Merced County sweet potato farmer Stan Silva hadn’t even heard of “nutria” until a few months ago. He’s still never seen one, but he’s worried about the damage these 20-pound rodents with big orange buck teeth could do in California.
“It would be devastating,” Silva said. “They can basically ruin the ag industry here: They get in your fields, burrow into your canal ways and your waterways.” They can also tear up crops and levees, making the state’s water infrastructure more vulnerable.
Nutria aren’t native to California, or the US. Fur farmers brought the South American rodent to Southern California in the late 1800s as an attempt to make an affordable mink alternative. Despite multiple attempts, the nutria fur business never took off, but the rodents went feral. California’s Department of Food and Agriculture determined that they were eradicated in the 1970s.
But last year, a few were spotted again in Merced County, and they’re multiplying. Nutria can have up to 200 offspring a year. By this April, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had to create a task force. Now, the rodents are on the move, north toward the San Joaquin Delta, California’s most important water source.
Stan Silva’s grandparents came to the Central Valley from the Azores and Lisbon, Portugal, in the early 1900's, and started farming on small plots. Now, the Silva family farm grows sweet potatoes on 850 acres and supplies the largest retailers in the country.