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Hurricane Manuel causes crop losses, planting delays in Culiacan, Mexico

After leaving a death toll of at least 97 on the central coast of western Mexico early the week of Sept. 15, Tropical Storm Manuel continued up the coast and reached hurricane strength before making landfall once more on the coast of Sinaloa, bringing extensive storm damage to growing areas around Culiacan, a major growing area for tomatoes, squash and many other produce commodities marketed in the United States during the late fall, winter and early spring seasons.

According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, more than 350,000 acres of crops were damaged by the storm, mostly due to heavy rains.

Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez estimated it would cost at least $93 million to rebuild areas hit by the storm, the Tribune stated.

As of Monday, Sept. 23, growers were still evaluating the extent of the damage to their fields, shade houses and greenhouses, a process that was expected to take at least another week.

Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Ciruli Bros. LLC in Nogales, AZ, said that the extent of the damage depends on where the farms are located, with rainfall amounts varying from around eight inches to 15 inches in various parts of Sinaloa.

Ciruli Bros. would soon be harvesting pre-Thanksgiving green beans and other products in the Los Mochis area of northern Sinaloa.

"They received maybe two to three inches, not a heavy rain," Ciruli said. "I think we are going to come out of that deal OK."

But in the Culiacan Valley, "there are going to be some challenges," he said. "There are going to be some setbacks, particularly with regard to the timing of when the crops come off.

Many winter crops had not yet been planted, he said. "Not everything was in the ground."

But prior to the storm, "we were probably already running about 10 days behind schedule. Now, that is going to set us back a little bit longer," he said, adding that planting will be delayed, and many damaged fields will need to be replanted.

That will make the transition from earlier growing areas into the Culiacan area challenging, he said. "It will make a difficult transition in the front part of November."

On the positive side, the heavy rainfall helped fill reservoirs needed for irrigation that were very low prior to the storm.

Gonzalo Avila, vice president of Malena Produce Inc. in Nogales, AZ, posted a blog Sept. 20 on the company website, stating that "the recent storm and floods reported in Sinaloa and surrounding areas in Mexico have indeed been devastating to many. Thankfully, our growers and crews were spared much of the damage, mainly due to the fact that the majority of our crop has not yet been planted. Also, our shadehouses suffered only minimal damage to the outer covers but are structurally intact."

While the "aggregate damage to the region's production is yet to be determined," Avila said in the post, he expects the company's first shipments of the season to start by Oct. 1, as projected, "one of the earliest start dates reported for our winter vegetable season."

Ted Kaplan, president of Professional Produce in Los Angeles, said Sept. 23, that Sinaloa is one of "my primary areas" for sourcing winter produce, and growers have told him that "they had more rain in one day than they can ever remember." Some of the early production "was heavily affected," and some of their plantings will be later than usual.

Chuck Thomas, president of Thomas Produce Sales Inc. in Nogales said Sept. 23 that some areas in Sinaloa appear to have crop losses of 20-30 percent. The coverings of some shade houses were torn by the high winds.

Some transplanted fields were lost to flooding, but will be replanted, Thomas said. He noted that growers generally hold in reserve enough seedlings to do extensive replanting just in case a situation such as the recent storm make it necessary.

The delays will probably mean that in some cases, crops that would have started in early November will not be ready until late November, he said. Squash, cucumbers and eggplant were among the crops most heavily affected.