(May 12, 1:07 p.m.) Lower-than-average rainfall in early spring and higher costs for water to irrigate crops have led some Kern County growers to rethink planting patterns.

“Guys are saving water for the permanent crops where they’ve got a long term investment,” according to Pete Belluomini, vice president of farming, Lehr Bros., Inc., Edison, Calif. Tree fruits and nuts are allocated water at the expense of seasonal crops such as potatoes. “It’s getting harder for some of the other vegetable crops,” Belluomini said.

“People are paying more for water and using it less,” according to Joe Nuñez, vegetable plant pathology farm advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

“If they use less that means they’re taking some ground out of production,” Nuñez said. “With crops that are marginal in profit, such as processing tomatoes or garlic, they’ll leave that land fallow or go with wheat.”

“We grow onions everyplace we used to grow garlic,” said Jeff Thomson, chairman of the board of Bakersfield, Calif.-based Thomson International. “We were garlic grower-packer-shippers for 25 years. We stopped in 2001. We now import garlic from Argentina and Mexico for some processing we do.”

Rising wheat prices also played a role in determining this year’s crop mix. Lehr Bros. has put an extra 80 acres into the rotation, for a total of 240 instead of the 160 they would have put in had prices been lower, said vice president of farming Pete Belluomini.

Michael Kundert, president of Kundert Bros. Farms, Inc., said the Edison-based grower planted approximately 100 acres of wheat this year, or double what they would have planted with lower wheat prices. “It’s good for the land and we’ll see the effects of it in the next potato crop in the next season,” Kundert said.

Jim Leimkuhler, president of Progressive Produce Corp., Los Angeles, cited the disparity in input costs. “An acre of wheat costs a whole lot less to plant and harvest than an acre of potatoes,” he said. He estimated input costs at $500 and $3,000-4,000, respectively, for the crops.

Growers’ margins may be cut even thinner due to rising fuel costs. “Transportation going back east is always a big factor in Kern County because a lot of guys depend upon East Coast business,” Leimkuhler said. “Rail is terrible to there because you just can’t depend on it. You could be looking at 20-25 day arrivals.”

Glenn Handel, general manager of Shafter, Calif.-based C. Handel & Sons, also cited concerns over trucks for the harvest. “I think trucks are going to be more scarce this year with the high fuel costs. Some of these guys are talking about parking their trucks so that could make it kind of tight, especially when all the fruit gets going too. That may put us in a bind.”

Handel says long-haul and local shipments could both be tougher. “Hopefully, there’ll be enough rail service going to the East or the Midwest. But even locally, we could be at a standstill getting produce to L.A. or the Bay area.”

Nuñez said there is another concern with rail shipments. “Slower delivery times can affect the quality of the produce,” he said.

Growers risk more rejected shipments the longer their produce is in transit.

Some growers are looking to the organic market, where sales increases have been consistent. “We upped our organic acreage a small percentage,” said Pete Smith, salesman at Kern Ridge Growers LLC, Arvin, Calif.

“We’re probably 90/10 between conventional and organic acreage now,” Smith said. “But the upward trend of organics is moving faster.”