California's 'Cantaloupe Center' struggles to reign supreme as drought pummels agriculture across the West

MENDOTA, Calif. - This small town in California's agriculture-rich Central Valley advertises itself as the "Cantaloupe Center of the World." But as relentless drought punishes California and the West, the land is drying up and the cantaloupes are disappearing.

Farmers have let large portions of their melon fields lie fallow as they struggle to get by on dramatically curtailed water supplies. Some are giving their vines barely enough water to stay alive in an effort to conserve. In other cases, fields that have already been planted will never get harvested because there's not enough water for the fruit to survive.

"We could have fields that could burn up because of lack of water," said Joe Del Bosque, who grows organic melons on a 2,000-acre farm near here and sells to high-end grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Del Bosque has cut back his melon crop by 20% this year.

"Melons are very moisture-sensitive and when they need water they will decline very quickly," he said. "They basically shrivel up and die."

Climate change and a devastating heat wave have decimated towns like Mendota this summer, and the carnage stretches far beyond fruit. Farmworkers are struggling to find employment, working fewer hours or driving long distances for jobs. Fewer workers means less spending in the community. Less money for farm suppliers, restaurants, and the small shops where people wire money to family members in Mexico and Central America. Without the water everyone needs to survive, a sense of anxiety pervades about what the future will bring.

"There's very little work," said Teofrido Fraga, 65, a longtime farmworker who used an old straw cowboy hat to shield himself from the baking afternoon sun at an auto repair shop operated by Mendota's mayor, Rolando Castro.

Fraga, a native of Michoacan, Mexico, said that he has labored in the local fields for more than 40 years, but it's getting harder to find work even as he himself slows down. Still, "while I can move, I say I have to work," Fraga said in Spanish.

At a small grocery and wire transfer store nearby, Hortencia Aceves, 52, said that sending money back home is an obligation for local residents, not a luxury they can do without. "People have to send money to their loved ones - they have to eat," said Aceves. "So maybe instead of $100 it's $80."

Population growth has slowed in Mendota, a onetime boom town thrumming with life and surrounded by lush green fields. Dusty streets give way to parched brown tracts, and agriculture packing plants sit empty and padlocked on barren lots. Mayor Castro predicted that without more water, Mendota and other nearby rural communities will turn into "ghost towns" within the next five years.

"We need people here. I don't want to be a ghost town," Castro said. "If there's no water, where are they gonna work?"

Versions of Mendota's story are playing out all over California and the West as the region parches and sizzles under nearly unprecedented drought and heat. Farmers are bulldozing down citrus groves and grinding up the trees because they can't water them, walking away from acres of farmland, selling off herds of cattle, and abandoning annual crops like tomatoes and onions to focus on nut trees they've sunk years of money, labor and water into already. It's a menu of bad options that hurts growers and the communities they are part of, while hiking up the prices of food at grocery stores.

"When you have rising temperatures, you've got early snowmelt, you've got low rainfall, you've got wildfires. It is a toxic mix for California agriculture," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said while visiting a farm near here earlier this month. "And for that matter for all of American agriculture because of the role California plays."

Vilsack said in an interview that the federal government's agriculture aid programs, many designed to address temporary problems, must be re-examined to fit what is emerging as the new normal: droughts, heat waves and wildfires that are much lengthier, fiercer and more routine than in the past.

"I think we as policymakers need to understand that this is the new reality that we're facing," Vilsack said. "Are the programs we have appropriate, and if not, how do we change them?"

Ninety-five percent of California - which grows around two-thirds of the country's fruits and nuts, including some 75% of U.S. cantaloupes - is now categorized as being in "severe drought" or higher, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center's U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The percentage of the West in the worst category, "exceptional drought," has never been higher since the monitor began in 2000.

For farmers like Joe Del Bosque, the immediate goal is to somehow make it through this growing season by juggling an array of strategies such as planting fewer crops, pumping unsustainable quantities of groundwater and purchasing water at five times its normal cost from neighbors who have some to spare. But the real concern is what happens if there is not enough snow again this winter to refresh California's water supply, and the drought continues - something meteorologists are already predicting. Many don't know if they'll be able to survive another dry year at all.

"There's a few times where I just want to go and crawl into a hole, I just don't know what to do," said Del Bosque, 72, who started his farm in 1985 and has grown it painstakingly into a profitable enterprise that employs several hundred workers. Del Bosque and his wife have six daughters and hope to hand their farm over to the next generation. Whether that will be possible is now an open question that keeps Del Bosque up at night worrying about where the water will come from, and if there will be enough.

"Everything I've worked for the last 36 years is on the line," Del Bosque said during a break from the grim work of inspecting melon fields that need more water and almond trees that are on the brink.

"This year will do damage, is doing damage, for a lot of the family farms," said Dave Puglia, head of Western Growers, which represents farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. "If the situation does not improve and we have a similar situation next year, we'll lose a large number of family farms and they won't come back because there's no cushion. "

With the bleak realities of climate change now impossible to ignore, Vilsack and others are calling for the West's water stakeholders to come together for new solutions about how to become even more efficient with water, and do more with less. At the large ranch in Helm, Calif., that Vilsack visited this month, owner Don Cameron has worked for years on a complex system of pumps aimed at capturing floodwaters and diverting them into the soil.

This year there is no floodwater to collect. But even as climate change brings tremendous drought, it can also produce the other extremes: raging storms, and winters that have less snow but more rain - precious water that must be captured and put to use.

"I firmly believe we will have floodwater again, because with climate change you experience not only the increased temperatures and the droughts," Cameron said. "The flooding should also be more intense."

A drought emergency was declared for most of the state of California in May, with most farmers receiving none of their usual irrigation water allotment. Because of that, farmers have turned to more expensive groundwater, pumping an additional 6 or 7 million acre-feet of water over usual amounts from their wells this year - an amount that far exceeds what the aquifer can replenish, experts say. Earlier this month, California's State Water Resources Control Board announced it was reducing the amount of water farmers can draw from rivers and streams, further eliminating places for farmers and ranchers to turn.

That decision stirred controversy, some directed at Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is facing a recall election next month, and has urged California residents to conserve water but not imposed any mandates. Central Valley roadways are dotted with "Recall Newsom" signs. The governor's office had no immediate comment on farmers' complaints.

Experts say California will see a drop in agricultural production this year, especially on lower-value crops that farmers may have chosen not to grow in favor of higher-value products like almonds, pistachios and grapes. Some crops, such as leafy greens, may migrate out of the state to places with more hospitable climates.

Although it's difficult to quantify the economic impact of this year's drought while it's underway, Western Growers says that drought conditions between 2014 and 2016 in California resulted in the fallowing of a half-million acres of farmland and losses of $3.8 billion in statewide economic activity. At the same time, the state is contending with other climate change-related disasters. Last year alone, storms and wildfires caused at least $560.5 million in crop damage in the state that went unreimbursed, according to USDA data.

Over the last two decades, three out of four years in California and the American West have been drought years, with a half-century warming trend superimposed on that, said Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist at the World Agricultural Outlook Board and one of the authors of the U.S. Drought Monitor. He said the dramatic warming trend is "too much for the system to handle" and that the country is already seeing movement of crops and changes in farming techniques as a result.

""The problem in the West becomes water supply - you can get water from the sky, ground or reservoirs," Rippey said. "When you have drought, you can't get it from the sky; chronic drought and you can't get it from the ground." ."

Back in Mendota, Mayor Castro and other longtime residents of the area remember when the surrounding fields were verdant and the abundance of cantaloupe provided work for anyone who wanted it. In recent years cantaloupe production in California and the United States has slowed, and many cantaloupe sold in the United States are now imported from Central America - a trend this year's drought threatens to accelerate.

As for Mendota's claim to be the "Cantaloupe Center of the World" - a slogan still emblazoned on the municipal crest - Castro acknowledged that "I can't say that anymore."