Drought's wrath: Valley orange grower's livelihood drying up
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
June 12, 2015
Robert Ishida, 93, reads the daily paper while smoking a cigar at a table adorned with Easter flowers that he purchased for his late wife of 60 years at his home where he now lives alone April 17, 2015 in Lindsay, Calif. The Ishida family first starting farming citrus in the early 1900s and are now on their third generation of citrus farmers. This year the family will be "pushing out" at least 35 acres of citrus trees that were among the first Robert planted after he purchased new land in the early 1950s. Leah Millis/The Chronicle
Robert Ishida, 92, vividly recalls the first navel orange trees he planted on his 300 acres in Tulare County just after he returned from his “voluntary evacuation” to Utah during World War II.
The trees surround his home in Lindsay. As soon as their fruit is picked this year, he will let them die.
“It’s just tough to see ’em go,” he said. “Real tough. Especially since that’s our livelihood.”
Ishida belies the caricature of a corporate farmer getting rich on almonds and depriving Californians of water. Like almonds, navel oranges are a high-profit, permanent crop. The region he farms near Visalia produces 90 percent of the navel oranges Americans eat and exports a good many overseas.
His farm is on the edge of survival.
Last year and this, he and his two sons received no water from the Millerton Lake reservoir, now at about a third of its capacity behind the Friant Dam just above Fresno. They have some rights that guarantee them water from other sources, but not nearly enough.
A dead and sun-burned orange hangs from a tree in a dried up orchard that was let go by neighbors of the Ishidas June 7, 2015 in Lindsay, Calif. The Ishida family first starting farming near Lindsay in the early 1900s and are now on their third generation of citrus farmers. This year the family will be "pushing out" or letting go about 50 acres of citrus trees, 45 of which were among the first Robert planted after he purchased land in the early 1950s. Leah Millis/The Chronicle
The family business dates to 1906, a time when many Japanese came to California as farm laborers. Ishida avoided being put in an internment camp in World War II by moving to Utah “voluntarily.”
His family lost their farm during the war. When Ishida and his late wife returned to Lindsay in 1947, they started from scratch, “with $150 in our pocket.”
The farm was nearly paid off in 1990 when a freeze hit. His son Allen, a Tulare County supervisor, said it took them 20 years to recover. Now, the drought could wipe them out.
Last year they bought 300 acre-feet of water for $300,000. That’s enough water to cover 300 acres in about a foot of water. They can’t afford that again, so they are letting some trees die.
“I was born on a farm, born and raised, so I’ve been a farmer all my life,” Robert Ishida said. “I’ve never faced this kind of problem before.”
He will plant a few new orange trees this year, even as he lets old ones die. Saplings require little water, Ishida said, “and then when the drought is over we’ll have some trees left.”
But if the drought continues next winter, he said, “we won’t ever make it. And there’s a lot of farmers just like me.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead