In a recent survey commissioned by the California Avocado Commission (CAC) and the Southern California Agricultural Water Team (SCAWT), urban Southern Californians supported both discounted prices and a high priority for water supplied to farms in Southern California.

When asked: “Some farms and ranches in your area pay about 15 percent less for water than you pay because the water is used for agricultural production. Do you support or oppose such a discount for agricultural water users?” some 72 percent of those responding supported the reduced-cost water.

Some agricultural water users served by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California receive this discount for water purchased from Metropolitan's member agencies. In exchange, these farmers have a long-term agreement that during shortages they would take up to a 30 percent reduction in water deliveries before urban users would face reduced supplies.

Similarly, 77 percent of respondents said they would support laws or regulations making it easier for farmers and ranchers to continue operating in urban areas. The survey had a 5 percent margin of error.

Don Reeder, former chairman of SCAWT and an active community leader and fruit farmer in Somis, Calif., said the survey was completed by an independent research firm in response to ongoing negative reports by state news media on agricultural water users and potential reductions in water use if drought conditions develop.

“Those farmers receiving discounts for agricultural water will accept reductions in water use if necessary,” Reeder said. “That's the deal we struck in order to stay in business. But we needed to find out if there was general support among the 17 million people living on the coastal plain of Southern California for helping farmers and ranchers stay in business, even in the face of potential shortages.

See ag importance

“Needless to say, we were gratified to learn that a very substantial number of non-farmers and ranchers recognize the importance of agriculture to the economy and the importance of orchards and field crops as worthwhile scenic breaks from buildings, housing tracts and highways.”

Asked if, during a long-term drought, agricultural users should be cut back in amounts equal to urban users, 49 percent of those responding said farmers and ranchers should not be cut back while 42 percent said reductions should be equal across all water users.

Because Southern California relies heavily on tourism, respondents were asked whether farming and ranching activities in the region were economically more important or less important than tourism. Nearly 65 percent correctly noted that agriculture is more important to the economy than is tourism.

Reeder said a comprehensive study done several years ago shows that in Metropolitan's service area, agriculture contributes about $16 billion to the economy including maintaining some 287,000 jobs. In addition, agricultural processing adds another $39 billion and 265,000 jobs.

“Tourism gets a lot of play in the media,” Reeder said, “so we were somewhat surprised that so many people recognize the significance of agriculture here in Southern California. The biggest surprise, however, was the number of people who agreed with the statement, ‘Setting aside any economic impact, some people appreciate the visual aspects of fields of crops, vineyards and orchards as they drive through these types of areas. Do you agree or disagree that farms and ranches provide an important, pleasant visual experience in an urban area?’

Positive impact

Nearly 85 percent of those surveyed confirmed the importance of the positive visual impact of crops and orchards as open space. “The survey was completed by Mitchell Research of East Lansing Michigan. Respondents were chosen at random across the six-county area served by Metropolitan. The number of respondents in each county was adjusted to account for the huge population differences among the counties. Homeowners made up 70 percent of the respondents and respondents' ages were evenly distributed from age 18 to age 70 and above. Only about half of those surveyed had an idea of how much their water bill is each month. Of those who said they did not know the amount of their monthly bill, 57 percent couldn't even guess how much they paid monthly.

“I think this tells us that monthly water bills aren't too important to most homeowners,” Reeder said, “but to a farmer or rancher paying upwards of $800 an acre-foot for water (compared to $15-$40 in other parts of the state), water is clearly a major cost of doing business.”

(An acre-foot of water supplies two average families for a year for both indoor and outdoor residential use. A typical grower in Southern California uses about three acre-feet of water each year, per acre of crops.)

The gender breakdown for respondents was 48 percent male and 52 percent female. Annual household income ranged from under $30,000 to more than $100,000.

In their synopsis to the survey results, Mitchell Research said, “Clearly, there is strong support for maintaining farms and ranches in urban areas within this region of California. Residents understand the importance of farming/ranching on the economy; two-thirds stated that they agree that farming and ranching in the region is more important than tourism.

Seventy-seven percent of all respondents support laws and regulations that would make it easier for farms and ranches to operate in these urban areas.

“Perhaps, most important, is the fact that residents understand and appreciate the visual appeal that area farms and ranches have in the region. Eight-five percent of all respondents agree that farms and ranches provide an ‘important, pleasant visual experience in an urban area.’

“Residents are willing to allow farms and ranches to receive discounted water rates however; they are split on whether or not farms and ranches should have to cut back on water use during drought weather.”