AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Farmers in California have been widely criticized because agriculture uses the majority of the state's water, but some farmers are cutting back by using new techniques. Lesley McClurg from Capital Public Radio brings us this story. She visited an avocado grower who is using half as much water to yield twice as much fruit.
LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: It wasn't long ago that avocados were a luxury crop, but the fruit's popularity has soared in recent years, demonstrated by the sandwich chain Subway. For the last several years, the featured sub has included avocados.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Guacamole.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Guacamole.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Guacamole.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Guacamole.
MCCLURG: If an avocado was grown in the U.S., it most likely ripened in California, where 90 percent of the nation's crop originates. The majority of the state's groves are in San Diego County, and the industry's heart is near the small town of Valley Center. Nick Stehly's avocado farm is high above town, on a ridge at the end of a long, twisting road. Numerous farms along the way have been deserted and are now barren hillsides. He says weeds can suck up a lot of water, and he's protecting every drop he can. He's removing trees and fallowing fields on two-thirds of his 800-acre farm this year.
NICK STEHLY: They already shut stuff off - or, like, all that wood out there were trees once upon a time
MCCLURG: He points to a pile of dead lemon trees that will be cut into firewood soon. Below the woodpile is an empty pond. He says he's never weathered a drought like this one in nearly 50 years of farming.
STEHLY: But it is - it's worrying - I mean, going to sleep at night sometimes worrying that your crop will hold and take care of the water prices and stuff like that.
MCCLURG: He's paying about $1,600 for an acre-foot of water. That's an all-time high, and it's nearly the most expensive water in the state. He says at that price, he can hardly break even growing avocados, but he's not ready to give up.
STEHLY: But, yeah, you got avocados in your blood, it's hard to get rid of them sometimes.
MCCLURG: Stehly is hopeful a new growing technique might save him. The mastermind is Gary Bender, a University of California avocado specialist and farm advisor in San Diego County.
GARY BENDER: So the idea is - what's our maximum yield per acre, so we can actually pay these water bills and keep these guys in business?
MCCLURG: Bender's answer is higher density planting. Instead of the standard distance of 20 feet apart, he just ran a trial where he planted trees 10 feet apart. And then instead of letting trees grow tall, which is the standard practice, he pruned them regularly to keep the trees short and fat. Bender's study was a huge success, yielding nearly 13,000 pounds of Hass avocados per acre.
BENDER: We're producing twice as much fruit for a little bit less water.
MCCLURG: This seems easy. Why hasn't it been done before?
BENDER: Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it?
BENDER: We've been growing avocados wrong all these years, and we're finally starting to figure it out.
MCCLURG: Bender says higher density trials are starting in other crops, like apples, olives and oranges. Close plantings haven't been popular in California in the past because it's easier to harvest and spray pesticides when trees are far apart. But traditional methods don't work as well during a drought. The new growing technique could be a likely key to staying in business for avocado grower Nick Stehly.
STEHLY: Oh, it's fantastic news - get these trees to grow and produce. Its - again, any farmer's going to like that. That's for sure.
MCCLURG: The second harvest looks optimistic. The trees in the trial grove are heavy with budding fruit. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Valley Center, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.