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Squeezed By Drought, California Farmers Switch To Less Thirsty Crops

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Gary Broomell and his daughter, Debbie, pose behind a sign on their ranch in San Diego County. Their family has been growing citrus for generations, but lately, it's been hard staying in the black growing oranges, so they started a vineyard a few years ago.

Water scarcity is driving California farmers to plant different crops. Growers are switching to more profitable, less-thirsty fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Nowhere is this truer than San Diego County, where water prices are some of the highest in the state.

Grapefruit trees shade the entrance to Triple B Ranches winery in northern San Diego County. The tasting room is a converted kitchen festooned with country knick knacks.

Debbie Broomell runs the boutique winery with her father, Gary. Their quaint vineyard is only a few years old. For three generations, the Broomells have grown citrus. But, it's been hard to stay in the black growing oranges.

"With the water problems and all the things that are going on, we're looking for something that takes a little less water, and grapes seem to be it," says Gary Broomell.

Adds Debbie, "It's all trying to just kind of keep farming. How do you keep farming?"

The price of water in the area has more than doubled in recent years. But vineyards require 25 percent less water than citrus. As a result, the number of wineries in San Diego County has tripled during the same time period.

But the savings might not be enough to ensure survival for the Broomells.

Debbie points to a shallow well in the middle of some grapevines.

"Dad's been cranking it down," she says, "because the water table's been dropping. We're keeping our fingers crossed that [the wells] can kind of keep producing through the summer."

Gary throws up his hands to the sky.

"We still got July, August, September, October. You know?" he says.

If the drought doesn't end soon, Gary says they'll likely have to pull out of citrus altogether. He says he's looking into persimmons as another alternative.

Eric Larson from the San Diego County Farm Bureau takes me on a drive nearby through the San Pasqual Valley. Historically, citrus and avocados have been the two leading crops in north San Diego County. But several thousand acres of citrus and more than 10,000 acres of avocados have been taken out of production.

"You end up driving by these 400-acre citrus groves that are just abandoned," Larson says. Abandoned, he says, because "they've turned the water off."

But, like the Broomells, not all farmers are giving up.

Farmers are switching to nurseries or planting unusual crops like pomegranates. Larson points to a field of dragonfruit – it "uses very, very little water," says Larson. "I guess I could best describe it as a cactus with fruit on it. [Farmers] are getting a lot of money per pound."

He says it's important to remember that not long ago, avocados were a specialty crop.

"And, it was hard to sell those things. They were called alligator pears. People didn't know what they were," explains Larson. "They got two to three cents a pound for them." But, he says, the avocado's popularity exploded as the country's Latino population grew, and more and more Mexican restaurants opened.

Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California, Davis, says the drought is intensifying a trend that was already unfolding.

"The context is that what we produce in California has been changing for 200 years," Sumner says. You go back 140 years ago, California was the second-biggest wheat state in the country. The Central Valley was dry land, wheat farming. We were second to Kansas."

As late as the 1980s, California was a leading cotton producer at 1.5 million acres. This year's cotton crop is expected to be about a tenth of that. Sumner says in today's market, cotton farmers can't make ends meet, so they're switching to almonds, pistachios or wine grapes.

But, even though water-thirsty crops like almonds are under scrutiny, Sumner expects dry times and high water prices to continue to push California's farmland away from row crops and pasture, and toward higher-value orchards and vineyards.

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