Simonian Farms copes with drought effects

By Valerie Shelton

Photos by Valerie Shelton A basket of what’s in season at Simonian Farms: juicy peaches and royal red grapes.
Photos by Valerie Shelton
A basket of what’s in season at Simonian Farms: juicy peaches and royal red grapes.

California’s drought has done a number on farmer’s Valley wide, but small farmers in particular are feeling the sting of the unrelenting dry weather.

While Simonian Farms may seem like a big-time farming operation thanks to name recognition and a large market storefront on the corner of Clovis Avenue and Jensen, it’s actually a small family operation—only 80 acres—headed by patriarch Dennis Simonian. Simonian says his popular farm is certainly not immune to the effects of the drought.

While Simonian’s crops continue to thrive, that’s all due to the amount of money the Simonian family has poured into repairing old wells and drilling new ones to get new sources of water just in case the old wells run dry.

“We’ve dug new wells, we’ve extended wells, we’ve put in new pumps on old wells,” Simonian explained. “That’s big dollars for a small farmer. This last well we dug cost $40,000.”

While no well has failed on Simonian, he has seen the water table drop and has been getting creative to prevent a situation where some of his crops lose water. For years, Simonian said he’s been prudent, anticipating that another drought like the one in the 1970s would occur again. He’s put in drip irrigation and he’s spent the money to connect one well to another. The current drought, however, is worse then he imagined, he said.

“I had drip 35 years ago when no one even had drip because I was concerned then, especially in 1977 when the government paid farmers to put in new wells,” Simonian said. “That was the newest well I had until I just dug one this year and there was a drought back then too. This current drought, though, is really concerning.”

Simonian said if the drought continues, things will not only get worse for farmers like him, but for everyone.

“If we have another year like this, it’s going to be very scary not just for the farmer, but for everyone,” Simonian said. “Some people don’t take it seriously, you drive around and the sprinklers are on the wrong day, running down the driveway. In order to solve this, we all have to work together. It’s scarier than I’ve ever felt in all my life and I’ve been in this business since I was 16 years old. I feel guilty just turning on the faucet for water to brush my teeth.”

Even if this year is a wet year, as some people are anticipating with El Nino, Simonian said it’s important not to forget to conserve. One year, he said, can’t fix the drought problems—they will occur again and everyone needs to be prepared.

“Everyone thinks that if we have a rainy year that will solve this but it’s not going to,” Simonian said. “We should be building dams to hold this anticipated water now, otherwise it’s going to go right into the ocean. It is a lot worse than people realize. Nobody will really realize it until they go turn that tap water on, like those people in Porterville, and nothing comes out. That’s the sad part.”

For farmers, Simonian said, water is all that’s been talked about for the past two years because as suppliers of the worlds fruits, vegetables and nuts, local farmers know what can happen if more wells run dry.

“The economy of the Valley is based on agriculture,” Simonian said. “For every $3.50 spent in the Valley, $1.50 goes to or comes from agriculture. If we don’t have agriculture here, jobs will be lost and there will be nothing here. This will be like the old ghost towns. They’ll have that high-speed rail go through but they won’t even stop here. They’ll look and say, ‘hey that building over there used to be an old raisin packing house.’ It will be like the old gold country—just a tourist place. People don’t understand that we feed the world out of here, not just the United States This is the breadbasket of the world. Right now the Middle East controls the oil and if something doesn’t change, China will control the food. We don’t want that to happen.”

Of course, solving the state’s water problems is going to take more than just conservation, it will take a lot of money, Simonian said, which is why he thinks the government hasn’t stepped in with a plan—there are ways to fix the problem, but their costly and those costs will raise rates for consumers.

“Desalination works, but it costs a lot to build those plants and the reason they don’t do it even though we’ll have plenty of water, it will end of costing $300 for water because it costs so much to build the plants and the pipelines,” Simonian said.

Right now, Simonian said, farmers are already paying higher amounts for water because they’ve had to drill deeper to get it, and unlike the government which passes costs down to taxpayers, farmers can’t just charge an exorbitant amount for grapes, peaches and plums.

“It’s all about supply and demand,” Simonian said. “If there is too much of it people won’t buy it. It doesn’t matter what it costs you for the water as a farmer, you can’t pass it on because no one will buy it.”

More and more, Simonian said, the costs are slowly eating away at small farmers. Even Simonian said he can’t compete with some of his large-scale farming neighbors who are digging wells deeper than his. The city, he said, also is drilling deeper wells for new homes being built in the area.

“Your not only fighting your water problems, you are fighting what the big guys are doing and what the city is doing,” Simonian said. “I feel they should put a moratorium on houses and building right now but they’re not. Right down the street, they are going to put in a new well to service an 80-acre housing tract. These guys don’t go 300 or 400 feet; they go 1,000 feet to service all these homes. They use all that, there isn’t enough for my couple hundred feet.”

In this way, the severe drought, Simonian said, and the potential costs to get out of it, will signal the end of the small town farmer. Already, he said, many have hung their hats.

“Basically, when it all blows over the small farmer will not be around,” Simonian said. “In the next 10 years, your small farmer is gone. From where I’m sitting, right across the street from me there is an operation that owns 5,000 to 6,000 acres. On the other side, same thing. Right behind where I live? Same. Those guys dig their wells 600 feet where we’re anywhere from 200 maybe to 300 so they are tapping in right now if there is a reserve down there, they are getting it already. They are bypassing us. The table is dropping because of that. Then the really big farmers are buying their own rigs and they drill holes and cap them so if their well goes dry they are ready. What is the small farmer going to do? Is he going to get in line for a year before they can come drill a new well? If he is 60 or 70 years old, is he going to go invest all this money in something he may not ever see? You hang it up or sell it and that’s what is happening.”

Simonian, though, isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. As long as they can, he said, Simonian Farms will continue to serve Valley customers the fresh produce they’ve come to love for so many years.

“It’s all about family,” Simonian says of the business he started at just 16 when all the Simonians had was a vineyard and some tomatoes planted in between the vines.

“The old fruit stand was on the corner and a pecan tree ran through the middle of the shop,” Simonian said. “When I was 16 my dad asked if I wanted to rent the building, he used to rent it to other people and at 13 I started working for the man he rented it out to so when I was 16 he asked if I wanted to rent it for $125 a month and so I rented it, my sister helped and she sold and we were like partners, she did selling and I went out and picked the fruit.”

Now, the business is run by Dennis, his wife Bonnie and their three daughters and they have all kinds of their own produce and instead of a little stand, they have the iconic store with cold storage in the back and even a fun new barn where people can do wine tasting.

It’s not something Simonian will let go of easily—not as long as there is water and loyal customers.