Sacramento is raining wine

By Alastair Bland

Two consecutive seasons of wretched rainfall haven’t yet dampened the profits of Sacramento- and Delta-area farmers.

Grape growers have fared best, with Sacramento County’s harvest producing nearly $150 million last year, the latest figures available.

Agricultural commissioner Juli Jensen attributed the resilience of the county’s wine-grape industry to the efficient drip-irrigation systems used to water many vineyards. These simple pipe grids release water in a meager trickle directly into the earth, minimizing runoff and evaporation loss.

In San Joaquin County’s Delta area, the wine industry has also boomed in spite of persisting drought. Farmer Aaron Lange, of the Lange Twins Winery and Vineyards near Lodi, said his vineyards drink up less than a foot of water each year. Moreover, some of Lange’s vines are dry-farmed, a relatively common grape-growing method completely void of irrigation.

Alfalfa fields, on the other hand, can require 4 to 5 feet of water per year. Alfalfa is fed to horses, dairy cows and—during drought years when dryland pastures turn dusty—beef cattle.

Milk, Sacramento County’s second most valuable commodity, produced nearly $59 million in sales last year. Poultry produced about $43 million, Bartlett pears $31 million, beef cattle $16 million and alfalfa $16 million. All crops combined countywide produced a record high of $460 million.

Meanwhile, just 12 inches of rain—two-thirds of normal—fell in the 2011-2012 season, with the 2012-2013 season barely better, thanks only to heavy bouts of rain a year ago. The months from January through October have been dust-bowl dry, wringing only 4.6 inches of precipitation.

Though wine grapes are a huge boon locally, Jensen hopes the industry never dominates like it has in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. “We like our agricultural diversity,” she said. “If a pest came through and killed all our vines, and we had nothing else growing, we’d be dead in the water.”

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