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Heavy California rains cause planting and harvest disruptions but also improve water outlook

by Rand Green | December 22, 2010
For vegetable and berry growers along California's southern and central coast, there are some short-term downsides to the heavy rainfall received over a weeklong period beginning about mid-December. But many farmers statewide will benefit from an improved water outlook for 2010, as significant amounts of rain, as well as snow in the Sierra Mountains, will assure them of better water deliveries than they experienced in 2010.

The California Department of Water Resources announced Dec. 17 an increase in its projected deliveries of State Water Project water to 50 percent of contractors' requests, up from a 25 percent projection as of Nov. 22.

"This is very good news after the 2007-09 drought from which we're still recovering," DWR Director Mark Cowin said in making the announcement. "We don't want to be overly optimistic with most of the winter ahead of us, but recent storms have given us the best early-season water supply outlook in five years."

Heavy precipitation continued over much of the state through Dec. 22, continuing to improve the prospects for 2011 deliveries of agricultural water, and another major storm system was expected to arrive late Christmas Day or early on Dec. 26. The projected allocations "will be going up, of course," Ted Thomas, information officer for the California Department of Water Resources, told The Produce News Dec. 22. "With all of the … snow and rain we are getting, it will be going up." The department staff had not yet "crunched the numbers" and come up with a revised projection, but he expected that the new projection would be announced "relatively soon," he said. "As of midnight last night, the statewide water content in the snow was 204 percent of normal for the date," he said.

The heavy rainfall has caused flooding and mudslides in some areas of the state, but Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, said Dec. 22 that she was not aware of any long-term damage to farming operations "at this point."

The Santa Maria area, where California Giant has young strawberry fields planted, received "about seven inches [of rain] over the weekend" of Dec. 18- 19, Ms. Jewell said. "Some areas were more affected than others, depending on how the water runs off." But in Santa Maria, "it is still early enough that it shouldn't affect [the strawberries] in the long term."

Further south, on the Oxnard Plain, California Giant was already harvesting strawberries when the rains began. "That has been taken out of the game for a short time, 'til we can get back in and clean up and start harvesting again," Ms. Jewell said. Again, there does not appear to be any long-term damage.

"It is all short term. This time of year, we expect rain. We expect adverse weather. You just try to work around it," she said. The main focus for growers during the rainy period has been on "just keeping the fields drained as much as possible."

Boskovich Farms Inc. in Oxnard grows assorted vegetables as well as strawberries on the Oxnard Plain, and "we've got some extremely abnormal rain amounts for a five-day period here," Sales Manager Russ Widerburg said Dec. 22. "I think we were upwards of seven or eight inches in this area," with more expected after a short reprieve.

"We were just about ready to start walkthroughs on the berries, so it will set that back a week or two,” he said. All of the berries that were on the plants when the rains began will be stripped off, he added.

For vegetable items, the rain has disrupted harvest and also delayed plantings, Mr. Widerburg said. Getting tractors and trailers in and out of the field "has been an issue, but I don't think we will see any long-term effects" on crops already planted.

For celery, which is one of the company's major commodities, "there shouldn't be any ill effects," he said. "That is a pretty hardy commodity." Some other products such as leaf items "probably won't be traveling as far here for a few days, ’til the ground dries out a little bit more. We don't want to jeopardize the integrity of the product going on the road for four or five days. It might affect shelf life on the leaf lettuce."

The major effect has been having to curtail harvest temporarily because of the ground being so wet that trucks and tractors would get stuck in the field, he said. "Cabbages and the dry carton items we haven't been able to harvest for five or six days because of the weather." However, many of the items that "we do here this time of year we do in Mexico, too," just to be sure that "we have ample supplies in case something like this does happen."

There may be gaps in some items in late winter or early spring because of planting delays. "Realistically, we probably won't be able to get in and cultivate or work new ground prep for probably a couple of weeks, as wet as it is," Mr. Widerburg said. "We are going to miss two to three weeks of planting on celery," so the effects of that could be felt around late March or early April. Faster-growing commodities such as cilantro, spinach and leaf items may see some gaps earlier than that.