A combination of forces, including wildfires, drought, and an ongoing pandemic, have led to several very difficult years for farmers and farm workers in California’s Sonoma County. Mauritson Farms, a producer of premium wine grapes in the region, saw its crop yield for 2021 drop 15 to 30%. The county has enforced strict water regulations for growers along the Russian River, many of whom lacked access to any other water source. Even if farms’ yields were close to normal this year, a dry growing season can mean lower crop capacities in the following year.
Several solutions have been offered to help deal with the ongoing water shortage in the area. Dry farming, a practice which involves very limited watering of plants, could be an option for some farmers. However, it is not suitable for all types of crops. Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore believes that the region should ban lawns, as ornamental landscaping unnecessarily uses a lot of the area’s limited water.
As wastewater regulations in the area grow stricter, there will likely emerge an opportunity for water recycling. Currently, the Russian River is being polluted by sewage disposal. A future system would need to take this wastewater, treat it, and make it available to residents again. That recycled water could also be used for irrigation of the area’s farms.
The pandemic has also brought a lot of stress for Sonoma County’s farmers. As the cost of labor continues to rise, farmers have struggled to find and hire enough workers. In addition, many area restaurants have closed (either temporarily or permanently) over the last few years, leading to a decreased demand overall for the crops themselves.
Many of Sonoma County’s farmers have found ways to adapt over the years to the changing growing conditions brought on by Mother Nature. This new challenge, a combination of water shortages, labor issues, wildfires, and a pandemic, may be the biggest test these farmers will ever face. Supporting them, both economically and with proper regulations, should be top priority if the area wants to continue seeing these small, independent businesses thrive.
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