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May Dry-Farming Wheat in San Diego Seed a Native Grain Economic system?

Wheat remains to be a tiny a part of California’s economic system: In 2021, it comprised 380,000 planted acres out of 27 million, or 1.4 %, and it’s concentrated within the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys and used largely for animal forage. Desert Durum, a hybridized selection developed for pasta within the late Seventies, grows within the Imperial Valley, about 100 miles east of San Diego.

Dry-Farming in Dry California

Dryland or “dry” farming means rising crops with out added irrigation, utilizing rain and residual soil moisture in areas that obtain about 10 to twenty inches of rain per yr. The tactic incorporates planting and tilling strategies that reap the benefits of terraforms and topography to place crops the place water will movement, accumulate, and percolate by means of the soil to maintain it moist in the course of the rising season. Earlier than fashionable irrigation, “dry-farming” was simply “farming.” Because the local weather adjustments, it’s turning into a resilience technique to deal with much less water. California farmers additionally dry-farm wine grapes, tomatoes, squash, and beans.

“Dryland wheat is more likely to increase in California as scarcer water assets go to worthwhile crops.”

Some 120 to 130 years in the past—when California was the nation’s breadbasket—many of the crop relied solely on rainfall. “Ten years in the past, 80 % of California wheat was irrigated,” stated Carter. “Now some small-scale farmers are attempting a dryland strategy.”

Wheat is much less water intensive than most of California’s different crops, making it well-suited to dry farming: It may be planted in winter, in the course of the “wet” season, and it’s one of many few crops that “will produce economically beneath dryland situations,” wrote a USDA analysis soil scientist in Riverside again in 1970. Now, with limits on aquifer pumping imposed on growers by the Sustainable Groundwater Administration Act (SGMA), dry-farming wheat could also be a viable different to letting fields go fallow as a consequence of lack of water.

College of California, Davis, has a number of research on dry-farming or diminished irrigation, together with a challenge to breed drought-resilient wheat. Research present {that a} hybrid mannequin—including simply 4 to eight inches of irrigation to complement pure rainfall—could possibly be the candy spot for each wheat and water conservation.

Terry Ellis works as an engineer for protection contractor Northrop-Grumman in the course of the day and bakes at night time and on weekends. (Picture credit score: Leorah Gavidor)

“Dryland wheat is more likely to increase in California as scarcer water assets go to worthwhile crops,” stated U.C. Davis agricultural economics professor Daniel Sumner. “It is smart as a substitute of leaving unused fields unplanted. In good rain years, it could actually yield a harvest; in dryer years, it may be used for forage.”

That’s already occurring in San Diego, with profitable outcomes. Ernie Klemm, forage supervisor at Konyn Dairy in San Pasqual Valley, has been dry-farming grains for 50 years—as meals for cattle. Klemm oversees unirrigated fields of triticale and beardless barley, which grew to be 5.5 toes excessive on this exceptionally wet yr. However Klemm says he sees a good harvest even in dry years.

Fortunate for Reeske and the bakers, this was not a dry yr. By March, Valley Heart had acquired 15 to twenty inches of rainfall, about 150 to 200 % above regular. Dry-farming wheat in San Diego appears viable in a wet yr like this one, however it’s onerous to forecast how the seeds would do in a drought.

Avocados or Grains?

North American grain manufacturing is usually concentrated within the Nice Plains, the place infrastructure and lifestyle have supported the Grain Belt economic system for over 100 years. It’s onerous for smaller grain producers in different areas to compete. In San Diego, the main focus for farmers for the previous 100 to 125 years has been citrus and avocado, which don’t develop effectively in lots of different locations.

In 2020, avocados occupied 14,500 acres, the biggest share of planted acreage in San Diego County, and introduced in nearly $153 million. Complete citrus gross sales had been $146 million. Hay and oats, the one grains on the county’s crop report, introduced in nearly $500,000.

Valley Heart bean farmer Mike Reeske donated a half-acre to the wheat-growing experiment. (Picture credit score: Leorah Gavidor)

A 2020 College of California Cooperative Extension examine on double-planting avocado bushes (which San Diego growers do to maximise water effectivity) estimated $10,000 internet revenue per acre; internet returns for wheat within the Sacramento Valley, at most yield and highest market worth, had been $117 per acre in 2016, when the value per bushel was about $4. Wheat costs set information lately as a result of battle in Ukraine, when bushel worth hit a excessive of $11.02 in March 2022.

Additionally in 2022, San Diego avocados introduced in lower than $100 million for the primary time in additional than 25 years. Productiveness of bushes dropped almost 50 % as a consequence of drought, although costs rose. Water prices and availability are main concerns. In Valley Heart, an acre-foot of water for ag functions prices $1,900, in comparison with about $80 in Kansas, the nation’s high wheat-producing state. An acre of avocados wants about 4 acre-feet, or about 40 to 50 inches of rain; wheat wants 12 to fifteen inches.

Water is barely a part of the equation. “In San Diego and Los Angeles, the largest problem to wheat manufacturing is land value,” stated Carter on the Wheat Fee. “Land value has pushed out lower-value crops. Farmers ask themselves, ‘Why am I promoting wheat for $4 a bushel when that was the identical quantity my grandpa was getting for it?’”

Agricultural land values for avocados in San Diego and Riverside counties ranged from $13,300 to $35,000 per acre in 2020, whereas the typical is $4,610 in Kansas. Value to lease farmland in San Diego is thrice the nationwide common. That makes lower-profit wheat a reasonably onerous promote.

Some San Diego citrus and avocado growers are transitioning to different much less thirsty crops, like wine grapes, to squeeze some revenue from the land whereas decreasing water use. Jameson Meust, who works on water effectivity with Mission Useful resource Conservation District, is fascinated about rising wheat as a canopy crop in vineyards, although it hasn’t taken off in San Diego.

Reaping the Advantages—Actually

The California Wheat Fee touts the grain’s worth as a rotational crop to assist handle illness and enhance soil situations. Ellis the baker hopes small farms in San Diego will need to incorporate wheat into their rotations and complement their revenue, whereas reaping the soil well being advantages.

Klemm sees these advantages firsthand at Konyn Dairy. Rising grain not solely feeds hungry cows, Klemm stated; it additionally helps him retain topsoil, develop soil construction, and enhance water filtration. However Klemm and the dairy are usually not involved with separating the chaff and milling the wheat. They simply lower it, bale it, and feed it to the cows. They usually don’t fear about constant high quality, like Ellis and Velazquez would want for baking. Craig “Dr. Okay” Kolodge, who manages soils and compost for the dairy, stated it will be robust to make sure predictable yield on rainwater alone.

Even with a gentle provide, processing wheat in San Diego can be a problem. However Lauren Silver, who mills flour recent day by day at her bakery in Pacific Seaside, about 10 miles north of downtown San Diego, sees native wheat as a rising pattern.



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