explained.

Labor savings with automation, as well as the ability to apply fertilizers and chemicals throughout, are also making the systems popular in California. For example, he applied the herbicide Buctril and urea in a wheat field through a drip system for less than $1 per acre in labor costs. Applying both by airplane would be $10.50 per acre.

The move to pivots and in some cases linear mechanical systems is following a 10-year offensive of growers switching to drip irrigation for field crops for reasons similar to converting to pivots. Drip was introduced into California in the mid 1970s to irrigate trees and vines. Diener irrigates with drip and micro-sprinklers on his almonds and grapes. This not only saves water, but reduces cost by allowing him to use no-till on permanent crops, which he’s done since 1997.

Dan Munk, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Fresno County, estimates that 90 percent of the processing tomatoes on the West Side of the San Joaquin are irrigated with either buried or above ground drip.

Diener uses it on his tomatoes along with the Sundance minimum tillage system for drip systems and to maintain beds and reduce tillage. He cultivates his tomatoes only twice now.

Diener has been working with Munk and Jeff Mitchell, UC conservation tillage guru, adapting strip-till and minimum tillage to grow grains and other crops under pivots. He doubled cropped wheat and corn under a pivot and harvested 11 tons per acre.

Diener was one of first in the Valley to use a yield monitor/GPS system on a combine. “I got a really good white corn contract for about 85 acres of corn. I took the yield map from the wheat and selected the best 85 acres under a pivot for the corn.” The corn yielded 9 tons per acre with minimum till and pest and nutrient management via the pivot.

Drip irrigation is a larger capital expense compared to pivots ($1,000 compared to about $500 for pivots). Growers are experimenting with tomatoes under pivots.

Irrigation labor costs are minimal to manage both drip and pivot compared to hand lines or furrow irrigation. One man can operate at least 10 135-acre pivots.

Diener is operating 11 pivots. His efforts have resulted in 35 to 40 additional pivots in the Valley, according to Munk.

Water crisis no surprise

Today’s West Side water crisis is no surprise to Diener and others. Environmental constraints; a growing California population and its impact on Delta water flow and quality and other factors have made this current water crisis far direr than past droughts.

“I never wanted more than 25 to 30 percent of the farm planted into permanent crops,” he said. He knew he would need the flexibility of open ground to manage a dwindling surface water supply.

“Water availability has always been an issue on the West Side,” he said.

However, he never expected deliveries to fall as low as the 10 percent allocation last year. That makes development of drainage water reclamation to recover usable water even more critical. Reclaimed drainage water may be the only “new” water he and his fellow farmers get for a long time.

“No one conceptualized the impact of the fish biological opinions cutting into the water supplies like they have. It is so onerous no one expected it to happen,” he said.

Farmers are in the fight of their lives over these opinions giving water to smelt and salmon, which have severely impacted water movement through the Delta.

“I think we are reaching the point where we are as efficient as we can be, and with a 10 percent water allocation, we are stretched too far,” he admitted.

The water future is more uncertain than ever. It is so tenuous, Diener predicts there will be no almonds grown in many areas of the West Side in 10 years.

Last year he was forced to fallow about 15 percent of his land to stretch his water allocation. “You have to have the dynamics of size to manage available water; to move water and crops around,” said Diener.

“We cannot compete and survive without costs today unless we grow high value crops, but there is a limit to what you can grow based on the limited water supply.”

Diener believes some growers went too far into permanent crops, and they are now in financial trouble, even with good permanent crop commodity prices.

“The thinking was that they would plant 100 percent permanent crops and make enough money to buy water. However, there is no water to sell. Why I am I going to sell my water at the expense of my trees and vines? It is not happening,” he said.

Like most West Side farmers, Diener has groundwater supplies. However, he has not drilled to the extent some have. He believes with the declining water table and what he views as impending state regulations on groundwater pumping, the capital investment is too risky.

It could be a disheartening story if someone other than John Diener were telling it.

Diener is a successful farmer/businessman. He is wealthy. He could walk away tomorrow and not look back.

However, and maybe because of his early career path, he feels responsible for the land and for people who could be fed from it.

“Ag is my bag,” he jokes. That is too trite to depict Diener. There is more to Diener than just being a farmer. He relishes growing things. He grows Camellias for a hobby. As a child growing up on the West Side, a neighbor would give him out-of-stock hardware store vegetable seed packets for Diener’s garden.

He describes his role as farmer stewardship. He rightfully bristles at criticism portraying him as a despoiler of the land. Diener wants to leave the world and the San Joaquin Valley a better place when he leaves this earth. He has invested millions to ward off consequences of water shortages and perched, salty water.

In these times, politicians and others avoid dealing with tough issues by hurling them into the future for others to resolve.

“Some people choose to kick the can down the road when it comes to challenges like water availability and drainage,” says Diener. “I choose not to.”

hcline@farmpress.com