San Diego has a history of farming dating back to the establishment of the San Diego and San Luis Rey Missions in the later half of the 18th century.
Dominated in the early days by dryland farming and limited irrigation near the few local sources of water, farming has evolved into a vibrant $1.8 billion industry led by nursery and floral crops, tree fruit, cut flowers, eggs, and a variety of vegetables.
That figure places San Diego County in the top 20 counties in the nation for agricultural value.
Today’s local farmers are focused on water-use efficiency, crop selection, and maximizing production.
While farming has been described as a lifestyle as well as an avocation, a fact that can’t be escaped is that farming is a business and farmers must have a reasonable expectation of turning a profit. Meeting that expectation drives farmers to be creative and innovative.
But that’s not new. Creativity and innovation have always been hallmarks of farming.
Despite farmers’ effective skills, there are three major challenges that touch all farmers and can’t be resolved without assistance from the nonfarming community: the price of water, reliable labor, and introduced insect and pest species.
Let's Talk About Water
On the subject of water, it has to be recognized that the region’s water supply has been made more reliable by the San Diego County Water Authority’s actions over the past three decades to diversify its sources of imported and locally generated water.
This has proven to be beneficial to the region, but new water sources are expensive.
Additionally, the cost of maintaining existing infrastructure continues to rise. While the incremental cost increase to homeowners has not been a significant burden, water is the single largest monthly expense for many farmers.
With the price of water tripling over the past 12 years and the price of farm products remaining virtually static, farmers are squeezed. To remain in the game, farmers have to find ways to minimize water use while increasing returns.
For some farmers, the answer is planting more fruit trees per acre to increase production. Other farmers are growing less water-hungry crops like wine grapes, olives, and dragon fruit.
With few exceptions, farmers have made large investments in efficient irrigation systems and many are turning to new technologies that can assess the water needs of their crops and drive the irrigation systems accordingly.
Recycled water can provide farmers with an affordable and drought-proof supply where water treatment plants are not too distant from farms. There are currently farmers irrigating with recycled water in Fallbrook. The City of Escondido has launched a project to deliver recycled water to farmers east of the city, while the City of Oceanside is considering sending recycled water to farmers in the Morro Hills area.
Real Talk About Labor Issues
Meeting labor needs is proving to be increasingly challenging for San Diego County farmers, as well as for farmers across the state and nation.
Politics aside, the reality is that the majority of farm work done in this country is performed by foreign-born workers. Another reality is that in the absence of a meaningful guest worker program, farm labor needs are largely met by willing workers who present improper or forged documents to employers.
Agricultural employers are not allowed to challenge those documents if they appear valid, and the net result is a labor force that could be subject to immigration enforcement.
In addition to the issue of documentation, there is a significant shortage of agricultural labor because immigration reform that would allow guest workers to enter the country has been stalled in Congress for decades.
Farmers and farmworkers would like to see federal reform that addresses two concerns.
First, the skilled workforce that is currently here and serving as the backbone of daily farm operations could and should be given an opportunity for adjusted work status. This could be done by showing a history of agricultural employment, a clean criminal record, a commitment to remain in farming, and perhaps a reasonable monetary fee.
Second, provisions should be made for a guest worker program that would allow seasonal workers to move easily across the border to meet the fluctuating demands that come with cycles of planting, cultivation, and harvesting. This would include a requirement to return home when the work is completed.
In the absence of reforms to shore up the agricultural workforce, San Diego farmers may be forced to reduce planted acres and will miss the best market windows if crops cannot be harvested in a timely manner.
An Appeal on Insects and Pests
Just as residents enjoy San Diego’s year-round temperate climate, insects and pests thrive here and can reproduce 12 months a year.
Farmers and residents alike are pestered by critters like Argentine ants and brown garden snails that were brought here from other parts of the world. Because these pests attack crops and are nuisances around the home, large amounts of pesticides are used annually for control.
Pests can’t travel here on their own. They are introduced by human activity through two major pathways. The first is individuals carrying plants, fruits, or vegetables back from travels abroad or from other states and not declaring the items. The second is receiving those items from friends or relatives in package shipments that have not been clearly marked as farm products, which would make them subject to inspection. In either case, exotic insects can hitchhike with the products and invade vulnerable crops.
At the moment, farmers in the county are battling four significant introduced insect pests: the Asian citrus psyllid that was likely brought in from Mexico; the light brown apple moth from New Zealand; the Kuroshio shot hole borer that arrived from Asia; and the Mexican fruit fly, another import from Mexico.
In all cases farmers are forced to take extraordinary steps to protect their crops, and in the worst cases, their farms can be placed in quarantine with regulatory orders not to harvest or ship.
San Diego County is home to more certified organic farmers than any other county in the nation and those farmers are particularly at risk from new pests.
The only solution for stemming the flow of exotic pests is for members of the public to respect existing state and federal regulations prohibiting the importation of plants, fruits, and vegetables by following the appropriate protocols.
Two and a half centuries of local farm history shows us that farmers have faced challenges and found solutions that allow them to stay on the land producing the crops we all enjoy. However, when it comes to water, labor, and new pests, farmers could use an assist from the entire community.
Eric Larson lives with his wife Jennifer in Carlsbad, where he has served two terms on the city council and made vital contributions to the city’s general plan. Larson has over 34 years of experience working in diverse sectors of the San Diego County agricultural industry. In addition to serving as the executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, Larson actively works to advocate for improved water resources for local farmers.