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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

California: Grapes, Berries, Water

Grapes. California produces 100 million 19-pound boxes (or equivalents) of table grapes a year. About 60 percent remain in the US and 40 percent are exported.

Harvesting raisin grapes has been the single most labor-intensive activity in North America, involving 50,000 or more workers for six weeks. Employment has been falling as more raisin grape growers switch to mechanical harvesting; over half of the 2011 crop. The demand for harvest workers has also fallen because of declining acreage, from 280,000 in 2000 to 210,000 in 2011, the smallest acreage since the 1950s.

Raisin prices rose to record levels of $1,700 a ton in 2011, but many growers continue to replace Thompson seedless vineyards with almond and pistachio orchards. Thompson seedless grapes can also be used to make wine, and growers received $265 a ton for grapes used for wine in 2011.

An ever-larger share of raisin grape acreage is planted in the Fiesta and Selma Pete varieties that are more amenable to dried-on-the-vine mechanical harvesting.

Strawberries. California has about 38,400 acres of strawberries in 2012 yielding an average 68,000 pounds or 34 tons of strawberries; total production was 2.5 billon pounds in 2010. Workers pick strawberries into plastic-boxes that fill nine-pound trays with eight one-pound boxes or 12 pint boxes. In the mid-1970s, US strawberry production was less than 500 million pounds.

There are many small growers of strawberries, but four firms account for over 50 percent of US strawberry shipments. California strawberry production peaks between April and June, when all areas of the state are producing strawberries.

Tomatoes. Plant breeders during the 1940s discovered a gene that makes tomatoes ripen uniformly, and almost all tomatoes soon included this uniformly ripening gene. However, uniform ripening is achieved at the cost of flavor; the uniform ripening gene somehow "turned off" genes that add sugar and taste.

California accounted for half of the value of production of 24 fresh vegetables in 2011, followed by Florida with 13 percent and Arizona with 11 percent.

Water. The federal government and California have been trying to "fix" the problem of moving water from northern to southern California via the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta for the past several decades. The CALFED Bay-Delta Program launched in 1994 spent $4.2 billion before being replaced by the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force in 2006, whose 2008 recommendations were approved by the Legislature in 2009 and included in an $11.1 billion infrastructure bond scheduled to be on the November 2012 ballot that includes funding for a peripheral canal to take water around the Delta.

Moving water through the Delta results in the destruction of endangered species: the number of Delta species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act doubled between 1989 and 2012. CALFED brought together 12 state and 13 federal agencies to improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, but its projects were unable to stabilize declining species.

Cadiz, a land company that once owned Sun World, has several times tried to store water under its 34,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert, 200 miles east of Los Angeles, and sell it to urban water districts. In 2002, Cadiz almost reached an agreement with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest US water wholesaler, to pump water from the Colorado river in wet years and store it underground on 55-square miles of Cadiz-owned land in the Mojave Desert. If approved, Cadiz would have sold the water to the MWD in dry years.

In 2012, Cadiz is discussing the sale of ancient desert groundwater to the MWD. Critics immediately said that any such sale could set a precedent, allowing the purchase of marginal land to tap the water beneath it for sale, a process they consider unsustainable groundwater mining.

Cadiz loses money on its desert farming operations and had a debt of about $57 million in 2011. It hopes for subsidies to build a 43-mile pipeline to transport water from its land near the town of Cadiz to the Colorado River Aqueduct. Without subsidies, Cadiz water would cost an estimated $1,100 an acre foot, compared with MWD's charge of $850 an acre foot.

The Salton Sea, five miles long, 15 miles wide and 227 feet below sea level, was created in 1905 when the Colorado River jumped its banks during a rainy season and gushed northward for months, filling an ancient salt sink.


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