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Water, bugs, labor challenge county's agriculture industry

San Diego’s military, biotech and health care industries often hog the spotlight, but the county’s agricultural scene is increasingly large and poised to face threats in the near future.

Local agriculture experts named water, pests and immigration reform as some of their concerns for the continued growth of the industry at a discussion Tuesday of the World Resources Simulation Center downtown.

In 2012, San Diego County generated $1.7 billion in agricultural value, with an estimated $5 billion annual impact on the economy.

“We’re the 19th-largest farm economy among all the counties in the United States, and more than 3,000 counties have agriculture, so that’s pretty remarkable,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

“We’re No. 1 in nursery production in the nation, No. 1 in avocado production, though I’m afraid we may lose that title to Ventura within the next few years," he said. "We’re No. 1 in the number of small farms, No. 1 in the number of organic farms, and we’re No. 1 in the nation with number of farmers with off-farm income.”

Perhaps the most pressing concern to the industry is water, which shouldn’t be too shocking to anyone familiar with Southern California. What is surprising is that it’s not a lack of water that’s cause for concern, though that does play a part, but rather a change in the form of water and a desperate need for storage infrastructure.

“We’ve had years of drought on the Colorado River,” Larson said. “You will hear in the next few months, if you haven’t heard already, that California stands a chance at having our Colorado River supply reduced in 2015 if things don’t change in the Colorado River Basin, and with climate change there’s no expectation that it will.”

San Diego County’s main water sources are the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta, where the south-flowing Sacramento River meets the north-flowing San Joaquin River and empties into the San Francisco Bay.

Although the county doesn’t source water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct directly, Larson said it has vested interest in its success, since Los Angeles would turn to the Colorado River or Delta pumps for increased water supply should its aqueduct not provide enough, and L.A. has more claim to these reserves than does San Diego.

In addition to a flat-out shortage in the Colorado River supply, climate change is also wreaking havoc on the supply-chain premise that feeds the Sacramento source. Larson explained that, typically, snow melts in the Sierra Nevada Mountains throughout the year and runs into Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta, which then feed the Delta.

Due to changing climate, precipitation that used to fall as snow is now falling as rain, meaning there is no continual melt to supply these lakes and feeder streams. Instead, California gets barrages of water all at once with nowhere to store it.

“What that means is, we’re still getting the same amount of precipitation, but more of it’s coming in rain,” Larson said. “And we have no place to park it. So this year about 400 or 500 acre-feet of water, enough to supply San Diego County for a whole year, ran out through the Golden Gate Bridge from the Sacramento Delta in just a matter of a couple of storms because we had no place to put the water.”

Aside from water sourcing and storage concerns for the success of the county’s agricultural industry, pests also pose a constant threat. Karen Melvin, a deputy agriculture commissioner at the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, said the climate in San Diego, which residents love and allows for farming year-round, means that harmful insects and bacteria can thrive here year-round, too.

“The reason why we like San Diego County is because it’s such a mild, wonderful climate, but that’s why bugs like being here too,” Melvin said. “So maybe people in Michigan wouldn’t really care if there were certain bugs because they’d all die in the freezing temperatures in the winter anyway, but because we have such a temperate climate, bugs really like being here.”

These invasive pests can do tremendous damage, as in the case of the Asian Citrus Psyllid. This small, fly-like insect spreads huanglongbing disease to citrus trees, causing the fruit to turn green and the tree to die in a matter of years. Florida had serious issues with HLB, so San Diego didn’t want to take any chances with its $117 million citrus industry.

Melvin explained that the county has checkpoints at the border with Mexico to check for agricultural goods being brought in with pests on them, and conducts searches at the Postal Service, UPS and other shipment centers to ensure that Asian Citrus Psyllids and a wide variety of other non-native invasive insects don’t establish themselves in the area. Last year, 112 pests in the “really bad” category were found on shipments and disposed of.

“Each year these insects or pathogens cause an estimated $3 billion in agricultural damage in California alone,” Melvin said.

This cost comes in part from an increased use of pesticides and the inability to export products due to quarantines. Melvin said the team charged with this mammoth task isn’t only humans, but also dogs that sniff out agricultural products.

A third major concern for the agriculture industry is immigration reform. Larson said that the county’s location just north of the border has always provided a steady stream of labor, estimating that 90 percent of farm laborers are foreign-born, with 60 to 70 percent of those using forged documents. He said that if the country and county want to have a domestic food source, they need to embrace foreign workers.

“Farmers need a reliable, legal work force, which we don’t have today because we have had no immigration reform,” he said. “The last time we did was 1986, and we basically shut the borders and said, ‘That’s it, we’re done.’

"So we have this captive work force on this side that’s shrinking as time goes on, and we have no capacity now to bring guest workers in to harvest our crop, to the point that it’s actually affecting our harvest in San Diego County. The avocado growers, some of them are missing the good market window because they cannot find crews to pick their crop.”

Larson said he thinks the best solution is to find a way for current workers to become legal, and create a guest worker program so people can easily move back and forth across the border.

Despite these challenges, San Diego County is still seen as a strong farming location, in no small part because of its booming local markets. Melvin said her department keeps tabs on 57 farmers markets in the county, with people increasingly choosing local food and nursery products over those shipped from around the country and the world.

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