At any moment, federal and state officials could further reduce the allotment of irrigation water for California tomato grower-shippers in a state that is struggling through a three-year drought.

The state’s grower-shippers will not find much sympathy, however, from their counterparts in Mexico’s neighboring Baja California.
“Not having enough water is just another day at the office for us,” said John King, vice president of sales for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce.

The San Diego-based grower-shipper has been producing tomatoes in Baja California for 20 years, he said. The Mexican state has no water infrastructure and no government-supplied irrigation water.

“We’re responsible for supplying our own water needs with deep wells,” King said. “It’s one of the most limiting factors for growing acreage in Baja.”

Yet another limiting factor, he said, is that the Baja California government puts restrictions on how much water can be pumped from the ground.

Despite the effects of three consecutive dry years, California tomato grower-shippers said they are guardedly optimistic. Both of the state’s two major tomato growing regions have water issues. Most grower-shippers in Southern California appear to be facing better odds, but not all of them.

“We’re growing no California tomatoes this year, because there was no guarantee we could get irrigation water,” said Paul Teranishi, sales manager for Carlsbad, Calif.-based Aviara Farms. “Our plan is to go to Baja next year.”

Faced last year with the options of cheaper water that could be turned off or paying higher water rates, Oceanside Produce Inc., Oceanside, elected to open the purse strings, said Bill Wilber, president and director of marketing. However, the company is not prepared to let water districts dictate its future.

“In the last few years, we’ve been aggressively putting in some wells, so at this point we’re OK,” Wilber said. “We try to blend the irrigation district water and the well water, because if we use just the wells, we sometimes see high salinity during the fall.”

Salt intrusion began to be a problem in the Oxnard, Calif., area about 15 years ago, said David Cook, sales manager for Deardorff Family Farms, Oxnard. To alleviate the salinity problem, water district officials designed a new delivery system, he said.

“That’s helped a lot with our water situation,” Cook said. “I can’t say we have all the water in the world, but we have enough to grow our crops.”

California growers facing the driest conditions are in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Water, it’s a huge issue,” said Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, a cooperative based in Fresno.

All of the tomatoes marketed by Red Rooster Sales, Firebaugh, Calif., are company grown, said Jack Corrigan, sales manager. Red Rooster’s farmland is in the heart of the hot, dry valley near Firebaugh and Merced, Calif., and in the cooler, slighter wetter Hollister, Calif., area.

“To make the most efficient use of the water we have, 100% of our valley acreage is on drip irrigation,” Corrigan said.

Manteca, Calif.-based Ace Tomato Co. Inc. grows at the valley’s slightly cooler northern end.

“We’re going to be fine,” said John Lupul, general manager. “The water issue could play a role for the guys who grow for processing, however.”