It rained so hard here the other day that local farmers like Jack Woolf had to perform impromptu sidestepping dances around deep farmyard puddles and scrape the mud splashes off their windshields after a drive.

But despite the cloudburst, Woolf and neighboring farmers in central California's fertile but semi-arid San Joaquin Valley are coming to fear drought.

Last year California had its third driest year in the last century and the dry spell is continuing. Some agricultural experts are bracing for what they predict could be the worst drought ever to hit the state since records have been kept.

State officials said last week that the Sierra Mountains in the north of California, traditionally the state's agricultural watershed have received only five inches of precipitation in the last six months instead of the normal 30 inches.

Ranchers and farmers, who lost and estimated $500 million in crops and livestock last year because of the drought, are already selling off sheep and cattle herds this year because grazing land is too dry and they can't afford expensive feed for their animals. California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. last week called for President Ford to declare 23 northern and central California counties a disaster area because of the drought.

Farmers received additional bad news last week from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau, which controls the flow of irrigation water from the Sierras to the vast 500-mile-long Central valley (California's farming belt), warned it may cut back agricultural water allotments by 25 per cent or more beginning next month if the rainfall doesn't pick up.

The San Joaquin Valley, which is part of the Central Valley, is almost totally dependent on irrigated water for its crops. Without the water, a state agricultural official said, "The valley would dry up and blow away."

State officials said the water cutback is almost certain and could easily go above 25 per cent. By an agricultural rule of thumb a 25 per cent water reduction means a cutback of as much as 50 per cent in crop production of some crops raised here.

"The 25 per cent cut is based on a normal amount of precipitation and they're nowhere near it," said Robert McGregor, chief of the state crop and livestock reporting service.

"It's going to take a deluge to keep from cutting back on water allotments this year," McGregor said.

Farmers everywhere are accustomed to living with the whims of the weather, and farmers here like Woolf, who lives 400 miles from the weather that provides the water, tend to be even more resigned than most.

"It's in the laps of the gods," Woolf said after he met last week with his senior foremen to decide how to cope with the predicted water cuts. From the small white building here that houses the Woolf Farming Co. offices, several of the company's dozen tractors could be seen preparing the nearly 8,500 acres it plants each spring in cotton, barley and tomatoes.

Because of the expected water cutback, Woolf is planning to pull between 15 and 25 per cent of his land cut of production this year, the most that he has ever idled since he began farming here in 1946.

Like most big farmers here, Woolf has already sold most of his expected crops for the coming year and signed contracts with food processors and crop wholesalers. Right now he said he can meet those contracts even with the cutbacks. "We're on the razor's edge and if they cut us back any more things could get really dangerous and we couldn't fulfill our contracts, he said.

But Woolf is luckier than some of the other farmers here. He has several deep wells on his land which supplement his irrigation allotment. Most farmers here, he said, rely entirely on the big San Luis Aqueduct, a 150-foot-wide stream flowing on a conrete riverbed for hundreds of miles down the valley from the Shasta Dam in the Sierras. Those farmers face even stiffer cutbacks in crop production said Woolf.

Because of the scale of farming here, sizable cutbacks in production are likely to be felt in the national marketplace, according to agricultural officials.

Fresno County, where Huron is located, has the largest agricultural production in the United States, with more than $1 billion in crops produced last year. Cutbacks here and in other big farm counties up and down the Central Valley are likely to mean higher prices on a national scale, officials said.

"Prices are going to go up, some of them way up, if this thing is bad," said William Hambleton. Fresno County's agriculture director. "Farming is so big here that wren you have a shortage the demand goes up and the price goes up right along with it."

The Central Valley is a leading national supplier of cotton, wheat, barley, most vegetables, oranges, grapes and other fruits. Fresno County's agricultural output alone is larger than crop production for all but a handful of the other states.

Despite the bad news, agricultural officials and farmers are reluctant to press the Bureau of Reclamation too hard to release additional water from the giant 17-reservoir water shortage area behind Shasta Dam.

California's worst recorded drought took place in the 1920s and lasted several years, state officials noted. They said they feared that if too much of the reserve is released this year the entire system might run out next year.

"We're all grasping for straws, but you have to be careful you don't panic," Woolf said. "We don't know what's ahead. This year is critical but next year could be a disaster."