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Petaluma farms shoulder another dry year as worries mount

For Petaluma’s 560-acre Open Field Farm, this time of year typically marks the jubilant beginning of a new season, ushering in warm summer months and the fruits of frenetic spring planting.

But with an emptied reservoir and a partially-planted vegetable field, owners Sarah and Seth James are approaching a summer season that is more muted than in years past, tempered by a growing current of anxiety about the future.

Facing down what state and county water officials are calling a historic drought, some of Petaluma’s most popular farms are preparing for a gruelingly dry summer.

At Open Field Farms, nestled among rolling grasslands west of Petaluma’s Helen Putnam Regional Park along Spring Hill Road, the lack of rain has forced the couple to freeze plans to expand its CSA membership program and forgo planting of some more water-intensive crops.

“We are all surface water here, so by the end of last year we had really used up our water in our pond,” James said. “We purchased city water at the end of last year and squeaked by and were really hoping for a big wet winter that never came.”

Throughout their nine years on the property, they usually grow eight acres of vegetables, fruits and herbs. This year, they can manage only six while abandoning some popular yet water-rich vegetables like sweet corn and Brussel sprouts.

Nearly all of Sonoma County is now in an “exceptional” drought, the worst of five categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The county is experiencing a second consecutive dry year, on the heels of last year’s third-driest water year on record in the past 127 years, according to Sonoma Water. In Santa Rosa, rainfall is at 39% of average as of May 28, as water levels in Sonoma and Mendocino lakes fall perilously.

As local agencies and leaders began to raise the alarm early April, James came to the realization that her summer crops would have to take a hit this year, and her plans to expand her 100-member CSA program would also have to wait.

“We are growing less, but in managing and monitoring the drought in the last year, we’ve really realized what is most efficient,” James said. “I feel like we’re still able to offer a very diverse and full share, minus some things.”

The farm is popular for its scenic setting and pick-up system that invites members and their families to visit the farm and take only what they need, including colorful bouquets from a half-acre ‘pick-your-own’ flower field.

In addition to the vegetable fields, the couple also offers year-round eggs from the hundreds of chickens on the farm, as well as grass-fed beef. Unlike several local dairymen and ranchers, the couple says they’re not yet in the position where they’re forced to sell any of their 150 cows, 600 chickens and 35 sheep, though the animals do require significant water.

James has been purchasing water from a neighboring farm she says, and hopes to continue to do so through the end of this year, hopeful that rains will again return to Sonoma County later this year to recharge her large rainwater pond.

But a cloud of doubt now hangs heavier over some farmers, as the crush of the drought takes its toll.

County Line Harvest, a 30-acre farm off Red Hill Road on the way out of town via D Street, has decided against planting anything this year - a first in the farm’s 21 years of operation.

Megan Strom, 38, operates County Line Harvest with founder and Petaluma resident David Retsky, 49. In the years since the Petaluma farm was established in 2006, surging in popularity among area farmer’s markets and known for its lettuce crop, the pair expanded to a second, 120-acre location in Coachella Valley.

Like Open Field Farms, County Line Harvest relied for years on rainwater collection to fuel their crops. Strom said 2018 was the first year the reservoir didn’t reach capacity, signaling the start of a gradual shift away from some water-intensive crops at their Northern California farm, which they lease from the Dolcinis, a multigenerational ranching local family.

“Our normal farming season has always included a very wet winter, and that’s been missing for the last several years,” Strom said. “And then this past winter was just so dry that, as leasers, we now wonder how long we can hold onto that property if we don’t know year to year if we’ll be able to farm all 30 acres, or none of it at all.”

Kelly Smith, whose nonprofit Agricultural Community Events Farmers Markets runs 10 markets in Sonoma and Marin counties, says there may be some changes in Petaluma’s three markets this summer as well, though she anticipates shoppers will still be able to buy everything they are looking for.

“I think we’ll see more dry farming, and of people being more creative and diligent with their water usage,” Smith said. “It may not totally show on the surface for people. But if this drought is prolonged past this year, then I think we will see a significant impact.”

Smith said she’s heard more and more farms are taking advantage of webinars and educational courses that are advising local farmers on maximizing their water use and exploring new methods. And shoppers themselves should expect to see informational booths at their local market this summer, providing tips and resources for residents to cut down their water consumption as well.

However, as farmers scramble to make it through this year, many in the local agricultural community have one eye trained on the future, in a region wracked by a seemingly annual succession of natural disasters.

If it wasn’t for County Line Harvest’s successful Southern California operation, Strom said the business would likely be in more desperate talks about the future. But despite their second farm in Thermal and the surprise success of a CSA program created during the pandemic, Strom says she’s still concerned about the likelihood of future dry years and more extreme weather patterns due to climate change.

“Farming in Petaluma has a special place in our heart. That’s where we started,” Strom said. “So to not be able to farm this year, plus the uncertainty of whether or not we’ll be able to farm year to year, is really difficult to face.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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