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Is This the End of Farming in Borrego Springs?

New water regulations set small desert farmers against housing developers in a fight for survival.

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Lucy Wheeler
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July 22, 2019
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I made a point of attending the Borrego Springs Farmers Market before it closed at the end of April. The wind was very strong that day, as if attempting to clear the market right off of Christmas Circle Drive.  

The market is small, its vendors tenacious, serious and totally focused on the chore of selling their produce. Despite forceful winds and chilly conditions, they prevailed, manning their tents from seven-in-the-morning until noon.

It never ceases to amaze the way temperatures in the desert can swing from the mid-30s in winter to the mid-120s in summer.

Neither the climate nor the soil within the 43.2 square acres of Borrego Springs will produce more than a few months’ supply of edible harvest. Yet 3,500 of those acres are farmed for oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruits, grapes, potatoes, and herbs.  

I learned from the farmers that thriving orange groves were at the peak of maturity. It had been a good, productive year.

Everything from the weather to market forces makes farming a season-to-season gamble, and this year, the cards may be stacked against the farmers of Borrego Springs.

At the Borrego Springs Water Administration booth, I learned about ‘water overdraft’ usage.  The state of California is requiring a 70% decrease in water consumption by 2040, and the farmers must compete with another powerful industry for the remaining 30%.

The desert is home to “Recreational Winter Retreats” for those from colder northern climates who flock to the area to enjoy golf courses, recreational pools, restaurants, and hotels, all of which require water.  The competition continues to increase as now empty plots are being sold for custom housing.

Lawyers are being retained and livelihoods are being threatened.

Even nature seems to be battling for every last drop, as dying Mesquite trees stretch 150-foot roots towards aquifers 300 feet away.

Intrigued by the endurance and sober focus of the desert farmers of Borrego Springs, I gave up my plans to look for poppies and instead began a drive through the small area farms surrounded by the California Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

wI drove through hopeful groves of citrus fruits in bloom—oranges, lemons, and grapefruits—thriving herb gardens, and hearty potato fields. Then came the grey branches of dead groves that seemed to stretch for miles.            

The bitter-sweet smell of oranges lingered on my fingers, as I slowly drove home through the winding roads of Julian and Ramona, pondering what I had seen.  It seemed that the dying orange groves were in competition with the undeveloped lots, both grasping at a water supply doesn’t appear to allow for the survival of both.

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