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San Diego farmers find innovative solutions to climate change problems

Drought, heat make water the biggest issue
Posted at 8:24 AM, Nov 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-05 11:24:17-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - San Diego County farmers are finding innovative solutions to problems brought on by climate change.

"It's getting hotter and drier, and we're in longer, more frequent droughts," says Al Stehly, who manages 15 farms in the North County. "So we have to use the water we do have better."

Stehly says water is the biggest concern as temperatures rise.

"It's just going to get hotter and drier," he says. "So we've got to squeeze everything out of that sponge that we can without depleting the resource."

The County Farm Bureau agrees, saying it's up to farmers to get creative when they plant. The farming industry is a $1.7 billion business in San Diego.

"We are forced to adapt," says Farm Bureau Executive Director Hannah Gbeh. "Facing global climate change, our farmers come up with the most innovative solutions possible."

One solution found in many farms is increasing density in their fields. Stehly has moved some of his trees to just a few feet apart. That lets him water more trees with the same amount of water. It also puts more shade on the ground, which helps control evaporation. He says his grapefruit grove that usually produces 7-800 boxes per acre is now up to 1300 boxes.

He's also cutting the trees shorter, which makes harvesting easier. And he's replaced some of his "high-water" crops like avocados with plants that use less water, like grapes and coffee.

"We have to use as little water as possible and still produce a healthy crop," says Stehly.

But the most significant change, says Stehly, has been in technology. He recently added a sensor system to his farms that help him track tree growth, soil moisture, and more.

All the information goes into an app, which tells him which areas of the farm need water, and which don't. He says that can help him know what areas to water, when to water and how much water to use.

"We can skip irrigations. We can skip days," Stehly says. "When you add that up over the course of a year, it's thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water."

The Farm Bureau says the industry can also help solve the climate crisis.

"The future of ag is the solution to climate change," says Gbeh. "We need to plant more trees. We need to sequester more carbon. Nothing sequesters carbon better than an avocado tree. Here in San Diego, we can be the solution."

But, Gbeh says, that can only happen if water costs and regulations are low enough to encourage more planting.