On January 17, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in much of the state’s agricultural counties. This has been the driest year on record since they started keeping track more than 100 years ago. In 1976-77, a few years before I married into the family, my husband told me they had to truck in water for the stock, limit personal bathing to the absolute minimum, and make weekly trips to the Laundromat. We’re almost at that point now.
Of course, we already knew we were approaching an emergency water shortage. Last weekend we bought additional hay for our small flock, something we never do this time of year. But here it is, just a few weeks after New Year's, and the hills are dry and dusty with very little green, far different from the usual deep grass of winter. We’ve had to raise the flock’s hay intake – lately when I whistle for the dog, the sheep come running, hoping that I’ll give them leftover produce like last summer and fall or even just some weeds I’ve pulled.
What’s even scarier is that the first four of our ewes have lambed in the last few days giving us three singles and only one set of twins. Only rarely do our Barbados Black Bellies deliver singles. I’ve begun to wonder whether, like some of the wild animals, their reproductive systems naturally shut down when food is scarce.
No question, food for the sheep is scarce. Below is a photo showing the old Italian prune orchard (not many trees still standing). With all the brown grass, if the photograph had been taken in July, there would be nothing amiss. Unfortunately, this was taken a few weeks ago. (The roof of our house can be seen at the left in the trees at mid-picture.)
At the grocery store checkout the other day, I heard someone raving about the “great weather.” “This is just like Hawaii,” said a tall white-haired man in shorts, “only better – none of that awful humidity.” His cart held bananas, tomatoes, milk and oranges. When the prices rise on fresh produce, dairy products and meat, will he realize the cause? I know there are dairy farmers considering reducing their herds and farmers over near Delano and Sacramento who are shifting their water from their row crops to almonds, peaches and other trees. If trees wither up and die, it takes a lot longer to replace them than it does vegetables.
This is the time of year we pore over seed catalogs and sift through our saved seeds. We review what sold last season and what didn’t, what we liked and what we didn’t. Once we’ve chosen what we’ll plant, we draw up a garden plan to make sure we rotate and that each plant is in the best location. This year we have a harder decision, a decision about water. We have good water here, but it comes from natural springs and it supplies two homes, two barns, grapevines, fruit and nut trees, and an enormous garden. The water system is gravity fed – no well, no pump.
We hope to have our garden plans for 2014 finished by the end of the week. Each day I check the skies for signs of rain. My husband checks the long-term Internet weather projections, national and local. So far, we’ve been fortunate, but we must decide whether we need to cut back on our planting, which of course means a drop in income.
We have family, friends, a roof over our heads, more than enough good work, and the pantry is full. I wish the same for others who work the land or raise stock and, for that matter, for all those who find themselves facing hard times. Hard times are a part of everyone's life, but when I can't sleep, I have learned to quiet my anxious heart by saying like a mantra, "Bless and release, just bless and release."