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WaterSmart Moves Pay Off for Fallbrook Avocado Farm

Josh Kane didn’t know a lot about avocado farming 10 years ago, but he does now.

In 2001, Kane’s mother bought a 60-acre avocado farm, the Rice Canyon Ranch, in Fallbrook, thinking it would be a good investment. But, some not-so-good advice, and the 2014 drought, had the business in a nosedive.

So, Kane quit his job in commercial real estate and stepped in to help his mom turn the farm around, or “they would have lost the investment,” said Kane.

During that time, the Fallbrook area had been a hub for agriculture, specifically avocados. But many farms ceased operating due to a complex suite of factors that include increasing water and labor costs, competition from imports, and climate volatility.

Rice Canyon took a long-term investment perspective and invested in innovative measures, including tree stumping and grafting. Those strategies, along with smart irrigation, helped turn the farm around. But challenges remain.

Award-winning water-use efficiency

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Water Savings Incentive Program, or WSIP, helped Kane to increase water-use efficiency at the farm. Rice Canyon Ranch and Kane were recognized with an award. He was one of six honorees selected based on their remarkable water-saving projects and facility upgrades funded by the WSIP.

Each unique project was recognized in a May 2023 ceremony for its technological innovations, environmental stewardship and water sustainability.

Metropolitan’s One Water Awards ceremony at the California Endowment in Los Angeles honored organizations that used funding from the WSIP to make major improvements to their water management operations and equipment, such as installing smart irrigation technology, water recirculation systems and soil moisture sensors.

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The Rice Canyon Ranch avocado farm. Photo: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Long-term sustainable change

“The transformation of daily operations for these organizations translates into long-term, sustainable change for entire communities,” said Metropolitan General Manager Adel Hagekhalil. “The ceremony demonstrated that when everyone does what they can to use less water, we produce real water savings that benefits millions.”

Named for Metropolitan’s approach to water management that values and acknowledges that all water resources are connected, the One Water Awards program amplifies the success of participants in its WSIP. The program provides funding to commercial, industrial, institutional and agricultural customers that make water efficiency upgrades to their facilities but may not qualify for Metropolitan’s standard commercial rebate programs. It pays up to $0.60 per 1,000 gallons of water saved annually through customized projects that are developed by each organization to fit its needs.

“Outside of the box” strategies for avocado farm

The WSIP program and incentives were critical to implementing Rice Canyon’s strategies and have helped significantly reduce costs.

Rice Canyon replaced existing, or old trees, with “high-density planting.” How did removing old trees and high-density planting save water and money?

Kane says Haas avocado trees reach up to “40 feet and out 50 feet, it’s a massive tree and older trees would climb higher and higher in the old way of growing.”

Instead of planting trees like the typical spacing for avocado farms in the past, the new trees were planted on 10 feet by 10 feet spacing. Kane says that change to smaller spacing allowed reduced water usage, reduced loss due to deep percolation, inhibited weed growth, and excessive evaporation loss through overgrown canopies. Plant “material changes” meant using mulch to save water.

“Avocado roots are only about six inches deep, so they require a lot of water,” Kane explained. “But adding a layer of mulch keeps the roots wet, reducing irrigation and saving water.”

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The 60-acre Rice Canyon Ranch avocado farm is supplied with water from the San Diego County Water Authority and the Rainbow Municipal Water District, one of the Water Authority’s 24 member agencies. Photo: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Tree spacing to save water

“With the fruits on the canopy – and all the water needed to pull the water up to the canopy – a 9-foot-tall tree, cutting and pruning it back, is more efficient with the sun, space and way more efficient with the water,” said Kane.

Kane says before the changes in tree spacing, use of mulch, and smart irrigation, the water costs for the avocado farm were about $250,000 a year.

“Our water costs are about $62,000 a year now, a cut of roughly 75-percent, which is huge,” Kane said.

He said the farm received $238,000 from the WSIP program for the water-efficiency project and the operation now saves about 34-38 million gallons of water a year. Kane says the 10-year projected water savings is 350 million gallons.

Even with the grant, and all the changes to the farm – including smart irrigation techniques, Kane says competition from outside the U.S. is a big factor in making a profit.

“We’re giving it a go and trying, but the price per pound – with competition from a lot of overseas fruit, from Mexico, Argentina, Peru – is a key factor for us,” said Kane.

WaterSmart advice for growers

“Farming is not easy by any means,” said Kane. “The price we get for our avocados is about the same per pound today as we got 10 years ago. There are no guarantees, but the way we had to make it work was to reduce water expenses as much as we could.”

Kane has this advice to remain profitable for other growers of avocados or similar crops for smart irrigation.

“You have to think outside the box to make it, decrease expenses and increase profits – never stop learning,” said Kane. “Any old time farmer growing avocados the same way as 40 years ago, must change and adapt with the times.”

He says despite the water cost savings, use of water sensors and other changes, growing avocados for Rice Canyon is a tough business.

“It is a labor of love, not a business of income, but the water grant gets us closer to making it work,” said Kane.

(Editor’s Note: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is a water wholesaler. Since 1990, Metropolitan has invested nearly $1 billion in conservation programs, saving about 3.5 million acre-feet of water. Rice Canyon Ranch is supplied with water from the San Diego County Water Authority and the Rainbow Municipal Water District, one of the Water Authority’s 24 member agencies.)

California Avocado Industry Remains Resilient Through Storm

It appears the California avocado industry got through the recent storm system largely unscathed. California Avocado Commission (CAC) President Jeff Oberman said that this year’s harvest is just about finished. Despite some tumultuous environmental factors, the industry appears poised for a good season.

One of 11 gunite bench sections along the Flume under construction in 1925. The Flume is the Vista Irrigation District’s main water conduit and has been indispensable in the area’s development. When water first flowed through the Flume, the District served a population of 337, compared to serving 134,000 customers today. Photo: Vista Irrigation District celebrates

Vista Irrigation District Celebrates 100 Years of Service

The Vista Irrigation District, one of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies, is celebrating its 100th anniversary.

In the 1920s, citrus and avocado farming in the Vista area increased so quickly that the growing region faced the real danger of running out of water. Completing the Henshaw Dam in 1923 made it possible for the Vista community to receive a reliable water source instead of relying on well water.

The arrival of the new water source sparked discussion about forming a water district to secure additional imported water to make continued growth possible. On August 28, 1923, voters approved the formation of the Vista Irrigation District (VID) in a landslide: 104 votes to four votes in a 100% voter turnout.

Completion of the Henshaw Dam transformed the North County include the Vista area in the 1920s. Photo: Vista Irrigation District celebrates

Completion of the Henshaw Dam transformed North San Diego County, including the Vista area, in the 1920s. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

337 customers then, 134,000 customers now

In its first year, VID served 337 customers. Today, VID serves water to more than 134,000 customers in a diversified community and robust economy and is celebrating its 100th anniversary on August 28, 2023.

“Vista Irrigation District is proud of its accomplishments over the last century and looks forward to providing reliable water service to the residents and businesses it serves for years to come,” said Board President Jo MacKenzie.

Water builds new potential in Vista

The Vista community celebrated the arrival of the first water from Lake Henshaw on February 27, 1926. Following the arrival of water, crops of all kinds were planted in increasing numbers. The Vista area became known as the “Avocado Capital of the World,” with six avocado packing houses in the area.

In June 1946, after several years of negotiations, Vista Irrigation District purchased the San Diego County Water Company. Included in the purchase was the 43,000-acre Warner Ranch, a former Spanish Land Grant, which includes Henshaw Dam and Lake Henshaw. The deal was driven by the economic motivation to find another, less costly source of water for VID’s customers.

Members of the Vista Irrigation District board visit Lake Henshaw in 1951. Photo: Vista Irrigation District celebrates

Members of the Vista Irrigation District board visited Lake Henshaw in 1951. Photo: Vista Irrigation District

Drought conditions and population growth continued to press VID to seek additional sources of water. On February 16, 1954, the Vista Irrigation District became a member of the San Diego County Water Authority. It allowed VID to bring in water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California.

One year later, in 1955, Vista’s first suburban-style housing arrived in what had been an agricultural community. The Vista area began experiencing a decline in its avocado producing and packing due primarily to the industry’s economic decline and drought, which would continue into the 1960s. Many avocado groves were split into smaller parcels and sold to housing developers. The land was more valuable for homes.

A century of success

An overview of downtown Vista looking southeast circa 1928. The region began to flourish with the arrival of water. Photo: Vista Historical Society and Museum Vista Irrigation District celebrates

An overview of downtown Vista looking southeast circa 1928. The region began to flourish with the arrival of water. Photo: Vista Historical Society and Museum

The people’s vote in 1923 revolutionized the small rural settlement held back by a lack of water. Over the years, Vista transformed itself from its agricultural origins to a thriving community with a diversified economic base and a revitalized downtown.

Today, Vista is a thriving community that continues to grow and develop many new activities and attractions, such as its popular Moonlight Amphitheatre. Photo: City of Vista Irrigation District celebrates

Today, Vista is a thriving community that continues to grow and develop many new activities and attractions, such as its popular Moonlight Amphitheatre. Photo: City of Vista

Vista Irrigation District has demonstrated its ability to adapt to these ever-changing landscapes over time and looks forward to many more successful years of service to the community. Through a century of service and stewardship, the Vista Irrigation District can take credit for its solid track record over the last century to continue many more successful years of service to the community.

(Editor’s note: The Vista Irrigation District is one of the San Diego County Water Authority’s 24 member agencies that deliver water across the metropolitan San Diego region. The District is celebrating “A Century of Service and Stewardship” on Saturday, September 9, at its Vista headquarters. The public is invited to attend.)

Limited rainfall means avocado grower John Burr must use innovative farming methods. Photo: Water Authority

San Diego’s Farmer of the Year Taps Every Drop

Growing water-intensive crops like avocados in San Diego County is no small feat. Producing avocados requires the use of innovative farming methods to supply the trees with enough water.

It’s the use of innovative farming methods that earned John Burr the title of San Diego County’s Farmer of the Year – an honor he recently celebrated on KUSI-TV with Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer as part of the agency’s Brought to You by Water outreach and education program.

Innovative farming methods

Over the past few months, the Water Authority partnered with local agriculture industry leaders like the San Diego County Farm Bureau to highlight the importance of safe and reliable water supplies for more than 5,500 local farms that are part of the county’s $4.8 billion agriculture industry.

Local farmers like Burr are invaluable in growing the agricultural bounty that sustains 3.3 million residents and the region’s quality of life.

Found in everything from tacos to smoothies to toast, avocados have become a staple in California cuisine and, with only about 10 inches of annual rainfall in the San Diego region, it takes innovation and technology to grow the popular fruit.

Technology saves water

For decades, Burr has been perfecting the operations on his Escondido farm, using state-of-the-art technology like the California Irrigation Management Information System. Two different satellite systems allow him to regulate irrigation by zones to determine precise water amounts to prevent using too much or too little water on his trees.

Satellites collect data, which Burr then analyzes with spreadsheets to determine how many gallons of water each tree requires. Every bit of data collected, from water usage to atmospheric conditions to soil type, allows Burr and his team to streamline their operations to be even more water-efficient.

“In San Diego County, we have to get the most out of our crops with the least amount of water,” said Burr, who irrigates his farm with water from the City of Escondido. “When the weather varies with changing seasons or fluctuating weather patterns, providing the right amount of water at the right time is paramount to using water efficiently. These technologies provide the information and tools that allow us to do that consistently, and ensure our crops grow successfully.”

Efficient land use conserves water

Those who see Burr’s farm may also notice another difference from the typical avocado farm, which is that his groves are designed for high-density planting.

“A typical avocado grove can have about 100 trees, but ours have about 400 in the same area of land. This cuts our water usage in half,” he said.

Each tree is also limited in height to prevent water loss through transpiration. This is especially important in a region like San Diego County, where temperatures can rise quickly on summer days.

Are Avocados Toast?

Chris Sayer pushed his way through avocado branches and grasped a denuded limb. It was stained black, as if someone had ladled tar over its bark. In February, the temperature had dropped below freezing for three hours, killing the limb. The thick leaves had shriveled and fallen away, exposing the green avocados, which then burned in the sun. Sayer estimated he’d lost one out of every 20 avocados on his farm in Ventura, just 50 miles north of Los Angeles, but he counts himself lucky.