As It Happens

California's drought is hitting farmers hard — and it could impact your grocery bills

Canadians can likely expect to shell out more for their groceries in the near future thanks to a devastating drought in California, says farmer Joe Del Bosque.

The state is a major source of nuts, fruits and veggies for the global market, including Canada

Farmer Joe Del Bosque walks through a newly planted field of melons in Firebaugh, Calif., on May 25. Del Bosque has abandoned his asparagus crops this year in the hopes of conserving enough water for a marketable melon crop. (Norma Galeana/Reuters)

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Canadians can likely expect to shell out more for their groceries in the near future thanks to a devastating drought in California, says farmer Joe Del Bosque.

A water shortage in the state has forced Del Bosque to leave nearly one third of his 2,000-acre farm in Firebaugh, Calif., unseeded this year — and he's not alone.

"We're at risk of losing crops that are already planted, and we've never been in this situation before," Del Bosque told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"This is going to reach out to Canada for sure."

California feeds the world 

California is currently facing one of its worst droughts in decades.

Farmers across the state say they expect to receive little water from state and federal agencies that regulate California's reservoirs and canals, leading many to leave fields barren.

The implications could be far-reaching. California is a major source of fruits, vegetables, berries and nuts for the American and global markets. 

The state supplies more than one third of all vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts in the U.S., according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. It's also the primary source of many of Canada's imported fruits and vegetables. In 2019, Canada imported $4.3 billion worth of nuts, produce and vegetables from California, according to the federal government.

Some of these crops are probably going to die on the vine, so to speak.- Joe Del Bosque, California farm owner 

The state of California allocates water to farmers based on seniority and need. But farmers say the water needs of cities combined with environmental restrictions are reducing agricultural access.

Already, farmers are being forced to make tough choices.

Farm owner Stuart Woolf told Reuters he may leave 30 per cent of his land unseeded. He operates 30,000 acres of farmland, most of it in Western Fresno County.

"I'm going to be reducing some of our almond acreage. I may be increasing some of our row crops, like tomatoes,"  Woolf said.

Farm workers at Del Bosque Farms prepare to plant watermelons. Del Bosque says there's less work this year for the more than 700 people he usually employs. (Norma Galeana/Reuters)

Del Bosque — who grows melons, asparagus, sweet corn, almonds and cherries — said his operation could lose more than half a million dollars in income.

He's already decided to leave his asparagus unharvested in the hopes of conserving enough water for his melons. 

"It could get uglier as the summer goes on because a lot of us were anticipating some of this water to be delivered to us in time for for the summer when crops use most of their water," he said.

"It's very possible that if it doesn't get transferred here, that some of these crops are probably going to die on the vine, so to speak."

Less work to go around 

Fewer crops to harvest also means less work for Del Bosque's 700 employees, many of work only during the busy season and return year after year. 

"If there is no water, there is no work. And for us farm workers, how are we going to support the family?" said 57-year-old Pablo Barrera, who was planting watermelons for Del Bosque.

It's something very personal for Del Bosque, whose own family is descended from Mexican migrant farm workers. 

"It's very difficult. Many of these workers have been with us for a long time. Some of them have been with us for over 20 years," he said.

"They were young when they came to work for us, and even some of their children come work for us in the summer, you know, when they're on vacation from school or college."

Del Bosque and other farmers say the drought has been exacerbated by California's lack of investment in water storage infrastructure over the last 40 years.

"Fundamentally, a storage project is paid for by the people who want the water," said Jeanine Jones, drought manager for California's Department of Water Resources. "All we can do is deliver what mother nature provides."

Building more dams isn't the answer either. New dam projects face environmental restrictions meant to protect endangered fish and other wildlife, and won't solve near-term water needs in time to save this year's harvests, said Ernest Conant, regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, California-Great Basin region, the federal agency that overseas dams, canals and water allocations in the Western United States.

"We simply don't have enough water to supply our agricultural users," said Conant. "We're hopeful some water can be moved sooner than October, but there's no guarantees."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Joe Del Bosque produced by Katie Geleff. 

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