Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Erik and Doniga Markegard assess the damage the drought has caused on their Half Moon Bay cattle ranch.
Although the governor’s drought declaration is less than a month old, San Mateo County farmers and ranchers have been struggling with dry conditions for years and are fearful it will continue.
Agricultural workers in the county rely on water sourced from wells, rainfall and reservoirs that capture from creeks or ponds. The drought is acutely daunting to those who are at the mercy of the weather, said John Muller, a Half Moon Bay councilman and farmer.
“I don’t think there’s too many farmers in this world that don’t wake up in the middle of the night not worrying about growing conditions or weather conditions,” Muller said.
Often when a crop is out of season, a farmer plants cover vegetation to capture moisture, deter erosion and put nutrients back into the soil, Muller said. Poor soil quality can affect what’s grown for years and he’ll probably purchase fewer seeds and harvest less produce, Muller said.
The Westland Water District serves approximately 600,000 acres of agriculture lands in the San Joaquin Valley. Because of the drought, about 200,000 acres may be fallowed this year and there will be less produce, Muller said.
“That’s huge. That’s frightening to think of that,” Muller said. “There could definitely be a spike in food costs. Cattleman are having to sell their cattle, dairy farmers are worrying about fee costs. It’s a huge chain reaction that impacts all of us in America. California does produce a major portion of our food products for America and the world.”
Doniga Markegard runs a cattle ranch with her husband Erik and their four children in Half Moon Bay. They’re dedicated stewards of their land and manage strictly grass-fed cows with strong heritage breed bloodlines, Markegard said. They’ve spent 26 years building on the genetics of their cattle and their 1,000 acres of farmland is withering the drought, Markegard said.
“This is by far the worst conditions we’ve ever experienced,” Markegard said.
They usually work on rotational grazing but three years of minimal rainfall has dried much of their land so they’re supplementing with expensive hay, Markegard said.
“We’ve been having to import feed like we’ve never have before and it’s really costly and we’re having to make some really difficult decisions for our cattle operations,” Markegard said.
Many cattle ranchers have two options, grow their own grass or depend on the increasingly expensive imported feed, said Fred Crowder, San Mateo County agricultural commissioner.
“We have cattleman that are reliant on winter grass and there just isn’t any and they’re really concerned because they’re having to buy grass and feed,” Crowder said.
It’s a chain reaction; as the demand for feed increases, prices skyrocket, said Bill Gass, executive director of the San Mateo County Farm Bureau.
“[The drought is] already affecting them because they rely on new grass. Usually new grass is already pretty established by now,” Gass said. “So there would usually be a fair amount, but it’s not happening. Coupled with the fact that hay prices have risen dramatically, it’s prohibitively expensive for them to rely on grass that’s [imported,]” Gass said.
With increasing costs, some will sell off their livestock and thin their herd to be more manageable during the drought, Gass said.
Markegard’s family ranch is an animal welfare certified operation so she said they’re not able to sell at auction. They usually send younger cows to slaughter but they’ve been sending breeding cows instead. When they’re forced to sell a healthy heifer, they lose out on every calf she could have born, Markegard said. The drought is disrupting the genetics they’ve spent decades refining, Markegard said.
“We’ve brought in bloodlines and we’ve been preserving this heritage breed which has been very costly for us to build up to this point and, with this drought, it’s going to set us off our trajectory,” Markegard said.
Although everyone’s situation is different, those who are selling off their livestock will eventually feel the sting of the market after the drought subsides, said Half Moon Bay cattleman Bob Marsh.
“Everybody’s in the same situation, so the price would be sky high to build their herd back,” Marsh said.
Being proactive and having new wells drilled on farmland has also become competitive, Gass said.
“Because of concerns about other sources of water that might be unavailable or curtailed, people around the state are putting in new wells. And I understand well drillers are just swamped, they’re backlogged, there’s a waiting list because they’re so busy right now,” Gass said.
With less access to water, they grow fewer commodities and the job market is plummeting, Muller said.
“It’s your income number one, and employing individuals that help us all on our farms. So we’re all very concerned about employment and also for the financial aspect that we do need to have something to sell if we’re going to survive and we’re all looking pretty thin right now,” Muller said.
Produce growers are on the edge of their seats, especially those whose smaller wells or reservoirs are drying up quickly. They’re trying to stay positive, but weather conditions will determine what people can afford to grow, Muller said.
There’s still time for an easier recovery if the county sees a significant rainfall between now and March, Gass said. But for many ranchers, their livestock has already become difficult to maintain and they’ve dramatically reduced production. As a major national agricultural producer, the effects of California’s drought will extend far past state lines, Gass said.
“The long-term effects of this drought is more than one year, if it goes into multiple years, we could see a significant increase in the cost of food,” Gass said. “It could affect the whole system.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106