Rain-drenched farmers face more problems
Kautz Farms vineyard workers Juan Hernandez, left, and Presentacion Cuervez patrol the levee along the Consumnes River that protects the vineyard.
Drenching spring storms continue to have a profound impact on California agriculture, with some crops faring worse than others. Experts say actual losses in yields and productivity depend on a variety of factors—location, crop cycle and old-fashioned luck.
How long that luck will hold is difficult to gauge. Gov. Schwarzenegger, however, isn't waiting to find out.
On Monday he proclaimed a state of emergency for seven central and northern California counties: Amador, Calaveras, Fresno, Merced, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Stanislaus. In his declaration, Schwarzenegger cited heavy rainfall that has caused flooding, mudslides, debris flows, washed out and damaged roads, and the failure of local levees as the reason for the emergency action.
"These storms have caused the failure of local levees, evacuations of residents and significant damage to public and private property throughout the affected area," Schwarzenegger said in his declaration. "Because the magnitude of this disaster exceeds the capabilities of the services, personnel, equipment and facilities of these counties, I find these counties to be in a state of emergency."
Sacramento Valley rice grower Jack De Witt is facing his own emergency. De Witt cultivates crops in Sutter County, the Natomas basin and in the Yolo Bypass, and he says all these areas are problematic this year because of wet and flooded conditions.
"When conditions are this wet, it causes us to eliminate fields from our planting schedule and switch varieties to those with a shorter growing season," De Witt said. "As a farmer, I'm eternally optimistic and think we will be able to get some limited amounts of wild rice planted in the bypass, but probably not regular rice, which requires a longer growing season."
De Witt says all the rainfall and water will add up to a big crunch when it's time to plant and fertilize. He says he expects delays during this year's compressed spring in getting planes and helicopters to fly on the rice seed and, later, fertilizers.
"This planting scenario puts an extra burden on our aviation suppliers," De Witt said. "Orders start backing up and things get further delayed. And, I'm afraid of losing workers. The guys have showed up and want to work, but we just don't have work for them. Generally, though, our guys are good and they'll come back."
Rich Peterson, executive director of the California Dried Plum Board, says his growers have no idea what kind of crop they're going to have. The bloom has been extended because of the rain and colder than average temperatures.
But the cold isn't as much a problem as the rain. Some prune growers say they noted bees flying between rain showers and hope some pollination happened, but it's too early to tell. Growers have had two poor crop years in a row, and Peterson said that has never happened before.
"There would be one bad year and then better ones," he said. "A third bad year would really be a record. But it will probably be the first of June before anyone can say for sure what the crop set is like. The worst that could happen would be for it to get hot really fast. That would put additional stress on the trees."
Northern California olive growers say they're OK so far. Their trees don't generally bloom until the last week of April or first week of May, so the heavy rains in March and the beginning of April haven't been a problem. Cold weather, however, has delayed the bloom time.
In the northern San Joaquin Valley, Mike Robinson is breathing a sigh of relief after talking Monday to county flood control managers.
"Before last weekend, our emergency services people had a glum prediction for the weather and river levels," Robinson said. "They said the amount of water releases were going to hit Vernalis and Newman and they were expecting more water than the system could stand.
"A lot of dairyman on the east side of the river, south of the 120 bypass near Manteca, were starting to make arrangements to move animals," said Robinson, who is president of San Joaquin County Farm Bureau. "They were a little nervous because you can't stop milking cows."
Weather halts harvests
Overall, Robinson says wet weather has been a significant factor for area crops at all stages of development. Slowing harvest, crop development and planting.
"We had a warm spell in February and the asparagus started to come, then it turned cold and wet and that shut the crop down," he said. "The asparagus harvest is coming to a staggering start only now. It's not only difficult to get the crop harvested, it's not really in full production because the weather isn't warm yet. The ground is wet and cold and it's hard for the pickers and the sleds to get through to pick up the crop. The sheds are operating at less than full capacity.
"Some of the cherry growers are glum," he said. "Some don't know how their crop will be yet. I think the rains have been untimely and persistent enough that growers may be facing real problems. Cherry growers don't moan too much and they know it's hard to tell in the blossom stage how much damage has been done."
Robinson said the story is similar for almond growers. Temperature was also a factor for the almond crop, with extremely cold temperatures, as low as 22 degree F for prolonged periods in some areas. This may lead to reduced yields, Robinson says.
"The tomato guys are champing at the bit to get started," he said. "Its the middle of April and they should be planting already, but the ground is just too wet to get in and think about it. The alfalfa has had enough rain and standing water that the fields are beginning to yellow. They've been hurt by these wet conditions and the first cutting—the high protein, high TDN that dairymen want—will be severely impaired.
"At this point, I'm considering green chopping my alfalfa and getting it off quick so I can get on with it," he said. "We're going to have to wait and see. It's going to rain a little every day this week. We need a couple of weeks with no rain and the rivers have to be down, right now there is just too much seepage."
Princeton rice producer John Garner, who is chairman of CFBF's Water Advisory Committee, says he has been talking with local growers and finds there are many concerns on their minds right now. With high river levels and a large snowpack, warm storms coming across the state could melt the snow too quickly and cause real problems.
"That hammer hasn't fallen yet," Garner said. "Folsom Lake is a full as I've ever seen it and the snowpack is down fairly low. If they open the Sacramento Weir that in turn will further flood the Yolo Bypass, which is an example of how things can leap-frog into bigger problems. There are a lot aspects of our water system that puts ag in peril.
"A lot of our fruit and nut trees can't handle a lot of water on their roots when they're budding out," he said. "Everybody with orchards wants to see the water go away as soon as possible. But, as far as water supply goes, here in Northern California we're at more than 100 percent in our reservoirs—and that's not counting the snowpack."
Garner said the same is true of the San Joaquin watershed and the Colorado River is recovering from years of drought, not enough to fully catch up, but better.
"Our biggest constraint is environment restrictions that prevent better water storage and getting these high flows through the San Francisco-San Joaquin River Delta," Garner said. "It seems to me there's a whole lot of water going by and no way to capture it. We don't have adequate storage capacity in this state to really benefit from abundant water years.
"Even with abundant supplies, we're going to be in a regulatory or legal drought when it comes to water moving through the delta," Garner said. "When you're flooding, you're not thinking about what you'll need when there's a drought."
Wet fields hurt crops
Winegrape growers in central and northern California are having to contend with flooded vineyards and the constant threat of levee failure and flooding.
At Kautz vineyard near Wilton in the Sacramento Valley, the Cosumnes River turned into a torrent. It viciously tore at the protective levee protecting the vineyard before bursting through and flooding farmland further down stream.
Kautz workers have been on round-the-clock levee patrols since the flooding began.
With the heavy rains has come serious concerns about stripe rust in wheat. Bonnie Fernandez, executive director of the California Wheat Commission, said, "We're seeing it show up throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. We're asking growers to look closely and see if the disease is there. They need to identify the problem to better manage it."
In 2003, California wheat farmers lost a third of their crop to stripe rust. Current weather conditions are ideal for the spread of this plant disease. Stripe rust has caused significant statewide yield losses each year between 1999 and 2005.
Losses of 5 percent were sustained in each of the last two growing seasons, according to Lee Jackson, University of California Cooperative Extension agronomist. The disease is caused by the fungus Puccinia striiformis.
"California's Central Valley can be considered one large mixing basin," Jackson said. "It doesn't take many initial infections to start an epidemic since the fungus is very prolific. It has a potential for a 10,000-fold increase per spore generation. Multiple disease cycles can occur over the course of a season as disease increases in severity."
Symptoms from new infections will become visible in the next two weeks and Jackson urges farmers to get out into their fields to investigate for signs of the disease.
In coastal counties, harvest of a number of specialty crops has been hampered. Castroville vegetable grower Benny Jefferson said muddy fields are posing serious problems for his broccoli and cauliflower harvest.
"We're having trouble getting the crews and trucks in and sometimes they're getting stuck and we have to pull them out," he said.
In the process, Jefferson said the fields are getting deeply rutted and roughed up, which will make it more difficult to get his summer vegetable crops in the ground.
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.