Changing history of San Joaquin Valley

By Harry Cline (Western Farm Press, Mar 8, 2010)

Second-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer John Diener refuses to accept the adage that history repeats itself. If it does, he says, it could eventually bring the demise of the richest agricultural valley in America.

JOHN DIENER, Five Points, Calif., stands beside one of 11 center pivots he operates on his farm. This is a field of winter wheat.

Diener, 58, farms out of Five Points, Calif., on the West Side of the San Joaquin, where he and his neighbors are fighting on one hand for fresh irrigation water to grow crops, while on the other they are challenged to economically dispose of subsurface, perched water.

He is doing everything he can think of to survive two opposing forces that are like a vise squeezing him and his peers in the middle.

For Diener, it is more than personal — at stake, he contends, is a major food source for a nation, and he believes passionately that there is no alternative but to successfully meet both challenges.

“Thirty percent of the all the processing tomatoes grown in the U.S. are produced in Fresno County; 30 percent of the country’s grapes are produced here,” he says, listing two of the myriad of facts that make it the No. 1 agricultural county in the nation.

He bristles at the notion that somehow growing food in the San Joaquin Valley is bad. Without its bounty, he believes, people would take to the streets and riot for food.

Lost in the battles over getting water to irrigate and the equally important farmland drainage issue is the unarguable truth — of which Diener believes most people are unaware — that it is the climate that makes the Valley so enviably productive.

“There is nothing you can’t grow in abundance in the San Joaquin Valley, if you have the water and drainage,” he says.

Agriculturally, California is a Mediterranean climate, much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of modern civilization (today, the dusty, desolate Iraq seen on television daily). In 2400 B.C., the Tigris and Euphrates rivers fed water to the rich Mesopotamian valleys, creating a highly diversified agriculture.

But, as John Letey, distinguished professor of soil physics at the University of California, pointed out in California Agriculture article, history also records “the turning white of the fields” in those rich valleys due to salt buildup from a lack of drainage.

“The story of Mesopotamia could be repeated in California,” wrote Letey, who says 4.5 million acres of irrigated cropland, primarily on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, are affected by saline soils or saline irrigation water. Already, he says, tens of thousands of productive agricultural acres are “clearly at risk.”

Although imported irrigation water is relatively low in salt, Letey says 1.9 million metric tons of salt are imported daily into the San Joaquin from irrigation water and other sources — the equivalent of 57 railroad cars full of salt. The problem is compounded by the Valley’s alluvial soils that originated from mountains that were once below sea level.

Diener doesn’t need history to know what his San Joaquin Valley is facing. He has seen it firsthand. Land his father and uncle farmed is no longer productive because of salt buildup from a lack of drainage. He has also reclaimed salted ground to make it productive once again.

Despite what he sees, he refuses to accept the fact that the Valley he grew up in and now farms is fated to become a modern-day Mesopotamia.

Solutions are available, butcomplex. Salt-laden, perched water can be gravity collected with perforated drain pipes and blended with clean water to irrigate crops. If it is too salty, it can be piped to evaporation ponds, where the brine is reduced to solids. A third way to dispose of perched water is to pipe it to the ocean.

But, Diener wants to reverse history by using a fourth method, called Integrated On-Farm Drainage Management (IFDM). A test site for the idea is nestled in a corner of his 5,000-acre Red Rock Ranch.

IFDM sounds simple — separate the salts from farmland drain water, sell the byproduct solids to industry, and either use the cleaned-up water for farming or sell it as fresh water to the cities.“Either make IFDM work or quit farming,” says Diener.

Costs and environmental roadblocks insure that there will never be built a Valley-wide drain to take salty water out of the San Joaquin to the ocean. Evaporation ponds for drain water are an alternative in use in many areas, but they take land out of production. (A rule of thumb is that it takes from 5 percent to as much as 10 percent of the drained land for evaporation ponds. To drain 100 acres requires five to 10 acres to be taken out of production forever as evaporation ponds. Potentially, this invites ecological disaster from high concentrations of minerals in surface ponds.)

Diener’s vision for the $3 million IFDM pilot project he is funding, along with a host of federal and state agencies, is to eventually adapt what is learned to the entire Valley.

The project will use water purification systems like those in hospitals, and ion exchange technology to separate out the solids, which will be then be sold to industry. It’s similar to the hog farmer who proclaims he sells “everything but the squeal.”

“One of the products we’ll get from this process is soda ash, which is used in making glass,” says Diener. “There are glass factories in California that will buy the ash.” Another byproduct of this process is an acid that can be used to clean equipment in processing tomato canneries.

His goal is to make IFDM pay for itself, either through the sale of salt byproducts or water. With California facing a major water availability crisis, he believes there would be no shortage of willing municipal and agricultural buyers.

Everything Diener wants to achieve from the drain water mitigation project is, he says, “basic chemistry.” About 1,700 tons of salts are generated from irrigation on a section of land each year. “What we want to do is harvest that salt and do something with it — generate income from it.”

As Diener talks about the daunting goals of the IFDM process, electricity-generating windmills are whirling at the site, evoking comparisons of him and Don Quixote, the errant fictional character tilting at windmills on his roving journeys. After all, people have been trying to solve drainage issues for 4,000 years.

Diener laughs at the comparison. “I like to think of myself as a realist,” he says.

He is familiar with Cervantes and “Don Quixote” and its Spanish Catholic Church ties. His career path took him initially to a seminary for preparation to become a priest. Later, he changed course and finished his education with an ag econ degree at the University of California, Davis. After college, he was a pest control adviser for a major ag chem retailer while starting to farm on his own.

He laughs at the apparent dichotomy between farming and the priesthood. “There is really not a lot of difference — you pray a lot in both professions.”

He doesn’t waste time lamenting the past — such as the failure to build a Valley-wide drainage system to take salty water out of the region. Rather, he sees a future of challenges to be conquered.

The Diener family is one of five to carve out farms in the Five Points area over the past century. John has been farming on his own for 30 years, carrying on the business his uncle and father started 60 years earlier.

His best years of farming, he says, were the 1980s. He began farming in 1980 with 300 acres; he made 5 tons per acre with Yecoro Rojo wheat and sold it for $160 per ton; his cotton yielded 3.5 bales, and he sold it for 78 cents per pound. Water cost $11 per acre foot. Labor was $5.50 per hour.

Yields are about the same today, he notes, but costs over the years have doubled, tripled, and quadrupled.

“Water has always been an issue for the Valley,” he says. “Water conservation and drainage are imperative for survival.” He is a founding director of the West Side Resource Conservation District, which acts as the conduit for programs to win government funding so farmers can upgrade irrigation and drainage systems to stay in business.

Diener has long been recognized for his innovations. Talk to anyone on the West Side and the word “leader” will be used to describe him.

His latest commendation is the Leopold Conservation Award, recognition centered on the drainage project. It also cites his pioneering efforts in conservation tillage as well as overhead, mechanical irrigation with center pivots.

Center pivots date to the 1950s, but for a variety of reasons, they didn’t work like they did in the Midwest and the Texas Panhandle. However, with sophisticated sprinkler packages that can be developed for each span to match application rates for California’s wide array of soil types, drop tubes to move the sprinkler from the top of the pivots to just above the ground, and boom systems to keep water off drive wheels and minimize machines getting stuck, California farmers are taking another look at mechanical irrigation.

Wheels can still bog down, though. “I asked growers with center pivots what they do when that happens, and they said they put rocks or gravel in the wheel tracks.” He laughs. “I’ve spent my entire life getting rocks out of fields. I’m not going to put rocks or gravel back on the land.”

Diener’s solution is to scatter orchard pruning chippings in the wheel tracks. He developed a small spreader to pull behind a tractor to deposit the chips. “When they decompose, we put down more chips. Eventually, the tracks firm up and we don’t really need the chips.”

Labor savings from automation, as well as the ability to apply fertilizers and chemicals through irrigation systems, are making them more popular in California. For example, he applied the herbicide Buctril and urea on a wheat field via a drip system for less than $1 per acre labor cost. That compares to $10.50 per acre by airplane.

The move to pivots, and in some cases linear mechanical systems, follows a 10-year offensive by growers switching to drip irrigation for field crops. Drip was introduced into California in the mid-1970s to irrigate trees and vines. Diener irrigates almonds and grapes with drip and micro-sprinklers, not only saving water, but reducing costs by allowing him to use no-till on permanent crops, which he’s done since 1997.

Dan Munk, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Fresno County, estimates that 90 percent of the processing tomatoes on the West Side of the San Joaquin are irrigated with either buried or above-ground drip systems.

Diener uses it on his tomatoes, with a Sundance minimum tillage system for drip systems and to maintain beds and reduce tillage. He now cultivates tomatoes only twice.

Diener has been working with Munk and Jeff Mitchell, UC conservation tillage guru, to adapt strip-till and minimum tillage to grow grains and other crops under pivots. He doubled-cropped wheat and corn under a pivot and harvested 11 tons per acre.

He was one of first in the Valley to use a yield monitor/GPS system on a combine. “I got a really good white corn contract for about 85 acres of corn. I took the yield map from the wheat and selected the best 85 acres under a pivot for the corn.” It yielded 9 tons per acre with minimum till and pest/nutrient management via the pivot.

Drip irrigation is a larger capital expense than pivots ($1,000 versus about $500 for pivots). Growers are experimenting with tomatoes under pivots.

Irrigation labor costs are minimal to manage both drip and pivot compared to hand lines or furrow irrigation. One man can operate at least 10 135-acre pivots.

Diener is operating 11 pivots. His efforts have resulted in 35 to 40 additional pivots in the Valley, Munk says.

Today’s West Side water crisis is no surprise to Diener and others. Environmental constraints, a growing California population and its impact on Delta water flow and quality, and other factors have made the current water crisis far more dire than those in the past.

“I never wanted more than 25 percent to 30 percent of the farm in permanent crops,” he says, because he knew he would need the flexibility of open ground to manage a dwindling surface water supply. “Water availability has always been an issue on the West Side.”

But, he never expected deliveries to fall as low as the 10 percent allocation last year. That kind of scenario makes development of drainage water reclamation even more critical, he says. Reclaimed drainage water may be the only “new” water he and his fellow farmers get for a long time.

“No one conceptualized the impact of the fish biological opinions cutting into the water supplies like they have. It is so onerous no one expected it to happen.”

Farmers are in the fight of their lives over these judicial opinions, giving water to smelt and salmon, which have severely impacted water movement through the Delta.

“I think we are reaching the point where we are as efficient as we can be,” he says, “and with a 10 percent water allocation, we are stretched too far.”

The future for water is more uncertain than ever, he says, predicting that in 10years there will be no almonds grown in many areas of the West Side.

Last year he was forced to fallow about 15 percent of his land to stretch his water allocation. “You have to have the dynamics of size to manage available water — to move water and crops around. We can’t compete and survive with our costs today unless we grow high value crops. But, there is a limit to what we can grow based on the limited water supply.”

Diener believes some growers went too far into permanent crops, and are now in financial trouble, even with good commodity prices. “The thinking was that they would plant 100 percent permanent crops and make enough money to buy water. But, there is no water to sell. Why would I sell my water at the expense of my trees and vines? It is not happening.”

Like most West Side farmers, Diener has groundwater supplies, but he hasn’t drilled wells to the extent some have. With the declining water table and what he views as impending state regulations on groundwater pumping, he feels the capital investment is too risky.

All this could be a disheartening story — if someone other than John Diener were telling it.

He is a successful farmer/businessman. He is wealthy. He could walk away from farming tomorrow and not look back.

But — and maybe because of his early career path — he feels responsible for the land and for people who could be fed from it.

“Ag is my bag,” he jokes. But, that is too trite to depict Diener. There is more to him than just being a farmer. He relishes growing things. He grows camellias for a hobby. As a child growing up on the West Side, a neighbor would give him out-of-stock hardware store vegetable seed packets for his garden.

Diener describes his role as farmer stewardship, and bristles at criticism portraying him as a despoiler of the land. He wants to leave the world and the San Joaquin Valley a better place when he leaves this earth. He has invested millions to ward off consequences of water shortages and perched, salty water.

In these times, when politicians and others avoid dealing with tough issues by leaving for others to resolve in the future, he says, “Some people choose to kick the can down the road when it comes to challenges like water availability and drainage. I choose not to.” Source

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