In the midst of a near embarrassment of agricultural riches here, farmer Jerry Hoyt battles the West's worst drought with computer printouts, ledger sheets and a television terminal behind his desk that supplies the latest commodity market prices at the flip of a switch.
So far the struggle between California's computerized farmers and an uneven. And that, in a state which accounts for nearly 40 per cent of the nation's fruits and vegetables, is welcome news for consumers, nervous about possible drought-inspired price hikes in the supermarkets.
In fact, when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland toured this region for three days this week, he told reporters that up to now the only crops that appear severely affected are rice and sugar beets. Shortages of both can be easily made up by ample surpluses elsewhere in the nation and the world, Bergland said.
The authoritative California Crop and Livestock Reporting Service issued its own figures this week indicating 'hat farmers intend to plant about 7 million-acres in the April-June quarter, down a relatively slight 200,000 acres from last year's record.
Not everyone is optimistic, however. Eric Thor, an agricultural economist from the University of California at Berkeley, said that crop yields per acre are likely to be considerably diminished because of the drought.
Thor predicted that the price of fresh vegetables could go 10 to 15 per cent higher on market shelves by late summer, and crops such as pears, apples, walnuts and almonds may be smaller this year because of the lack of water.
In a consistently high-demand market like the one for fruits and vegetables, any reduction in supply causes a greater increase in retail prices, according to agricultural economists such as Thor.
Wheat, rice, sugar beets, lettuce and to a slight extent tomatoes will all be planted in smaller quantities this year, the reporting service said. But plantings of beans, broccoli, some melons and strawberries -- all major national crops -- will be substantially higher despite the drought.
If the drought is as bad as some reports have indicated -- and there is every reason to believe it is -- how can California be carrying on its agribusiness as usual and in some cases even better than usual?
A closer look at Jerry Hoyt's operation might provide some clues, both to the current situation and to what may lie farther down the road for consumers if the drought continues.
Hoyt, 48, is a partner in one of the San Joaquin Valley's most successful corporate farming operations. His company, called Timpco, has about 30,000 cattle in California and Oregon and farms nearly 13,000 acres, including 9,000 acres in Mendota on the parched western side of the San Joaquin Valley.
A certified public accountant's license hangs on the wall of his office along with the awards for the farm's high crop yields. This year, he said, the successful farmer is the one who can juggle the intricate paperwork of water allowances, crop yields, national commodity supplies and cost analyses of crops to water.
The company still lacks a fully computerized program, so Hoyt and his agricultural experts keep detailed charts and shuffle their crops around their holdings like pieces on a checkerboard.
This year for example, they will leave 2,500 acres unplanted because, like everyone else, they have been cut back 60 per cent on state water supplies and 75 per cent on federal irrigation water.
Last year they grew 16 different crops; this year they have cut back to nine. Gone are 320 acres of onions and 450 acres of tomatoes because they use too much water. Last month they plowed up 185 acres of sugarbeets already in the ground and another 260 acres of sugarbeets are scheduled to be abandoned because of dwindling water supplies.
"We'll end up digging them up and throwing them out on the ground for the sheep to eat," said ranch superintendent Clyde Irion.
Hoyt, Irion and George Butts were out in the pea fields the other day with their clipboards and their charts deliberating whether to divert some water to save part of that crop.
"We've already lost 220 acres," said Irion, fingering the dusty soil and withered pea plants too short for the harvesting machinery to handle. "There's no use crying over it," he said. "You can't cry enough to water them."
Similar scenes are being played out all over this state. In areas with water, crops like lettuce and melons are being rushed to harvest before the water runs out.
Other crops like tomatoes are being shifted northward from the San Joaquin Valley, where water is scarce, to the Sacramento Valley, where the drought has been less harsh.
"The major question is whether the shifts and decreased water supplies will cut crop yields," said Robert McGregor, head of the state crop reporting service. Lower yields will drive up retail prices, he said.
Prices could also go up because of the high cost of drilling for water -- up to $100,000 for some of the deeper wells here. Farmers have turned extensively to well water to offset reduced state and federal supplies piped from the north.
Thor, the Berkeley agricultural economist, said fresh vegetable prices around the country should be showing the effects of the drought fairly soon. He said crops such as cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and broccoli will be in shorter supply because of lower yields and this will keep the prices at winter highs.
"Normally vegetables should be coming down in price, now that the big Western harvests are starting," said Thor. "But this year we think those prices will remain high because of the frost in the Southeast this winter and because of what the drought is doing in California."