Cool spring, mild summer delay valley crops
Yolo County vegetable grower Jim Durst had some yield reductions in his asparagus earlier this year, and harvest is running up to two weeks late for his summer vegatables, including tomatoes, melons, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, peppers and cucumbers.
Farmers throughout California’s great Central Valley face a weather-related challenge that they haven’t seen in recent years—the cool, wet spring and subsequent lack of soaring summer temperatures have put virtually all crops behind by 10 days to two weeks.
But growers say in unison that quirks in the weather are a part of farming that goes with the territory and it is just something they will deal with from now until harvest.
Tulare County pistachio and cotton grower Mark Watte summed it up best: “It is a delayed spring, but I tell you, at the end of the day, we’ve got water. And I will take this lateness if it means I will have surface water supplied all summer long. Nobody likes to be late, but at least we have water.”
Watte was reflecting back to drought conditions of the past three years that, when combined with a “regulatory drought” resulting from goverment actions on behalf of protected fish, have meant farmers in many areas received only small percentages of their contracted state and federal water deliveries.
For Watte and other farmers, it has been the cool temperatures, not water shortages, that have slowed down crop development this year. The hope of these farmers is that the fall and winter rains hold off long enough for them to get their crops harvested.
“Cotton for us is the latest thing that we harvest. The pistachios are going to be delayed some, but harvest there is usually September and we typically aren’t running into weather then anyway, so if pistachios are two weeks late, it’s not the end of the world. But we will be pushing the envelope with cotton, so any delay with that is a negative,” he said.
One of the most vulnerable crops to fall rains is dry beans, which Watte has planted as a double crop following the wheat that he grows for forage. He explained that because he was two weeks late harvesting his wheat, his blackeye beans went into the ground much later than usual.
“We typically would harvest those beans about the first of October and they are very susceptible to rain damage, so for us personally that is a crop that could be in jeopardy,” he said.
Tehama County grower Bob Steinacher says his crop of figs could be damaged if rains come earlier than normal this year.
Another Central Valley crop that could be hurt by fall rains is raisins. Fresno County raisin grower Ray Jacobsen said he is watching the weather and hoping for warmer temperatures that will bring more heat units to the grapes. He has 110 acres of dried-on-the-vine raisins and another 85 acres of flame seedless raisin grapes that are harvested on traditional trays.
“It takes six weeks to dry with DOV raisins after we cut the canes. We basically have to cut them by Aug. 20 to Aug. 25 or they will not get dry before we get rain. I will automatically cut them at this time even though they may not have all of the sugar levels that I would like to see. But at least we have the early varieties of Selma Pete and Fiesta,” he said.
Jacobsen also grows winegrapes, which he says are better able to withstand damage from rain. Even though they are running two weeks behind, he said his winegrape varieties are doing very well.
“We haven’t had any extreme days of high temperatures, so the vines are in excellent shape this year. They are holding the crop really well and that is part of the thing about not bringing the sugar on really fast,” he said.
Farther north, Yolo County vegetable grower Jim Durst said he suffered some harvest setbacks with his asparagus this spring because of the rains. The other crops that he grows—tomatoes, melons, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, peppers and cucumbers—are all at least 10 days to two weeks behind normal.
“The weather was pretty erratic this spring. It has affected all crops and yields,” he said. “Asparagus this spring was up and down in terms of yield. One day we might have 1,000 cases harvested and the next day we may harvest 400. It was definitely cool and rainy; it seemed to rain every Tuesday, almost like clockwork”.
Durst grows a full spectrum of fresh-market tomatoes, including cherry, roma and slicing tomatoes, as well as heirloom varieties.
“We start transplanting tomatoes around the 25th of March and continue planting all the way up into July, staggering planting times, to extend the harvest window to a longer period of time,” he said. “We have seen definite yield reductions in some varieties of tomatoes; they just couldn’t set fruit, especially the earlier planted ones.”
In the Sacramento Valley rice-producing area, growers were late in planting because of the series of storms that kept their equipment out of the fields. As a result of the late planting, yields are estimated to be down by as much as 15 percent from average, while weed infestations in fields are much higher than normal.
“We are exactly two weeks late compared to last year,” said Glenn County rice grower John Montz. “If it stays dry, we will be OK, but if we have a wet fall we could be in trouble. If it rains in October, it will be horrible.”
The rice is not pollinated yet, Montz said, although his first fields are getting close.
“The crop is coming along well and there have been no pest problems to speak of. But if we get cold nights during pollination, we could get blanking (lack of kernel development). We estimate that the yields will be down from last year about 10 to 12 sacks per acre from the 90 sacks or more per acre that we normally get,” he said.
Another Glenn County rice grower, Jim Jones, said in some fields the weeds are creating problems.
“Just driving around and looking at the countryside, the cooler weather actually allowed a lot of the weeds to grow faster than the rice. But you know, we’ll make it, we’ll get through, but it is just going to be awhile,” he said.
One crop that holds up fairly well in the rain is olives, said Glenn County olive grower Matt Lohse. Even though the bloom was 10 days later than normal, another indicator called pit hardening was only one day behind normal. Lohse’s olives are used to make olive oil, and these olives are harvested later than table olives.
“Typically, the olives for oil harvest starts around the last week of October and ends somewhere around Nov. 15, so if we are two weeks late, we will be harvesting at Thanksgiving. Frost could hurt the fruit, and rains could keep us out of the fields, causing crop delays,” he said.
Olive grower Maurice Penna of Orland said yields could be down this year because of some heavy rains that came during bloom.
“We’ve got a fairly nice crop, but then again, I think the size is going to be at least one full size smaller. But you know what, the smaller olives are better than no olives,” Penna said.
Walnuts are a crop that seems to have come through the cooler spring better than most. In fact, Tehama County walnut grower Bob Steinacher says he may be working with the largest walnut crop he has ever seen in a quarter-century of farming.
“The trees look great; they are putting on good growth. There is a little bit of sunburn, but not an unusually high amount,” he said. “We shouldn’t have any real problems even if it does rain during harvest. The Chandlers seem to be pretty well sealed, so we don’t have issues of staining or anything like that. Our biggest problem if we do get rain is that the ground gets so muddy that we can’t get the equipment into the orchard.”
Steinacher also grows figs, which are being harvested now. The crop is at least two weeks behind and some of the later figs could be subjected to rain damage.
“We will harvest figs until mid-November in a good year, but the rains can really hurt us. It ruins our white figs, but the black figs can take some rain. But if we get too much rain, too often, we can’t harvest them. It is good to have a lot of late fruit because the market is very strong, but it is also a double-edged sword,” he said.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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