Mar 10, 2021
Errotabere Ranches leads on Western challenges

Managing more than 5,000 acres of diverse crops in California’s Central Valley entails a thorough accounting of one’s water.

For Daniel Errotabere, a third-generation grower and partner in Errotabere Ranches, it’s distributing what he calls his “water portfolio” of groundwater and irrigation service against a hierarchy of the ranches’ crops, with permanent plantings like winegrapes and tree nuts at the top, vegetables at the bottom and low-demand row crops somewhere in the middle.

It’s a complex job, given increasing state restrictions on pumping groundwater – and on other farming inputs that affect yields and the farm’s bottom line. But it’s a role in which Daniel has thrived and taken on leadership roles at the Fresno County and statewide California Farm Bureau. Thirty years ago, he was a founding member of the Family Farm Alliance, a group that now has irrigators in 17 different western states.

More recently, he was named the 2020 Agriculturalist of the Year by the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and honored in a television segment produced at his farm.

While Errotabere and other Central Valley growers have excelled at meeting almost any requests for large quantities of crops, he said that ability is being increasingly hampered by irrigation restrictions such as California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The future is more volatile.

“In the past, you used to plant fence row to fence row to meet that demand,” he said. “That would mitigate the price increases, because high prices would encourage more acres. That may not be the case in the future. Row crops may have more variability. Continued water innovation will be the rule.”

The family business

In addition to row crops, the Errotabere family grows about 640-800 acres of tomatoes, 160 acres of winegrapes, 320-480 acres of garlic, 640 acres of garbanzo beans and about 1,500 acres of pistachios and almonds. The farm has also grown cantaloupes, cotton, romaine lettuce in the past.

While his brother Jean heads up the agronomy side of the operations and brother Remi oversees the farm equipment, Daniel Errotabere administers the office.

“I do the business side of farming, so I’m in the office probably more than I am in the field,” he said. His leadership roles in the industry also mean attending many meetings.

He’s also one of the principal partners in El Dorado, a company built to allow “like-minded” almond growers to plug into the marketplace.

“We’re about 10 years into it,” Errotabere said. “It allows us to get into the market for marketing knowledge, price point consideration and availability of sales. It’s worked well for us.”

The Central Valley offers a growing opportunity like few other places in the world, he said, with class one soils in Mediterranean-style climate, with low rains and long summers. But even growers in the Valley aren’t immune to modern business climates.

“The dynamic of farming is moving away from family farming and that’s not unique to California,” Errotabere said. Institutional farmers have a different cost structure than family farms like Errotabere Ranches, he said. “The consumer needs to know that’s going on.”

Regulations like SGMA – which calls for new groundwater sustainability agencies to manage water resources – will indirectly influence what crops growers will plant, he said.

“SGMA is going to play a big role, and a defining role in Central Valley agriculture,” he said. “All those will play into the planting landscape of the Central Valley that will decide which crops get planted.”

A time for tomatoes

Open-field-grown processing tomatoes have a place at diverse farms like Errotabere Ranches, which has to plan complex crop rotations.

“Permanent crops are the first thing of the crop map that we have to decide,” Errotabere said, referring to the winegrapes and tree nuts. Next on the list is garlic, which isn’t grown in the same field closer than 4 years together. “They do that to prevent soil diseases like white rot.”

Tomatoes, cotton and garbanzo beans fit into the picture as counter-rotation crops – those crops are grown on a one-size-fits-all system of permanent soil beds, which Errotabere keeps 6-10 years before pulling out the drip tape and planting garlic.

“Garlic is kind of a digging crop, and we can’t have those types of crops in our permanent bed,” he said.

Challenges for tomato growing include spotted wilt, which is spread by thrips. Curly-top virus, spread by beet leafhopper, is another concern.

“The products that we use to control that are becoming lesser and lesser, either in strength or availability,” he said.

Prices and the cost of inputs such as water availability are two factors that fit into complex decision-making about which crops to plant.

The demand is still there. A late January report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service said tomato processors plan to contract for more than 12 million tons in 2021, up 6% from last year. The acreage planted with contracted processing tomatoes was up about 6,000 acres or 2.6% over last year – an increase that Errotabere said wasn’t that big for a world crop that fluctuates depending on what happens with tomato paste sales as far afield as, say, Europe.

But with limited water resources and increased costs, it’s tougher and tougher for growers to decide whether or not to plant vegetable crops that require a lot of input.

“There’s a challenge in terms of a limited budget. I don’t know how a grower can go in and speculate that way,” Errotabere said. “You can do it, but you may find a low return on the growth of other crop opportunities. Because, remember, all processing crops (growers), whether it’s tomatoes or garlic or whatever the crop is, all have to think about the same thing – they’re going to have to compete for those limited water acres that are sure to come. Remember, we don’t have endless groundwater backed up to deal with that. And that’s a real challenge for the processors to deal with, because (we’re) now out to the early part of their forecasting year to make some committed judgments.

“You’re going to know looking out, say September, October, before the coming year, what your decision plan will look like for water budgeting allocation and the crops that deserve it,” he continued. “And everything will be measured probably more on a dollars-per-acre-foot return, rather than dollars-per-acre.”

A volatile future

Water management is important, and Errotabere said that in past drought years, “we pumped a whole lot of groundwater, probably more than we should have.”

But the other side of the issue is that water legislation is driving instability in the market.

“That’s one of the things the industry wants, is market stability,” he said. “It’s pretty tough, when I’m looking at instability in my water supply, because my input cost will grow, either in (needing) more water or more price per unit of water.”

And unfortunately, the public doesn’t fully appreciate the challenges growers face.

“Urban development is an ongoing phenomenon in California,” he said. “We’re farming in an urban state. … The public doesn’t know all about agriculture, and so there’s a challenge to educate them, and we also have visits to our farm to see, on our land, what we’re doing – it’s better than sitting in an office and trying to describe it.”

Eventually, growers’ challenges get passed onto consumers in some way.

“This is the consequence of trying to maintain an industry where you have a crop that has some value to you, and has some value all the way up the food chain to the customer – but whether the price is going to rise isn’t clear,” Errotabere said. “There’s going to be more volatility to increase acreage to any crop.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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