Tree fruit harvest to be cut as result of April hailstorms


Issue Date: May 9, 2012
By Christine Souza
John Tos shows where quarter-sized hail damaged peaches in his Kings County orchard. Tos says mid-April hailstorms practically wiped out his stonefruit crop.
Photos/Lisa Lieberman

Photos/Lisa Lieberman
Hail produced in a mid-April storm was so large, farmer John Tos says, that even use of a hail cannon couldn’t counteract it. The cannon emits sonic booms intended to break up hailstones.
Photo/Lisa Lieberman

Four weeks after their orchards and fields were pounded by intense mid-April hailstorms, San Joaquin Valley farmers continue to tally losses but say tree fruit and other harvests will be reduced.

Agricultural commissioners in affected counties such as Kings and Tulare say crop losses to agriculture are in the tens of millions of dollars and counting.

Kings County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Niswander has requested a U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster declaration for damaged crops due to what is being called a "once in 100 years" hailstorm and other storms that occurred April 11-13. To qualify for the declaration, farmers must have experienced a 30 percent loss of a particular crop, countywide.

Niswander reported $20.5 million worth of crop losses in Kings County, with the hardest-hit crop, plums, suffering $5.7 million in damage. Losses to nectarines were nearly as high, at $5.3 million. Additional crops that took a hit include peaches, apricots and cherries, as well as almonds, cotton and kiwifruit.

"Nobody that we've spoken to has seen anything like this before where there is this amount of damage to agriculture," Niswander said. "There was hail damage to a nectarine field where a piece of the nectarine was still attached to the stem hanging on the tree and at least 75 percent of the nectarine is missing. These were rock-hard nectarines and the hailstorm tore chunks out of the fruit and knocked it to the ground."

John Tos, who grows peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, prunes and cherries in Kings County, reported that 90 percent of his peach and plum crops were damaged by hail.

"We might salvage maybe 10 percent of the orchards, but that doesn't amount to very much," Tos said. "It is not justifiable to continue throwing good money at a bad crop, so we have to pull the plug and walk away from it."

Tos employed hail cannons that can be turned on manually or remotely to emit "sonic booms" to turn hail into less-damaging slush and rain, but said the technology simply did not work on the quarter-sized pieces of hail.

"This hailstorm was so violent and vigorous that the hail cannons didn't do any good," he said.

Tos noted that only 50 percent of his cherries were damaged.

"We're hoping to get good prices for the cherries. We have half a crop, but it could be double the prices," Tos said. "Those farmers who didn't lose their tree fruit crops are going to do exceedingly well this year."

Tulare County continues to work with farmers to analyze crops damaged in the mid-April storms, according to Gavin Iacono, the county's deputy agricultural commissioner. So far for Tulare, impacted crops include stone fruit, nuts, grapes, forage crops and some citrus.

"It is going to take us a couple of weeks to get everything in, but we are finding that the Traver area (in western Tulare County) is not necessarily the hardest-hit area," Iacono said. "There's been a little bit of damage reported in isolated areas farther east."

With Kings County requesting a disaster declaration, growers in adjacent counties, including Tulare County, may qualify for the same benefits if the Kings County request is approved, Iacono said.

"I believe stone fruit will have the highest dollar amount of crop damage. This has already impacted several of the major packinghouses and they've had to readjust what they are doing for this season," Iacono said.

Affected stone fruit growers expect thinning costs to increase since they will now have to thin selectively.

Niswander said he also was aware of a grower west of Hanford whose 70 acres of almonds had significant damage.

"The hail knocked almonds onto the ground and the grower is not sure what the impact will be to the almonds that are still on the trees, but he thinks he's got significant damage," Niswander said.

Damage also occurred to field crops including hay and cotton. An estimated 14,000 acres of cotton pummeled by rain in Kings County must be replanted.

Based on a survey of growers, Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson requested a primary disaster declaration for the county. Hail damage to strawberries impacted 42 percent of the crop, or 54 acres, and 37 percent damage of kiwifruit, or 26 acres. Damage as a result of hail was estimated at $6.5 million for the growing season.

As for the state's stone fruit season, Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said the intense hailstorm resulted in the reduction of peaches, plums and nectarines, with a slight reduction in apricots. Bedwell added that the overall tree fruit sector may see a crop below 40 million boxes and "it's been a long, long time since we've seen that."

"This particular incident reminds us how risky farming is and how fortunate we are when we have all of these abundant products," Bedwell said. "The worst part about hail is it is so seemingly selective, where the guy across the street has no damage, and the one here may be totally wiped out. It is probably one of the most if not the most unfair weather events you could have."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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