Water conservation high priority for Muller Ranch in Woodland
By Sarah Dowling
Published in Daily Democrat: Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 4:55 pm
With high temperatures and no rain, many local farmers are struggling to water their crops.
The drought has been the chief topic of conversation for workers at Muller Ranch in Woodland. The ranch, located off County Road 95, has several thousand acres, including almond and walnut orchards, wheat, cucumbers, wine grapes, peppers, tomato crops and more.
Colin Casey Muller, a manager at the ranch, is a third-generation farmer, who wasn't initially sure if he wanted to follow the path of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Muller majored in kinesiology at Arizona State University, wanting to do something new and different from the family business, but returned to the ranch two years ago, taking the farm manager position.
"My roots kind of led me back home, to what I grew up with," he said. "I love what I do."
The drought has been one of Muller's greatest challenges.
Like most of the county, the main water supply for the ranch comes from two primary sources — Clear Lake and the Indian Valley Reservoir.
Clear Lake has zero acre-feet of capacity on the Rumsey Gauge right now, where total storage is 150,000 acre-feet. Indian Valley Reservoir is 26,718 acre-feet full, where 300,000 acre-feet is considered full.
Although the Clear Lake reservoir remains unchanged, in early February the Indian Valley Reservoir had 14,718 acre-feet of water. Despite this increase, the ranch did not receive any water allocations from either source, and is relying on wells.
Wells are scattered across the property, about one per field, but Muller is worried that may not be enough. A few wells have already failed.
"We lost the ability to farm about 10 percent of our acreage because of the drought," Muller said. Drilling a new well can "cost upwards of $100,000, and only gets more expensive, depending on how deep you need to drill it."
More than 90 percent of the crops on the ranch survive on drip irrigation, which saves about 30 percent on water costs. The ranch first started drip irrigation about seven years ago, without realizing what the outcome would be.
"Farming is one of those things where what works best for one farmer does not necessarily work for another farmer," Muller said.
Many farms are making the transition to drip irrigation, using what's called drip tape. The lines are buried several inches under the crops.
At Muller Ranch, after the harvest, the miles of drip tape are unearthed and reused for other crops. For example, after a field of cascabella peppers were machine-picked last week, workers pulled the tape from the soil to be used in a nearby garlic field.
In terms of the weather itself, when temperatures are more than 95 degrees, certain crops begin to suffer. They go into "protect mode," Muller said, losing fruit to save the plant itself. In coming weeks, temperatures in Woodland are predicted to fluctuate between 91 and 102 degrees, on top of an already-hot June, which saw temperatures as high as 108 degrees.
The drought has make it increasingly critical that crop planting occur early and continue through the harvest itself.
"Right now we are talking about 2015," Muller said. The uncertainty of whether there will be enough water makes it more than a "big puzzle" of what to plant. Water conservation has now become the first priority and the greatest unknown.
That means the Muller Ranch, like others, is adapting to using less water-needy crops, such as wheat and garlic. Those that are more water-dependent, such as corn, are being scaled back, or even discontinued entirely.
"We didn't plant corn," he said, "when we usually have at least a few hundred acres."
"The last thing you want to do is plant something you can't harvest," Muller said.
Workers also planted half as many cucumbers this year, even though they are a water-wise crop. They can be harvested in about 48 days.
Using a machine called a Johnson Harvester, Muller and crew recently harvested 73 acres of cucumbers, which were brined and turned into pickles soon after.
The Harvester drives over plots of vegetables, picking them up and dropping them onto a conveyor belt within the vehicle, where workers sort them. Once sorted, the vegetables are placed on to another conveyor belt, which loads them into a truck driving next to the machine.
Johnson Harvesters are used for cucumbers and tomatoes, while similar Pik Rite machines are used for smaller vegetables like peppers.
Despite the drought, workers did plant more processing tomatoes this year — 2,400 acres instead of 2,200 — because of heightened demand for the vegetable, which has led to better prices.
"Number one in crop planning is water, but number two is economics," Muller said. "In this case, tomatoes are a better payoff and in high demand this year, due to a number of variables — disease pressure last year that hurt crop yield, the drought, and recent insurgence of almond orchards due to very high prices for nuts."
When it comes time to harvest, Muller said he and his workers will be in the field around the clock to get more than 2,000 tons of tomatoes onto trucks and shipped to processing facilities throughout the area.
The drought's ripple-effects have started reaching other areas as well.
The ranch employs more than 100 people, but this year Muller decided to forego hiring seasonal laborers to help with the harvest. Instead, he has started cross-training current staff, to expand their expertise.
Contact Sarah Dowling at 530-406-6234.