Storm batters state, knocks down trees
Ag Alert staff
Orchard trees such as these almond trees near Corning fell victim to the strong winds that swept through the state last weekend. Hundreds of trees were toppled or broken as a result of the powerful storm.
The hurricane-force winds and driving rain that pounded California last week knocked down trees, blew roofs off barns and disrupted electrical power in widespread locations.
At one point in the wind-whipped storms, more than 1.2 million Californians were without power, communities coped with localized flooding and roadways were treacherous.
Damage reports were coming in from all over the state, with the most severe losses coming in isolated instances rather than widespread destruction. The storms hit nearly on the anniversary of last year's severe freeze that did an estimated $1.4 billion in damage to the state's agricultural sector.
The severity of damage from last week's storms prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to proclaim a state of emergency for Glenn, Kings and Sacramento counties.
Sutter County Agricultural Commissioner Mark Quinsenberry said some farmers in his county lost as much as 50 percent of their orchards. He said he anticipated the bulk of the damage would be to almond and prune orchards near the Sutter Buttes where the wind was strongest.
Quinsenberry said Monday that there were still farms and ranches without power and getting water to animals was a problem. Officials said it's too early for an estimate of financial impact.
In Colusa County, officials said farmers were still assessing damage. As of Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency reported only one call—from a farmer who reported his almond trees blown down. An agency spokesperson said there would probably be additional reports later in the week.
The storm gave a huge boost to the Sierra snowpack. The State Department of Water Resources Web site shows the statewide average jumped from about 60 percent of normal to about 111 percent of normal in just a 72-hour period. Northern Sierra watersheds now have 112 percent of average snowpack, Central about 102 percent and Southern about 130 percent.
"The most severe damage to almond trees occurred in the northern Sacramento Valley. But, there's no dollar or total damage estimate yet available. Some of the older orchards took a big hit," said Dave Baker, Blue Diamond Member Relations Director.
He added that the central and southern parts of the San Joaquin Valley did not have the high winds nor the amount of rain experienced in the north and were spared major damage. He said he expects almond growers in the northern areas of the valley, where trees are reported down everywhere, will have larger economic losses.
Jean Miller, assistant agricultural commissioner of Glenn County, said she has seen a number of trees blown over throughout the county, but as yet has no damage estimate available. She said the county is being surveyed now.
"Tehama, Glenn and Colusa counties are in a wind pass where the wind really howls, and depending on the type of trees and type of soils farmers may have lost lots of trees," Miller said.
Curt Martin raises walnuts, prunes and olives in Corning. He said the orchard across from his house, which he leases, has dozens of trees down.
"In the other orchards there's just a few broken limbs," Martin said. "We really came through it in good shape. We had three or four walnut trees blow over. Nothing major like we've seen with the almonds.
"We lost some limbs in the olives, but there again it wasn't anything really serious," he said. "I was really surprised when I went out after the storm because we really came through it pretty well."
The extended dry spell probably worked to benefit north valley orchard plantings. Because the ground wasn't saturated, trees' roots were more likely to hold, growers said.
Moving south through the state, damage reports tapered off and turned to more positive accounts of welcome moisture that will benefit crops, soil and water supplies.
Milton O'Haire, assistant agricultural commissioner for Stanislaus County, said his office had received no crop damage reports as of Monday, but inspectors were out checking some areas known to be vulnerable to winter storm damage.
"So far, we haven't seen that many trees down in orchards," O'Haire said. "The ground was dry to begin with, but now it's saturated. On the west side, one inspector reported that spinach and broccoli fields look fine and actually needed the water. It's good news, really. The water is always good for the snowpack and recharging the water table. If we're going to get the rain from the storms, this is the best time to get it because a lot of ground is fallow right now and there's not a whole lot going on."
Dave Robinson, Merced County Agricultural Commissioner, said he had received no damage reports from growers as of Monday.
"We did get some rather severe winds on Thursday of last week and we got two inches of rain Friday through Saturday, which is less rain than we really anticipated," he said. "So, the only damage I can report is high winds knocking some trees down, but that was limited because the ground was pretty dry at that point."
In Fresno County there were reports of trees blown down, but Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director Ryan Jacobsen said preliminary reports indicate damage was minimal.
"We did get some good winds, but we didn't feel the brunt of it," he said. "We really got the tail end of the storm versus the whole, big event that was up north. We were lucky to have escaped most of it."
Fresno County treefruit grower Pat Ricchiuti lost at least 300 trees from his orchards, but said philosophically: "It's just one of those normal rituals that we go through every year when it rains and the wind blows.
"Yesterday (Sunday) we went around taking a look," Ricchiuti said. "Almond trees from different ranches blew over. These happened to the older trees in some of the older orchards. If you have real heavy soil the roots don't go down quite as far and trees aren't as stable and they blow over."
Tulare County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tricia Stever said there have been no initial damage reports, but winter storms always make Central Valley citrus growers and packers nervous because of the potential to interrupt the harvest schedule.
"A few growers may have been inconvenienced by the storms or had a minor interruption because they weren't able to get tractors and bins in and out of the fields, but we haven't had any major damage or major issues," Stever said. "We're sitting here watching the snowpack in the mountains and hoping and wishing for lots more."
In Southern California, hit earlier with sweeping wildfires and intense Santa Ana winds, officials braced for further damage, fearing drenching rains would send mudslides down scorched canyons. Although there were reports of minor mudslides, farmers said the storms had an overall positive impact.
Authorities in Orange County did issue a voluntary evacuation order for ranches and residents in the fire-damaged Modjeska and Silverado canyons The order also mandated evacuation of large animals from the slide-prone canyons, where more than 28,000 acres burned last fall.
"We had four and a half inches of rain over the weekend, a considerable amount for us," said Ventura County citrus and avocado grower David Schwabauer. "There was some minor disruption from the rains, but the benefit is huge. It make the lemons grow. They go nuts. It's good for the avocados too. Everything right now is very happy with the rain."
Schwabauer said the soaking rains are helping replenish water supplies and leach salts for the root zones in orchards that have been coping with poorer quality water.
"I'm sure our coastal strawberry and vegetable growers will have difficulties getting into fields," said Schwabauer, who is a California Farm Bureau Federation director. "But, overall, these storms are beneficial."
(Contributing to this report were Kate Campbell, Ching Lee, Christine Souza, Ron Miller and Kathy Coatney. They 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.