Hailstorms hammer San Joaquin Valley crops


Issue Date: April 18, 2012
By Steve Adler
A supercell that pounded a large swath of the San Joaquin Valley with huge hailstones fills the sky along Highway 99 in the Traver area, which absorbed the brunt of the damage from the 1 1/2-inch hailstones that rained down.
Photo/Ed Needham
A young orchard near Traver is subjected to a barrage of hail from a supercell that unleashed its fury on the San Joaquin Valley last week, causing millions of dollars in damage.
Photo/Ed Needham

A series of freak April storms hammered the San Joaquin Valley last week, damaging vulnerable crops with a one-two-three punch of hail, lightning and tornados that caused millions of dollars of crop losses.

It will be several weeks before an accurate tabulation of losses can be made, but for some growers it amounted to 100 percent of this year's production. A number of crops suffered damage from the unrelenting power of hailstones measuring 1.5 inches in diameter or larger.

Nature's fury came in the form of "supercells"—large thunderstorms that moved slowly across the valley from Kings County, through parts of Tulare County, up to Merced County and all the way eastward to Mariposa County.

The most destructive storm brought torrents of hail across a six-to-eight mile-wide swath of farmland that extended some 30 miles, accompanied by thunderstorms and numerous lightning strikes.

The epicenter of the more significant of two supercells last Wednesday was in Tulare County near Traver. Grower Ed Needham, who was caught driving near Traver when the storm struck, described it as "the sound of someone hitting my truck with a hammer."

Needham said he was in his truck with two other farmers and had pulled over to watch a huge storm cell to the south when the other cell struck from the north.

"It started out small and was no big deal and then all of a sudden the side-view mirrors on my truck shattered and the road started getting covered with huge hailstones. I looked at the wind and saw that it was going south, so I took off and went to the south and got out of it," he said.

Steve Johnson, a storm chaser with Atmospheric Group International, tracked the storms closely and estimated that the damage to agriculture could reach $25 million or more just from the two supercells that hit last Wednesday afternoon.

"While other thunderstorms were moving at about 25 miles per hour, these two slugs were moving at about 7 or 8 miles an hour, so they just trudged along producing very large hail and a high quantity of lightning," he said. "I estimate the damage at anywhere from 80 percent to 100 percent in fields and orchards where the hail struck. The fruit and nut trees were stripped bare. The trees look like they are in midwinter and haven't even budded yet."

Johnson also reported that a third supercell formed over farmland west of Lemoore, producing a tornado, and another one popped up near Huron, causing considerable crop damage to Westside lettuce and tomato fields.

The following day, a supercell formed in Merced County near Dos Palos and moved northeast between Atwater and Merced, once again accompanied by huge hailstones.

"The hailstones were larger than those on the previous day. There was 1 3/4-inch hail that was recorded near Castle Air Force Base, causing a lot of crop damage as well as other damage before moving up into Mariposa County," Johnson said.

John Diepersloot, one of the owners of Kingsburg Orchards, which grows peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots, said the storms wiped out some orchards while leaving adjacent ones unscathed. He said several of his orchards were struck and that while the visible damage is obvious, it will be several days before any accurate assessment can be made.

"Where the hail hit, it is a complete, 100 percent loss. It was hitting in cells, so one area was a complete disaster and another area got missed," he said. "Some of the fields look like they got beat up pretty bad. Most of the apricots, cherries, pluots and plums got scratched up pretty bad or even knocked off the trees."

Diepersloot also noted damage to other crops, particularly grapes and newly transplanted processing tomatoes.

"The tomatoes on certain blocks were stripped down. The transplants had leaves ripped off. The grapes had everything from tender, new shoots to the bark itself torn off. A lot of guys are planting their corn, but it isn't up yet, so that is still in the ground," he said.

John Thiesen, general manager of Giumarra Brothers Fruit Co. of Reedley, said he is still trying to assess the losses, and that enough fruit to fill from 5 million to 12 million boxes may have been lost.

"That is a pretty big span, so no one really knows for sure. But we do know there is very significant damage," he said.

Thiesen said the magnitude of last week's hailstorms was stunning.

"One doesn't see this kind of devastation very often. I know for us here, we were fortunate to escape, but the emotions are such that we feel just awful for all our grower friends who were affected. It is heartbreaking," he said.

Michael Miya, who farms walnuts, pistachios and field crops such as wheat, corn and onions for seed north of Hanford, said this was the worst hailstorm he has ever witnessed.

"We inspected the damage to our walnuts and it chopped a lot of the young leaflets. It covered the ground in green where the hail went through. We are concerned with the nuts that are already set on the trees," he said. "Some of my neighbors with almonds say they lost about a third of their crop, some less and some more, depending on where they were located. One of my neighbors with cherries said he has probably lost 80 percent of his crop."

Johnson, a severe-weather specialist who provides private weather forecasting for farming operations, utility companies and irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, said it has been at least 20 years since something this severe struck the region.

"I feel really bad for the farmers who have been annihilated, because they work very hard," he said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.