Dry Times

Water wisdom from Rick Crane

Inside the Crane Melon Barn on Petaluma Hill Road in Santa Rosa, Rick Crane, 63, listens to the patter of the rain on the roof and wonders if the first real rainstorm of the year might signal the end of the drought.

“The weather here seems to shift every 15 to 20 years,” he says. “Sometimes it’s wetter and sometimes it’s drier. Last year we had nine inches in about 12 hours; much of it was runoff. What we need is efficient rain that soaks into the ground.”

Crane’s great-grandfather Oliver Crane dry-farmed the Crane melons that he developed at the start of the 20th century (and that are named after him). Rick dry-farms, too, though dry-farming is still rare in vineyards and on farms. “What we lose in weight by not irrigating we gain in quality,” he says. “We live or die with quality. For taste, you can’t beat our melons or the wine that’s made from our grapes.”

Guy Davis turns Crane’s near-perfect fruit into majestic Pinot Noir under the WHOA label. It sells for about $60 a bottle.

Nearly a year after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency and urged Californians to conserve—and at the end of a wet November with rainfall exceeding norms—Northern California is still too dry to breathe a sigh of relief. From Sacramento to Santa Rosa and beyond, farmers, ranchers and homeowners expect the worst and hope for the best. Crane doesn’t like to complain, but he learned a long time ago that with water—too much or too little—comes worry. There’s more to worry about now than in the days when he was a boy, when farms and ranches stretched up and down Petaluma Hill Road, all the way to 101.

A living history book, Crane conveys the sweep of the past and provides sharp images of places and people, including himself. “I’m a dinosaur,” he says with a laugh. A dinosaur with a good memory who doesn’t aim to impose the norms of yesteryear on the present. They just won’t fit.

“In 1900, the farmers around here didn’t start to plant until it started to rain,” he said. “The ground was too hard. Now you can’t wait for the rain because rain narrows your options. You can’t get into the fields when they’re sogged.”

He gazes at the rain that’s falling slowly, steadily and efficiently. It seems to make him happy.

“When I was a boy, we’d plant oats before Thanksgiving and then again after Thanksgiving,” he says. “We’d plant on Thanksgiving Day before we ate turkey, and then we’d go out into the fields and plant more oats after we had turkey.”

Nobody lives and works that way anymore. Certainly not Crane, though he practically lives on the five-acre parcel of grapes that he cultivates as though they’re his own children. He doesn’t pick the grapes. A crew does that in no time; he stands back and marvels at their speed and accuracy.

In the old days, Crane points out, nobody irrigated, not even Luther Burbank. His great-grandfather’s contemporary was the horticultural wizard of Santa Rosa, who developed hybrid potatoes, tomatoes and plums, and who experimented with drought-resistant plants, including spineless cactus that could feed cows.

For more than a half-century, Crane has kept track of rainless days and endless downpours, and while he accepts the idea that human beings have altered weather patterns, he doesn’t entirely buy into the idea of global climate change.

Sonoma County’s crazy weather patterns have given him fits and starts, but he’s learned to keep his cool in face of the uncertainties. The happiest day of the year, he explains, isn’t Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, but that special day in fall when the grapes have been picked, loaded onto trucks and headed for the crush.

“If we escape drought, flood, freezing and every other natural disaster, then I can breathe a sigh of relief,” he says.

Water—not too much and not too little—usually spells relief.

One hundred years or so ago, his forefathers dug a 30-foot well with picks and shovels. For decades that shallow hole provided all the water that the Cranes needed for their crops, their animals and their personal needs.

Then Rohnert Park drilled down hundreds of feet, and the old well ran dry. Crane went down 200 feet to find enough water to supply his farm and his family. Now he’s worried again as new houses rise up along Rohnert Park Expressway.

“We’re told to conserve water,” he says. “But 1,300 new units around the corner from me aren’t going to help the water table here. The casino sucks up vast quantities of water too. No one around here seems to want to say no to development that brings in money.”

After a couple of hours, it’s still raining, and Crane is still worrying. He’s too old and perhaps too wise to carry buckets of unlimited optimism in his head.

“If reservoirs are full by the end of this rainy season it will be as if no drought ever happened,” he says. “People tend to forget. But if the drought here lasts year after year, it’ll be all over for California. I’d hate to see that day. Maybe this drought will serve as a wake-up call. We’ve been kicking the same old bucket for decades. We have to revamp the whole water system. It’s time for something new.”

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