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California rains disrupt strawberry, vegetable harvests, but don't end drought

The worst drought in a century in California was eased somewhat by several inches of rain across the state and considerable snow in some mountain areas from Wednesday, Feb. 26 through Sunday, March 2, but it was a mixed blessing in some growing areas, particularly for strawberries and vegetables along the central and southern coast.

"Rain is needed, but we don't want to see damage," Charlie Staka, director of sales for CBS Farms LLC in Watsonville, CA, told The Produce News March 3. "We got over three inches of rain in Oxnard Friday and Saturday. It has ended. We did sustain damage. We are culling 30 to 40 percent today, and we should be back to normal a here within three days."

Of the first significant rain of the season, Staka said, "We always expect that rain, and you are always going to have so much culling after a rain. The problem now is if we are going to start getting rain, we are getting into heavier production, so we end up throwing more away" when it rains in March or April than when it rains in January or February.

The rain is needed, he said, but it is better if it comes in increments of a quarter or a half of an inch. "You don't want it to come all at once."

California Giant expected to be back harvesting strawberries in Oxnard March 6 following 4.5 inches of rain in their fields, according to Cindy Jewell, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville. The rain will not have any long-term negative effects, and "there is no rain forecast down there for the next 10 days," she said March 3. "It is nice to get the rain. No one is going to complain."

Santa Cruz Berry Farming Co. LLC in Watsonville saw about 2.5 inches in Santa Maria, according to Fritz Koontz, president. "We are not picking fresh. We are stripping for juice today. We can't pick until probably the end of the week -- Thursday or Friday [March 6-7]."

But "we need more" rain, Koontz said. With so little total rainfall so far this season, "you start running out of time."

Deardorff Family Farms in Oxnard has experienced crop losses and harvesting disruptions from nearly 4.5 inches of rain from Wednesday night through Sunday morning, according to David Cook, a salesman with the company.

"It is mostly good in that we needed the water," Cook said. It disrupts the harvest "a little bit," but "markets have been so bad on just about everything that it didn't really make a lot of difference. I can't tell you what a drudge this has been since the first of the year" for Romaine, leaf, celery and most other vegetable crops except cabbage due to heavy production and markets that are "under snow." Deardorff is having to strip "one round of berries" because of the rain, but "the berry market is just so-so," he said.

"We are farming in both Oxnard and Orange County, and they caught up to five inches [of rain] in Oxnard," said Matt Kawamura, managing partner of Orange County Produce LLC in Irvine, CA. "We have to strip [strawberries] there today and tomorrow [March 3-4]. We'll be back in Wednesday or Thursday. But we haven't picked since last Thursday, so it is a pretty long period of time." In Orange County, "we are picking, but the numbers are way down."

While the rain is needed, Kawamura said, "You have mixed emotions, for sure, but overall, we need the water." If there is not more rainfall, "it is going to cause a quick end to the season for us."

Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, told The Produce News that the rainfall has had no negative effects on California's Navel harvest, as growers "brought fruit in ahead of the rain to pack for the next couple of days when it might be too wet" to get into the orchards.

There were beneficial effects, he said. "It probably saved an irrigation, and had only a positive effect on the crop."

About 40 percent of "the remaining crop after the freeze" in early December was yet to be harvested, he said.

"We could have used a lot more rain, but we will take whatever we can get," Blakely said. "It certainly did not mitigate the dire situation that we are in. We are still in an emergency situation" of "extreme drought."