Amid epic drought, California farmers turn to water witches

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Vern Tassey, a water witch, with his divining tools in an orange grove in Lindsay, Calif. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

LINDSAY, Calif. — Vern Tassey doesn’t advertise. He’s never even had a business card. But here in California’s Central Valley, word has gotten around that he’s a man with “the gift,” and Tassey, a plainspoken, 76-year-old grandfather, has never been busier.

Farmers call him day and night — some from as far away as the outskirts of San Francisco and even across the state line in Nevada. They ask, sometimes even beg, him to come to their land. “Name your price,” one told him. But Tassey has so far declined. What he does has never been about money, he says, and he prefers to work closer to home.

And that’s where he was on a recent Wednesday morning, quietly marching along the edge of a bushy orange grove here in the heart of California’s citrus belt, where he’s lived nearly his entire life. Dressed in faded Wranglers, dusty work boots and an old cap, Tassey held in his hands a slender metal rod, which he clutched close to his chest and positioned outward like a sword as he slowly walked along the trees. Suddenly, the rod began to bounce up and down, as if it were possessed, and he quickly paused and scratched a spot in the dirt with his foot before continuing on.

A few feet away stood the Wollenmans — Guy, his brother Jody and their cousin Tommy — third-generation citrus farmers whose family maintains some of the oldest orange groves in the region. Like so many Central Valley farmers, their legacy is in danger — put at risk by California’s worst drought in decades. The lack of rain and snow runoff from the nearby Sierra Nevada has caused many of their wells to go dry. To save their hundreds of acres of trees, they’ll need to find new, deeper sources of water — and that’s where Tassey comes in.

New citrus plantings near Lindsay, Calif., a town hard hit by the drought (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Tassey is what is known as a “water witch,” or a dowser — someone who uses little more than intuition and a rod or a stick to locate underground sources of water. It’s an ancient art that dates back at least to the 1500s — though some dowsers have argued the origins are even earlier, pointing to what they say is Biblical evidence of Moses using a rod to summon water. In California, farmers have been “witching the land” for decades — though the practitioners of this obscure ritual have never been as high profile or as in demand as during the last year.

With nearly 50 percent of the state in “exceptional drought” — the highest intensity on the scale — and no immediate relief in sight, Californians are increasingly turning to spiritual methods and even magic in their desperation to bring an end to the dry spell. At greatest risk is the state’s central farming valley, a region that provides fully half the nation’s fruit and vegetables. Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed, and farmers say if they can’t find water to sustain their remaining crops, the drought could destroy their livelihoods, cause mass unemployment and damage the land in ways that could take decades to recover.

With nearly 50 percent of the state in “exceptional drought,” Californians are increasingly turning to spiritual methods and even magic in their desperation to bring an end to the dry spell.

Across the Central Valley, churches are admonishing their parishioners to pray for rain. Native American tribal leaders have been called in to say blessings on the land in hopes that water will come. But perhaps nothing is more unorthodox or popular than the water witches — even though the practice has been scorned by scientists and government officials who say there’s no evidence that water divining, as it is also known, actually works. They’ve dismissed the dowsers’ occasional success as the equivalent of a fortunate roll of the dice — nothing but pure, simple luck. But as the drought is expected to only get worse in coming months, it’s a gamble that many California farmers seem increasingly willing to take.

With many farms limited or even cut off from government-allocated irrigation water this year, growers like the Wollenmans have been forced to rely on their groundwater wells — most of which were built more than 50 years ago and are less than 200 feet deep. In a normal year of regular rainfall, that would usually suffice, but with so many straws in the cup, wells across the Central Valley are quickly going dry. Farmers are being forced to drill deeper to tap into the aquifer below — an expensive proposition that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. It’s a desperate attempt to survive what many describe as a slow-moving natural disaster on par with the Dust Bowl.

A dust devil rises up in a citrus grove along Highway 65 in Tulare County, Calif (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

State officials recommend that farmers who are planning to dig should hire a hydrogeologist to survey their land to find a spot for a productive well. But the first call many farmers make is to a water witch — who charges a fraction of the price and, some insist, is often just as accurate.

On this Wednesday, Tassey was charging the Wollenmans just $100 — his usual fee — to look for water in one of their orange groves. They’d been working with him for years — and before that, they’d used another witch to help them find water, just as their parents had when they first came here in the 1940s as one of the first citrus growers in Lindsay.

“We’ve always used someone,” Guy Wollenman said as he watched Tassey work. “Most farmers do. They don’t drill a hole without someone like Vern to help them find the best spots.”

“It’s an energy of some sort. … Like how some people can run a Ouija board. You either have it or you don’t.”
— Marc Mondavi

The severity of the latest drought has raised the ante even higher. With landowners across the valley desperate to tap into water, it costs thousands of dollars just to get on a waitlist for drilling that is often several months long. Desperate farmers have little margin for error. If they drill a hole and find nothing, it’s money that’s gone, and they are back on the waitlist again. They are betting on witches to help them find the magic mark.

A few feet away, Tassey continued to pace back and forth along the line of orange trees, and as he worked, a strange hush settled over the scene. Soon, the only sound was Tassey’s footsteps crunching dead leaves on the sandy ground as a nearby dog began to bark. The farmers quietly followed at a distance, careful not to disrupt Tassey’s concentration.

“It will start bouncing,” Jody Wollenman explained in a low voice, pointing to the metal rod in Tassey’s hands. “When he hits the aquifer, it will start moving. It tells you the width of the aquifer by the strength of the bounce.”

An Oklahoma native who moved to the Central Valley with his family in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl when he was just 7, Tassey discovered he had the “gift” during California’s last devastating drought in the late 1970s. A colleague at a drilling company often witched the land before they dug wells, and intrigued, Tassey asked if he could give it a try. The rest, he said, is history.

It’s never bothered Tassey that people call him a witch — though lately it’s gotten him into a little trouble with folks at church. A few weeks earlier, a local television station out of Fresno came down to interview him after hearing of his skill. He’d never been on television before. “The reporter asked me if I dabbled in witchcraft. Do I worship the devil?” he laughed.

A tree stump from a removed citrus tree sits in front of a healthy orange grove in Lindsay, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

As Tassey paced down the line of trees, the farmers followed quietly. After a moment, Tommy Wollenman, who is also a general manager at LoBue Citrus, a grower and distributor in town, tried to lighten the mood. “Ommmm,” he jokingly began to chant. A few feet away, the metal rod in Tassey’s hands suddenly began to move feverishly up and down. Wollenman paused. “That’s amazing,” he said.

As the farmers walked closer, Tassey scratched a mark in the ground and grabbed another tool — this one a metal rod crafted into a Y shape, almost like a wishbone. He backed up along the path and walked forward again, retracing his steps. He was, he explained, using this tool to “fine-tune” his discovery. With this, he’d be able to more accurately guess the route of the aquifer below and suggest where drillers should dig to capture the best volume. In his hands, his guiding rod seemed to bounce again, and Tassey stopped, marking another spot.

Moving in, Tommy Wollenman reached down and quickly planted a tiny metal stake with an orange flag in the spot. “Oh!” he cried, a teasing smile on his face. “I think there’s water coming up already!”

No one knows how many water witches there are. They don’t exactly advertise in the phone book or the newspaper. There is an organization — the American Society of Dowsers, which has hundreds of members scattered across local chapters throughout the country. But many water witches like Tassey seem to work on their own. The U.S. Geological Survey, which issued a brochure discrediting the practice of dowsers, estimates there may be thousands roaming the nation’s agricultural lands in search of water — though the agency admits even it isn’t sure.

Water witches have been a fixture in California agriculture for about as long as people here can remember. Everyone knows of someone who’s used one or a person who had “the gift” — or at least thought they did. Even John Steinbeck immortalized the role of the dowser in his seminal novel “East of Eden,” set in California’s Salinas Valley.

In this photo taken Feb. 13, 2014, proprietor Marc Mondavi demonstrates dowsing with divining rods to locate water at the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena, Calif. As water supplies shrink during California’s historic drought, vineyard owners and other farmers are looking to an ancient, yet scientifically discredited, source for finding water: dowsers. Also known as water witches, dowsers use so-called divining rods made of copper or wood, pendulums or other items to find water deep underground using nothing more than their own intuition. Even though dowsing hasn’t held up under scientific scrutiny, according to U.S. Geological Survey, it remains a popular national pastime, especially in drought-stricken areas. (Photo: AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

In the book, Adam Trask hires Samuel Hamilton to find water on land he hopes to transform into his own personal Eden. When Trask asks Hamilton how his divining stick works, the fictional witch confesses that he’s not really sure and suggests it’s perhaps his own instinct, not an instrument, driving the magic. “Maybe I know where the water is, feel it in my skin,” Hamilton explains.

Ask a witch in real life how the magic works or why they were blessed with “the gift,” and most confess they don’t know. In Napa Valley, Marc Mondavi, a vintner whose family is part of the state’s wine aristocracy, discovered his ability decades ago when a high school girlfriend’s father who was a dowser took him out into the vineyard to see if he had any skills. Mondavi was only 17. “He used these willow forks, and he handed them to me and said, ‘Go,’” he recalled. “And sure enough, they bent down.”

At the time, Mondavi didn’t know if he really believed he had the skill. But years later, while in college, he summoned his ability again when his family planned to drill a new well on their property. They had called on the expertise of the most popular dowser in wine country, a vineyard manager named Frank Wood, who at the time was witching almost all the land around Napa. When Mondavi mentioned to him that he believed he had the gift, Wood became his mentor and taught him everything he knew.

Scientists roll their eyes at the phenomenon. Graham Fogg, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, called it “folklore.”

“It’s an energy of some sort. ... Like how some people can run a Ouija board. You either have it or you don’t. You can’t learn how to get it, but if you do have it, you have to learn how to use it,” he said. “It took me years to get my confidence. ... At first, you are a bit leery of telling someone they are going to have to go dig a $50,000 hole. What if nothing is there? But over time, I learned to trust.”

Now at 61, Mondavi is the go-to water witch for Napa — servicing some of the top wine producers in the country. Among his clients is Bronco Wine Company, the nation’s fourth-largest winemaker, which makes Charles Shaw’s “Two Buck Chuck” and dozens of other brands. He knows what geologists say about witches like him, and he relishes the idea of proving them wrong. “They think we’re ridiculous, that it’s all luck,” he said. “I get it. There’s no science that explains any of it.”

A roll of recovered sprinkler lines sits adjacent to bulldozed orange grove in Lindsay, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Pausing, Mondavi can’t help but smile. “I’m good,” he says, a sly grin on his face. “I’m not afraid to blow my own horn. I’m good at this.”

Scientists roll their eyes at the phenomenon. Graham Fogg, a hydrologist at the University of California, Davis, called it “folklore” and said there is no scientific proof that dowsers have any special skill at finding water. The reason dowsers often appear successful, he argued, is because “groundwater is ubiquitous.” Anybody with a basic knowledge of an aquifer is likely to be able to tap into something.

“Groundwater occurs virtually everywhere at some depth beneath the surface of the earth, so regardless of where you drill, you will virtually always hit the water table at some depth,” Fogg said.

The vibrating or movement of the diving rods or sticks, scientists argue, is nothing more than show.

“We’ve always used someone. Most farmers do. They don’t drill a hole without someone like Vern to help them find the best spots.” Lorem
  — Guy Wollenman

In spite of the skepticism, some high-profile figures seem unwilling to miss a chance at finding water. Last year, at the suggestion of a cousin, California Gov. Jerry Brown had a pair of water witches go over land he owns in Williams, Calif., about an hour north of Sacramento, where he plans to build a home and settle when he retires. A spokesman for the governor confirmed Brown had used dowsers, but he declined to say if they found water.

Down in the Central Valley, Tassey says he would like to retire. Three times, he’s tried, but the farmers won’t let him. He’s too good at witching the wells, apparently. Farmers talk him up to each other, and even drillers have started to recommend him. He estimates he’s witched at least 100 wells so far this year — the busiest year he can recall in the four decades since he learned he had the gift.

Tassey can’t explain what makes him special, why he apparently has this ability that others do not. He had hoped that one of his four kids might have the gift, but none did. Only him. Some have speculated it has something to do with the magnetic core of the earth. He doesn’t know. He just has something, a gift that God has given him to use, and he’ll likely use it until the day he dies.

“The farmers here have been good to me all these years, to all of us here,” Tassey says. “Now it’s my turn.”

Marc Mondavi, a water witch, uses divining rods to locate an underground source of water at his property in Angwin, Calif. (Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)