Rain further delays rice, grape, nut harvests
Yuba County rice grower Charley Mathews makes a repair on his bankout wagon. Wet, muddy conditions have made this year's rice harvest more difficult.
A year ago, farmers and ranchers in California were praying for a wet winter to end three years of drought. Their prayers were answered. Now, many of them are looking at the skies and asking for a few more days of dry weather so they can complete their harvests.
Crops primarily impacted by the rains include winegrapes, rice, almonds and walnuts. In all cases, farmers of those crops express confidence that they will overcome the difficulties created by the wet conditions and complete their harvests—even though some of those harvests could extend into December.
Other crops, including cotton and processing tomatoes, are either all harvested or are being produced in areas that have not been hammered by rains.
Tracked vehicles like this tractor are better able to operate in muddy rice fields, thus enabling farmers to harvest rice once the dew is gone from the grain by late morning each day. Rice harvest could continue into December this year.
Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, said most of the grapes were in, with the exception of a few zinfandel and chardonnay vineyards and about 25 percent of the cabernet sauvignon grapes. He said there was some concern that brix (sugar) levels still stood below what the wineries want, and it was possible that the grapes may never reach the ideal sugar content.
Mendocino County winegrape grower Bill Pauli said that growers on the North Coast for the most part had been able to harvest everything but cabernet sauvignon grapes before the storms hit. Cabernet grapes have thicker skins and can withstand some rain, and Pauli said it appears that growers will be able to harvest nearly all vineyards over the next several days.
“Everybody is getting them off,” Pauli said, even though farmers have had to fight the rain, mud and other obstacles.
“I don’t think anyone is really going to lose any grapes as a result of the rain,” he said.
Pauli noted that while the grapes have good color and flavor, it is too early in the process to judge the quality of the wine that those grapes will produce.
“We need to let the winemakers finish making the wine and see in another month how it develops in the tank. The color is really good, the flavors on the reds were amazing,” he said. “Certainly, the whites that came into the wineries were really nice fruit and should make really good wine, but let’s just wait to see how it turns out.”
Monterey County winegrape grower Steve McIntyre said his area had been spared the brunt of the early storms and that while 20 percent of the crop is still in the vineyards, he is confident that all will be harvested. The quality of the grapes is good, but the market for those grapes is not, he said.
“Growers who do not have contracts and sell on the spot market are getting only about $500 a ton for chardonnay grapes,” McIntyre said.
Ben Drake, who grows winegrapes around Paso Robles as well as in Santa Barbara County and Temecula, said about 10 percent to 12 percent of the Paso Robles-area crop is still out.
“I think by Nov. 15 it will all be over, either happy or sad, but it will be over,” Drake said.
Rice farmers continue to harvest a crop that was challenging from the very beginning, primarily because of the weekly occurrence of spring rains that delayed planting.
Yuba County rice grower Charley Mathews said growers traditionally like to begin planting in March, but this year planting didn’t get under way in earnest until the first week of May.
“This year was an absolute oddball growing season. It was as difficult planting this year as it is harvesting. This is kind of a repeat of our planting season,” he said.
“We are fighting rains and our cutting days are being shortened. The rice has all fallen over, which makes harvesting much more difficult. Productivity has actually been cut in half. We have a ways to go and every other rice grower is kind of in the same boat,” he said.
Mathews called the 2010 rice season “one for the record books.”
“It is a psychological challenge to harvest into November, but I think this year there will be harvesting well into December,” he said.
Joe Connell, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Butte County, said nut crops, particularly almonds and walnuts, are doing OK despite the rains that have slowed harvests.
“The crop size is looking good. In Butte County, there was rain at bloom time so the production is about what they expected. Rain shouldn’t hurt the nuts too much, other than delay harvest,” he said. “Walnuts won’t be harmed by rain. They have a wet process at the huller anyway. The only problem would be the harvest would be slowed by wet fields.”
Butte County nut grower Les Heringer agreed.
“My almonds are all in, but I am concerned about the walnuts. The nuts still on the trees will be OK, but the orchard floor is wet and muddy. When you try to pick up the walnuts, the equipment also picks up mud, which slows operations. And if you don’t get the walnuts out fast, mold could develop,” he said.
One crop that will actually benefit from the rain is table olives, according to Connell.
“There are olives still out and the ones for table olives should benefit from the rain, as it will cause them to increase in size. But the olives for oil will not be helped as much, as the rain just adds water when crushed and it will need to be separated for olive oil,” he said.
There may be some fields of dry beans that suffered damage because of the rains, but most fields have already been harvested, according to UCCE farm advisors Doug Munier in Glenn County and Jerry Schmierer in Colusa County.
“There are some beans out there in windrows, but the overall acreage is small. Other commodities like corn offered a greater return to the farmers. There will be some damage to the beans still in the field, but it will take time to determine how much,” Schmierer said.
Rice grower Mathews summed up the year with these words: “This is something that I’ve never seen before and I don’t want to see it again, either. I just want to get this one done and then kind of forget about it.”
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com. Reporter Ron Miller contributed to this story.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.