Citrus, strawberry and vegetable harvesting resumes as California rains subside
by Rand Green | January 05, 2011
FRESNO, CA -- Harvesting of citrus in California's San Joaquin Valley and of
strawberries and vegetables in the coastal areas of Southern California began
returning to normal the week of Jan. 3, after being disrupted by unusually
heavy rainfall during much of December.
The timing of the rainfall resulted in the loss of an important marketing
window for growers of Navel oranges and mandarins. "Approximately 80 to 85
percent of the billion-dollar crop remains on the tree in a season that started
late for maturity reasons and was heavily interrupted because of record-
setting rains in December," according to a Dec. 31 press release from
California Citrus Mutual.
"It is estimated that over 80 million five-pound cartons of mandarins remain
on the tree with a value exceeding $400 million. At lest 75 million 40-pound
cartons of Navel oranges are still on the tree" with an estimated crop value of
$750 million for the San Joaquin Valley, the release said. In addition, 10,000
acres of lemons, valued at around $100,00, "have yet to be harvested."
Heavy rainfall continued through Sunday, Jan. 2, but by Monday, the storm
systems had cleared out of the area, and the 15-day Accuweather forecast
was calling for little if any rainfall over the ensuing two weeks.
"Now that the rain has stopped, as each grove dries out, [growers] will be able
to get back in and start picking again," Bob Blakely, director of industry
relations for California Citrus Mutual, told The Produce News Tuesday, Jan. 4.
"There were a few people picking yesterday, and there are even more places
they can get in today. Over the next three to four days, they will try to get
back and resume normal operations."
But "we are 2 [million] to 2.5 million cartons behind where we would normally
be, shipped season to date," he said. The combination of late maturity in the
crop and interruption of harvest due to heavy and persistent rainfall "has
created some lost opportunity."
Those lost opportunities were not only in the domestic market but, for citrus,
significantly in the export market. "The early Chinese New Year coupled with
normal export demand" during that period "cannot be made up,
unfortunately," CCM President Joel Nelsen said in the Dec. 31 release. With
each unit of citrus for export valued at $15, some $150 million of lost market
opportunity had occurred as of that date.
"Inventories are exhausted, and retail demand will materialize next week," the
release stated. "It will take at least 48 to 72 hours of dry weather before the
industry can resume normal harvesting operations.
There are 70 packinghouses, approximately 3,000 growers and 12,000
employees "eagerly waiting to resume the season," according to the release.
"Apparently, we are done with the rain for a while," said Mr. Blakely. "Now we
will just see if it does not get too cold."
The citrus crop will remain vulnerable to frost for several weeks yet. So far this
season, the industry has survived two potentially damaging freezes -- one
early frost at the end of November and a second one the night of Dec. 30
when temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley dropped rapidly, getting as low
as 27 degrees in places. Fortunately, in both instances growers were able to
maintain temperatures high enough in their groves to avert damage through
the implementation of various frost-protection techniques that, while
effective, are also costly.
"Raw costs for frost protection" just for the night of Dec. 30 "are estimated to
be $55 million," according to the press release.
The 15-day forecast called for lows higher than 32 degrees, so it appeared
that there was no imminent threat of further frost. "We like the cold nights as
long as we can stay just above freezing," Mr. Blakely said. "It will help bring
the sugar up and bring the color out." So it will be "a good thing" if "we can
stay right in the low to mid-30s at night, and dry for awhile."
There will be some quality problems in the crop as well from the prolonged
wet weather, and the damage assessments "are going to take some time"
because the problems do not manifest themselves immediately. "We are
certainly going to see a drop in utilization" due to "quite a bit of rot and decay
setting up here after that much rain." However, the industry is generally
conscientious about sorting out problem fruit and keeping it out of the pack,
so while the packout and, hence, the total volume of fruit shipped, will be
affected, the fruit that goes to market should be free from those types of
Meanwhile, in the Oxnard area, the strawberry harvest was also getting set to
return to normal following the cessation of the rainy period. Winter strawberry
volume is generally light out of Oxnard in any case, and growers expect some
rains during the winter and an accompanying disruption of harvest, as a
normal course of events, although the timing and duration of the disruptions
will vary from year to year.
With rains ending Jan. 2 and no more rain in the forecast for a while, the week
of Jan. 3 was setting up to be "the first dry week in a long time," said David
Cook, salesman at Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard, which grows both
strawberries and vegetables in the Oxnard area.
Rainfall to date, since the beginning of the water-year last fall, is "so far
ahead of normal it is amazing," he said. "I think for strawberries, long term it
is probably beneficial," but it has been "almost too much of a good thing."
Berries that were on the plants when the rains started had to be stripped off,"
so in the short term, the harvest and shipping were disrupted. But "there
weren't that many berries to wash out, so it is not a major deal."
Deardorff's vegetable crops were affected as well. Romaine and leaf lettuce
"didn't take that much water that well," he said, and "cabbage was hard to
harvest for a while. But we are back in now without too much problem."
Celery, a major commodity for Deardorff, generally likes rain, but there had
been so much of it in December that it "upset the growing cycle of the plant.
… Most of the celery around here has one problem or another right now,
which will take some time to work through," Mr. Cook said. "But a week of dry
weather would really help a lot."
Although vegetable planting schedules were also disrupted by wet fields, Mr.
Cook does not expect to see any significant planting gaps if the weather
remains dry for the next week or so, because growers "have a way" of farming
the crops that will effectively close the gaps.
The most beneficial effect of all of the rainfall for California agriculture,
combined with snowfall levels that are well above normal year-to-date, is that
the outlook for water deliveries to farms is expected to be much better than it
has been the last couple of years. A Dec. 28 press release from the California
Department of Water Resources noted that Sierra snowpack was "198 percent
of normal for the date." That "boosts our hopes that we will have an adequate
water supply for our cities and farms" following several years of drought,
according to DWR Director Mark Cowin.
On Dec. 17, DWR estimated that it would be able to deliver 50 percent of
requested State Water Project water in 2011 based on conditions to date, and
that is "all-but-certain to increase" based on the increased snowpack since
that date and what may yet come, according to the release.