A June-gloom Thursday morning before 9 o’clock on a leased strawberry field in Oxnard.

Mike Conroy, wearing a khaki jacket, jeans and a baseball cap, was out in the middle of several football fields’ worth of dark green 68-inch-wide rows. The 75-year-old had his hands shoved in his pockets, standing beside a flatbed picking trailer pulled by a yellow tractor.

With an easy smile and calming voice, he was explaining the predicament of farmers in Ventura County to a couple of visitors from Los Angeles. Fields have been fallowed and thousands of workers laid off because of the historic drought. 

“Well, we’re getting through on a season-by-season basis,” he said, looking out at the dozen or more pickers stooped over some 50 yards away. “A year ago … we didn’t expect the water in our aquifers to hold up. And we’re just depleting the inventory of that water with no rain.

“Everybody up here is very much on pins and needles within our industry. There’s going to be more acreage cut back unless we get an El Ni√±o and are able to replenish the aquifer. And it’s not going to happen overnight. You know, I mean two or three winters.”

After a while, he went on, explaining, “On top of that, we’ve been fighting this ‘saltwater intrusion’ through the aquifer and elimination of shallow wells and just drawing from our deep aquifers. But the thing is now, without the rainfall and replenishment, the quality of water that we’re pumping is becoming more and more marginal.”

Conroy cut down from planting 120 acres last season to 40 for his current crop, which will be picked out by mid-July. He’s also growing a different variety this year, hoping it’ll be more salt tolerant than the strawberries he’s grown in the past.

“Farming’s tough to begin with,” he said with a knowing chuckle. “But when you’re marginal farming on water supplies that you don’t have a whole lot of confidence in, it’s worse yet.”

n‘We’re intensely concerned’

Newspaper headlines pretty much tell the Golden State’s plight: “California agriculture faces greatest water loss ever,” “California farmers near ‘survival mode’ as drought drags on,” “California drought is driving the depletion of irreplaceable groundwater.”

Crops affected range from avocadoes to lemons, grapes to olives, lettuce to tomatoes. Tomatoes, in fact, are one of a number of U.S. crops grown almost exclusively in California. The others include carrots, broccoli, almonds, walnuts and figs. Almost half of the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from our bountiful state with its mostly Mediterranean climate.

So California’s prolonged drought — which is, at least, in its fourth year — really affects the whole country.

Dave Borchard manages a family farm of 800 acres in Ventura County that produces mostly lemons and avocadoes. He’s also represented agriculture on the Fox Canyon Ground Water Management Agency Board — GMA for short — since 2006.

“We’re intensely concerned,” the sixth-generation farmer told The Tidings. “They say it’s the fourth year of the drought, but really we haven’t had great rainfall for quite a while longer than that. And agriculture in Ventura County really lives off of groundwater pretty much 100 percent.

“I don’t recall my dad or my grandfather talking of times when we just didn’t have any water. We maybe didn’t have the infrastructure to distribute the water. Or our farms could only get water from our municipal source or mutual company every couple of weeks.

“But just the fact that the prospect of having the aquifers dry up, I don’t think that was ever somebody’s concern,” he said. “But it is now. And until they’re recharged somehow, I don’t know what we’ll do.” 

nAquifers and groundwater

So what’s an aquifer?

It’s basically a below-ground layer of water-bearing rock that’s permeable or made up of unconsolidated materials such as gravel, sand or silt. Because an “unconfined” aquifer is covered by permeable rock, surface water can readily seep into it.

On the other hand, a “confined” aquifer is water lying between two layers of less permeable rocks, acting like a saturated sponge. Through cracks in the upper layer of these rocks, water trickles down from a nearby water source. That can be an underground river or lake, or an unconfined aquifer.

Using a well, groundwater is pumped out for agricultural, industrial or municipal uses. But aquifers can dry up if people drain them faster than nature can refill them. That’s exactly what California farmers like Mike Conroy and Dave Borchard are so worried about.

Chemical or toxic substances on the surface can also contaminate aquifers. And if they’re located near the coast of an ocean, seawater, which is denser than fresh water, can penetrate them. This destructive process is simply called “saltwater intrusion.”

nA good steward

“We bought this property in 1986, and I’ve been farming since we moved in 28 years ago,” George Esseff Jr. said. The 61-year-old retired titanium service plant manager was taking myself and videographer John Rueda around his almost 20-acre farm on the outskirts of Moorpark in his white Chevy Silverado. The narrow road was mostly hardpan dirt with lots of bumps.

On our left stood avocado trees, some as old as 35 years. Lower down were lemon trees. Tiny yellow flags ID’d the spots where new trees were to be planted, replacing ones no longer bearing fruit.

“We’ve got six acres of lemons, 13 acres of avocados,” he continued. “And the lemons have just done very well here the past three or four years. The lemon market was not so good for a while. But it’s come back. And we’ve got some real good producing trees for ourselves.”

A deacon at St. Mary Magdalen Church in nearby Camarillo, Esseff has a thin graying mustache. He was wearing a light black jacket and jeans that looked pressed.

In a typical week, he spends 15 hours on the groves plus five to 10 hours maintaining the year-old well inside a high chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. And that’s not counting his deacon duties, which include helping out at baptisms, weddings and a lot of funerals, where he was also responsible for conducting the graveside service.

Out of the car now, Deacon Esseff was saying how the new well really ensured that the small farm would have a good, long-term source of water. It took a year to build and was more expensive than first envisioned. But it was deep, with stainless steel casing at the bottom so it wouldn’t wear out. Now with routine maintenance, which he did himself, it would last a solid three decades.

“We actually finished it April of 2014,” he reported with some noticeable pride. “And we actually got in just under the wire. Now there’s a moratorium on any wells dug here in the county. You can’t drill a well with the problems they’ve had with water sources.”

A self-conscious grin came over Esseff’s face.

He admitted that he’s had some words with God of late about the record-setting drought as well as in the past, over a cold snap that killed most of his avocado trees. But he says he was really blessed having his “other job,” running the titanium processing plant he took over from his father in Camarillo. And he’s thankful for his five boys, now ages 22 to 32, being able to grow up on a farm.

“My wife, Sherrie, agrees it’s been a great place to raise a family,” he said. “I think our children got a sense of something greater than themselves. It’s taught them about work and appreciation for what it takes to do something.

“And it also really tells you what your own limitations are from a human standpoint. And I think that’s where the faith part of it comes in, ‘cause we can only do so much.”

While we were walking from the orchard back to the white Chevy, a buzzard drifted high overhead on the gusting winds that came from the ocean, although it was many miles away. Far off, too, was a train whistle, and closer the constant hum of the well’s royal blue pumping machinery. The dried-out ground in the orchard had a gray sawdust-like covering, crunching under every step.

The farmer from Pennsylvania was saying how he had to get ready for a funeral and graveside tomorrow. But he wasn’t overly concerned, knowing with prayer the Holy Spirit would guide him.

Just like he knew that the water resources throughout California were finite. He realized if the drought went on for years — becoming a megadrought as some academics predicted — he might have to let his beloved lemon and avocado trees wither and die of thirst.

“You try to be a good steward of the land, and let God take care of the rest,” the deacon farmer said. “Because you really don’t have any control once you’ve done everything you can do. I think that’s the biggest challenge of it.”