With a 300-day growing season, abundant water, easy access to markets, and sophisticated conservation and farming techniques, the Coachella Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. Every acre averages a gross annual value of $8,000. Cash crops, from dates to hay, bring local farmers more than $500 million in annual revenue and account for almost half of Riverside County’s payroll.
Until the Coachella Canal was built in 1949, valley agriculture was an up-and-down venture, with dry years depleting the aquifer and tapping out artesian wells. The canal brought water from the Colorado River and allowed farmers to plant and harvest predictably. Today, the Colorado River delivers about 330,000 acre-feet of irrigation water to farms each year, with more water coming from private wells.
When the Coachella Valley Water District joined the California State Water Project in the 1960s, the area gained entitlement to imported water totaling 500,000 acre-feet, annually. But a growing urban population and increased demand throughout Southern California exerts pressure to reduce that allotment.
The Coachella Valley Water Management Plan is a response to that pressure, serving as a regional blueprint to greatly reduce total water demand. Today, more than 60 percent of the area’s farms use some type of micro irrigation, salinity control is becoming more sophisticated, and the area is on track to cut agricultural water use by 7 percent in 2015.
Organic Farming on the Grow
In 2012, longtime grape grower Richard Bagdasarian Inc. in Mecca took advantage of multiple county, state, and federal incentives to add a solar energy system to its packinghouse. A leader in sustainable agriculture, Bagdasarian also grows several varieties of organic grapes and lemons, and packages produce in reusable containers. The company partners with Pasha Marketing LLC, which grows, packages, and distributes organic peppers, eggplant, and green beans.
Local farmers produce more than 95 percent of the dates grown in the United States. Oasis Date Gardens Inc., a valley date grower since 1912, was certified organic in 2000. Oasis works with the California Date Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Coachella Valley Resource Conservation District, and USDA Agricultural Research Service, researching better water use and growing techniques that produce crops than can flourish without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Farming tilapia in the Coachella Valley since 1993, Aqua Farming Tech Inc. is the leader in the farmed-fish industry, and founder Rocky French has become known for a long line of firsts: first with more than 60 tanks, first to use a mechanical aerator to improve water oxygenation, first to recycle its water, and first to generate a significant percentage of its power from solar. Now the company is partnering with Los Angeles-based OriginOil to establish a permanent technology showcase for a high-speed, chemical-free method of cleaning water in the tanks. “We’re so excited about this,” French says. “The technology will strip the ammonia from the water and remove the algae. We will then pelletize the algae and feed it to the fish. It’s a beautiful cycle.”
New Global Energy Inc., owner of the tech site, will help OriginOil develop sales prospects in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere, taking advantage of French’s extensive industry network.
The end goal is to reduce feed and electricity costs, while also dramatically improving the nutritional value and taste of farmed fish.
College of the Desert prepares students for occupations in Coachella Valley’s diverse and profitable agriculture sector, offering associate’s degrees in agribusiness, general agriculture, natural resources, plant science, and turfgrass management.
Students can also gain hands-on skills and earn a certificate of achievement in landscape and irrigation, pest management, turfgrass management, and natural resources.
Riverside County introduced its Ag Trail website recently to promote agricultural tourism, pointing visitors and residents to fresh produce markets, wineries, festivals, and family activities. The site includes suggested stops at farms in Thermal, Mecca, and Coachella, as well as visits to The Living Desert and Coachella Valley History Museum. Regular farmers markets in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella also make the itinerary. Visit www.agtrail.rivcoca.org
CROP VALUES SOAR
In 2010, the Coachella Valley’s agricultural production broke out of a five-year trading range of roughly $500 million to reach a record $533.8 million, up $49 million, or 9.2 percent, from 2010. In 2011, it reached its second-highest level at $526.3 million. Major importers of Coachella Valley crops include Japan, China, and Mexico.
Vegetables top the list — lettuce, bell peppers, sweet corn, Oriental vegetables, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, plus an assortment of others, including artichokes, green beans, celery, eggplant, melons, okra, onions, radishes, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, and herbs and spices. Smaller crops include cucumbers, collard greens, potatoes, rutabaga, and winter squash.