Frost damage losses mount across state
Several crops suffered damage from the mid-April freeze. It will be several weeks before the extent of loss can be determined.
Although an official tally of crop losses due to freezing temperatures in mid-April is still being compiled, the economic impact will undoubtedly be in the multi-million-dollar range. The losses, primarily in Northern California, cut across a number of crops—winegrapes, walnuts, pears, peaches, prunes and wheat.
As farmers continue to assess the impact of the unseasonable cold snap and hard freeze that hit April 18 to 22, they're dismayed at the mounting signs of damage. Chardonnay grapes in Mendocino and Lake counties were hammered by the cold, while walnuts in Tehama County suffered hit-and-miss damage.
In Yuba and Sutter counties, peaches suffered freeze burn to the core of tender, young fruit. The same is being reported for pears in Lake County and prunes in Glenn County. Hopscotching across wheat fields in various northern counties, the freezing temperatures may cause considerable blanking as the crop progresses. In the San Joaquin Valley, plum growers near Exeter and Porterville report losses. Cherry orchards in San Joaquin County also apparently avoided damage, but farmers will continue to inspect orchards as the season progresses.
Mark Quisenberry, Sutter County agricultural commissioner, said freezing temperatures caused losses of more than 25 percent in many orchards and some farmers may have lost their entire crop. Other prune-growing areas also report losses.
During the worst of the freeze, overnight temperatures dropped into the mid-teens in many areas and stayed well below freezing for many hours through Monday morning, April 21. These subfreezing temperatures hit at a time when vineyards and fruit and nut trees were putting forth new growth, flowering buds and developing "nutlets."
In Mendocino County, records indicate that April's freeze was the worst growers there have seen in nearly half a century, with a very rough, preliminary estimate of crop loss at more than 40 percent countywide. The county's total agricultural production is valued at about $140 million.
"This has been a huge weather event for us," said Dave Bengston, county agricultural commissioner. "And in a lot of ways it's different than past events. We had a lot of walnuts and prunes back then. Those crops have disappeared and now the whole winegrape industry has built up. We didn't have many grape acres 50 years ago.
A cluster of healthy grapes, still vibrant green, are compared to a cluster that was killed by the mid-April frost that struck in several Northern California counties.
"We've been hit with freeze in places we've never had crops before," Bengston said. "Usually the coastal growing areas escape the frost, but we had a hard freeze there."
The worst part, Bengston said, is that the cold has just been relentless, with frost for weeks before the hard freeze and more than a week of frost since then. Growers running frost protection have run short of water; some have depleted all their water supply for the rest of the year.
Mendocino County winegrape grower Tyler Nelson said he just participated in a meeting that included growers from both Mendocino and Lake counties.
"I didn't talk to a single person who didn't have some damage. I was hoping to do some consulting work on a vineyard in Lake County, but the owner called and said don't bother coming down. He said temperatures dropped down to 24 degrees for six hours and his whole vineyard was a loss."
Nelson said in his own Mendocino vineyards damage varied by block.
"In one 10-acre chardonnay block we had about a 30 percent loss. In a neighboring vineyard we had about a 10 percent loss. In some cases the frost protection equipment just couldn't keep up. It was simply too cold," he said.
Cold, dry temperatures are running into May and farmers are worrying that there's still more cold weather ahead, said Chuck March, Lake County Farm Bureau executive director. He said farmers and agricultural officials are out surveying now to get a better idea of how bad the county's agricultural sector was hit.
"Depending on the variety of walnut, we're hearing about extremely high losses," March said. "The later varieties, however, haven't been hurt as much. It's a timing issue. Pears are showing a lot of black centers, meaning the cores were frozen. That fruit won't set. Pear growers may be facing a disastrous crop loss."
Accounting for $43 million in production, winegrapes are Lake County's top commodity, followed by Bartlett pears at $11 million. English walnuts account for another $3 million.
Farmers throughout Northern California are saying April temperatures and the hard freeze are the coldest they've seen in decades as temperatures plunged into the 20s throughout many Northern California growing areas. Crop protection measures didn't always save orchards and vineyards from the worst effect of the cold.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management office in Davis has been receiving damage reports for the following crops: prunes, winegrapes, table grapes, apples, pears, walnuts and stonefruit, including peaches, plums and nectarines.
"The most important information to convey to growers is that they should report their notices of damage to their insurance agents as soon as possible," said Zandra Pendarvis, USDA's California Risk Management deputy director.
"Crop conditions are still being monitored because the full extent of damage just is not known at this time," Pendarvis said. "We're taking a wait-and-see approach, but in the meantime, growers are responsible for giving notice that a damage event has occurred."
Crop insurance agents say their phones are ringing off the hook. In the past several days, agents and adjusters for NAU Country Insurance Co., the largest writer of multi-peril crop insurance in Northern California, has received more than 600 reports of crop damage due to the freeze.
For comparison, NAU Country Insurance Co. Manager Larry Heitman said statewide they had only received about 200 calls since January. Commodities hardest hit based on claims appear to be walnuts, prunes, peaches and winegrapes, but damage also is being reported for pears, apples and some young tomatoes.
Warming temperatures will stimulate crop growth and help farmers and agricultural officials develop more accurate damage estimates. They'll be able to see which plants appear to be reviving and which have been too damaged to survive or produce for the coming season.
"Usually this time of year we're more concerned about frost damage to our almond crop," said Tod Kimmelshue, whose family farms in Butte County and who is a California Farm Bureau Federation director. "But the almonds didn't get much damage during this cold weather event.
"What did get damaged in the northern Sacramento Valley is the walnut crop," Kimmelshue said. "Historically farmers don't do much frost protection for walnuts. This freeze came out of nowhere and hit at the worst possible time for walnut growers. Now there's a real possibility that the young walnut trees will have wood damage. Even with serious damage, the trees probably won't die, but it will set production back at least a year."
Tehama County farmer Brendon Flynn said the cold temperatures definitely impacted his operation.
"We primarily had damage in our walnuts, but one of our management clients north of Red Bluff was severely damaged—probably a 70-percent-plus crop loss," Flynn said. "In our own trees or those we manage, however, the damage more generally was in the range of 10 to 15 percent crop loss. You could pretty much see the damage the next day because the walnut leaves turned black.
"On the prunes, it's harder to see," Flynn said. "That damage will probably take a couple of weeks to show. There may be black speckling on the fruit, but it may not fall off. We'll have to wait and see.
"We think our prunes are OK, but there are some orchards up in this area where the damage may be as much as a 70 percent loss."
Flynn said that at this point, it's just hard to tell if damage is approaching the 30 percent threshold for a disaster.
"We had pretty severe crop damage in our peaches," said Sarb Johl, who farms in both Yuba and Sutter counties. "With walnuts it's still a little early to tell, but we have a lot of pit burn. With peaches, we've got some orchards that are a complete wipeout. Other orchard acres are damaged, but the severity is unknown at this stage—it could be 50 percent to 75 percent."
With peaches, he said, "If the pit freezes, it's like shutting off the heart of the fruit. After that nothing works. We're already seeing the young fruit turning black and shriveling up."
County agricultural commissioners are collecting information that could lead to disaster declarations, but it will take more time to determine the extent of economic loss. In some cases, it's clear that individual farmers may see crop losses approach 80 to 100 percent, depending on location and crop.
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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