March 23, 2020

Water Issues Top the Charts

Member Profile: Mark Borba


Borba Farms Inc.

Riverdale, CA

Member Since 2006

It was in the early 1900s that Mark Borba’s ancestors started working the land, near Hardwick in the San Joaquin Valley. His grandparents were dairy farmers. After World War II, the Borba family began to rethink the economics of dairy farming and set their sights on row crops. “The first thing they started with was cotton,” said Mark, adding that cotton was grown by the family for more than 70 years.

The transition to row crops in the late 1940s was indicative of the farming philosophy that has driven the Borba family for more than seven decades. A discussion with Mark reveals that economics has always played the most important role as crop decisions are made year in and year out. Many of those decisions have been driven by market price, but increasingly it is the availability of water that informs the discussion.

It was in the late ‘40s that Mark’s parents, Ross and Tina, and his uncle, Darril, started their own operation called Borba Brothers Farms. For 35-plus years, they grew a variety of row crops, with cotton always being one of the mainstays.

In the meantime, young Mark grew up on the farm and always knew it would be his future. He went to college at the University of California, Davis majoring in agricultural economics and business management with a minor in agronomy. College not only yielded a great foundation for his farming life, but also gave him a partner for the journey. “I got married in 1971 when I was a sophomore at Davis. I told my wife, if she would work and put me through college, we would settle down and raise a family together…just like ‘The Waltons’.” And, Peggy and Mark have been married ever since, celebrating 48 years this past September.

Armed with that degree, Mark did come back to the farm in 1974 to work with the rest of his family, which included his older brother, Ross Jr. In 1975, Ross Sr. had a severe heart attack that required a quadruple bypass. The elder Borba recovered but running a high-stress farming operation was no longer in the cards.

In 1976, Mark and Ross Jr. teamed up to created Borba Farms Inc. and continue the family tradition. For the next 30-plus years, the second generation of Borba brothers made their living growing row crops. Ross Jr., who graduated from Healds College with a degree in accounting, handled the finance and legal end of the business, while Mark took care of the farming.

The brothers continued along the same diversity path that their father and uncle followed. Mark noted that in the 1960s, the family operation moved to the Westside and started diversifying into other row crops, including sugar beets, barley and processing tomatoes. In the late 1960s, Borba Brothers bought a mechanical tomato harvester, when they were still the new thing, and began offering harvesting services to other growers, in addition to harvesting their new tomato acreage. That expansion of the business continues to this day as Borba Farms grows about 2600 of its own acres and manages an additional 7500 acres for other growers.

Diversity has continued to be a hallmark of the organization. The farming operation is now involved in almonds, pistachios, processing tomatoes, garlic, onions, garbanzo beans, melons and lettuce as well as rotation crops. “And for the first time ever, no cotton,” Mark said.

His story about the family’s cotton journey is emblematic of the calculations necessary for any successful farming entity. To compete with other lower-cost cotton-producing regions around the country, Borba Farms always grew ACALA cotton, a premium product unique to California’s San Joaquin Valley. It was always considered the highest Upland cotton in the world and did return a premium. “That premium started to evaporate, so in the early ‘90s we switched to Pima cotton.”

Pima cotton produces long, fine and strong cotton fibers that result in an ultra-soft fabric. “We always received quite a premium for Pima cotton,” Borba said, noting that while regular cotton would return about 70-80 cents per pound, Pima would return up to $1.30 per pound.

But the cotton market and the high cost of production has made cotton a risky proposition this year. Borba says he remains open to planting it again down the road, but it has to pencil out, and at today’s market…it doesn’t.

Mark and his brother ran the operation together until 2007. At that point, Ross decided to step away from the day-to-day operation and farming risks and only remain involved as a landlord. He still comes into the office most days and handles some of the accounting and legal work, but has backed away from some of the headaches involved in being a farmer in California.

And those headaches are many. Mark runs down a litany of government-created issues that make farming difficult. He is especially apoplectic about the water situation. “The cost of water has made it uneconomic to grow most row crops,” he said, using cotton as his first example. “It takes us 2.25-acre feet of water under drip irrigation to grow cotton. That used to cost $7.50 per acre foot.”

And they used to get all that water from their Central Valley Project contracted water allocation. Borba Farms no longer gets its full contracted amount. In fact, over the last couple of decades, its water delivery has averaged out to be only 37 percent of its allocation and the cost to accumulate sufficient seasonal water has ranged historically between $85 and $1,300 per acre foot! The growing operation must supplement that water with well water, with wells costing $850,000 to $1.2 million each to install, and energy costs alone at $165-$250 per acre foot. For budgeting purposes, Borba uses a blended $250 per acre foot to determine if a crop makes economic sense. Few do.

If a solution isn’t forthcoming, he said row crop farming will disappear from the San Joaquin Valley. He noted that Gilroy is no longer the garlic capital of the world. That designation should go to the Five Points/Huron area in the San Joaquin Valley. But Borba said the cost of producing garlic versus the price received currently doesn’t pencil out. “Agronomically, you can only grow garlic on a piece of ground in one year out of four,” he said, stating that if you are going to be a garlic grower, you have to devote a lot of land to the project.

Turning his attention to processing tomatoes, he revealed that by most measures, Borba Farms had a very good year in 2019. “We produced 55 tons to the acre and received $73 per ton,” he said, noting that both of those numbers would have been very credible not that long ago. “But we had red ink, with no return to cover fixed costs like land rents, property taxes, insurance, legal and accounting, management, and interest on debt! We have to get over $80 (per ton) this year and the processors are saying they can’t afford it.”

Borba said the result is that more and more land is being bought up by large conglomerates, who are putting in permanent crop, such as nuts and wine grapes. Those crops have a better chance of penciling out and the land itself is the investment these financial companies are looking for.

That is a silver lining for agricultural landowners as the value of the land continues to climb. There is open farmland on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley selling for $10,000 per acre, which is more than 300 percent greater than a couple of decades ago. “My brother keeps asking me what I am waiting for,” Mark quipped.

But Borba cautions that once the land is planted in permanent crops or developed for non-agricultural use, it is lost to agriculture for a long time, if not forever.

He hopes that California’s government officials will see the light and recognize that growing crops is an important part of the state’s fabric. He pines for the day when farmers and their pursuit to feed the nation trumps the latest crisis cooked up by activists. He fears that SGMA (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) could be “strike three” as it further reduces the water farmers have available.

Borba Farms has already switched its acreage to 100 percent drip irrigation and uses about half the water per acre that it once did. But, crops have to grow, and while technology can offer efficiencies, the crops’ required consumptive use of water is not replaceable.

Despite it all, Mark Borba does remain an eternal optimist (“probably to a fault”) and is delighted his son Derek has joined the operation and is poised to carry on the family legacy. But, he admits that Derek is wary of the future and not as optimistic about the long-term prognosis for California agriculture. “He is deeply concerned about the economics of agriculture,” Mark said. “My son is tech-savvy and is keeping one foot in that arena.”

Mark and Peggy continue to love the farming life and on the day of this interview, they could be found driving the backroads of the San Joaquin Valley enjoying the peace that farming the land brings. For fun, the couple loves to hang with their four grandchildren and are very fond of visiting California’s Central Coast.

“I believe my wife was a mermaid in an earlier life,” Mark joked.