Vegetable growers overcome challenges


Issue Date: April 10, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Asparagus harvest is underway at Davis Ranch in Sloughhouse, where farmer Rick Grimshaw and his employees find ways to work around the numerous rain events that have come one after another in the region.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Freshly harvested asparagus from Sloughhouse will soon find its way onto consumers’ plates.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Vegetable growers aren't letting a little rain get in the way of spring planting, or their sunny outlooks.

"For what a lot of these crops have been through, things look actually pretty well," said San Benito County grower Richard Bianchi. "The rain has taken its toll to a certain extent, but guys have done a really good job with the conditions that've been handed to them. And the crops have held up fairly well."

That's true, he added, even though "there's been a lot of equipment stuck over the last couple of months"—as in, stuck in the mud.

Bianchi said planting on the coast has been underway for the past couple of months. He's raising a variety of leafy greens on his ground near Hollister.

In Sloughhouse, where Rick Grimshaw runs Davis Ranch, he figures he's about a month behind schedule.

"We've just been holding off till it stops raining so much," Grimshaw said. "We haven't put anything in except some beans and peas" about two weeks ago, he added, which have yet to emerge. He's also had to put transplants on hold, because "they do a hell of a lot better when they're not getting beat up by the rain."

With more sunshine and less chance of frost in the offing, Grimshaw is itching to get to work.

"I'm not delaying too much longer," Grimshaw said. "We're going to try to put something in this next week. We've got a 40% chance of rain here and there, but not talking like inches of rain."

That's helpful for nurturing the crops, he added.

"If it rains lightly on them, on the beds, you can go out there and cultivate and crack the soil, and they usually come right along," Grimshaw said. An inch of rain or a thunderstorm, on the other hand, "pulverizes" the ground and makes life tough on the young plants, he noted.

"You can work it with the cultivator and try to break it up, and another rain comes behind and everything solidifies even tighter because you've cut the beds open," Grimshaw said.

In the Central Valley, Jeremy Lane, sales manager at Baloian Farms in Fresno, said his operation is about done for the season with what he calls "wet" vegetables—meaning hydro- or ice-cooled commodities, such as lettuce and broccoli—and moving on the "dry," or air-cooled vegetables such as peppers and squash. Peppers have just been planted in the Coachella area, he noted.

"Some of our plantings have been delayed on the peppers, specifically, whether it be bell peppers or eggplant or squash," Lane said. The biggest obstacle has been getting fields prepared, including installation of drip tape and mulch, he added.

"It's hard to get those established during the rainy season," "Now that we're getting some brief windows where we're not having the rain, it's just been a rush to get everything in. I think we're just about planted up."

Initial harvest of valley crops could be pushed back 10 to 14 days, Lane said. Harvest normally starts in early June south of Bakersfield, and "once we get started in Bakersfield, we'll be harvesting something somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley all the way through October," Lane said.

"Here in the valley, the sooner you start, the better, just because you want to get as much yield as you can per acre, and it just gets really hot here really fast," Lane said. "You can sometimes have an abbreviated harvest, depending on the weather, and it could chase you out sooner than when you want to get out."

Transition time can lead to a supply gap, Lane said, noting that his farm made later plantings in the desert to compensate.

Along the Central Coast in San Luis Obispo County, Tom Ikeda said he started planting his earliest crops in December and began his lettuce and broccoli programs around New Year's Day.

"It was an interesting winter," Ikeda said. "We're about 115, maybe 120% of normal rainfall—what used to be normal rainfall."

That caused him to make last-minute adjustments to his planting schedule.

"I think this year, in the spring, there's going to be a lot of uneven harvests," Ikeda said. "There's going to be peaks and valleys. People were able to get in and plant pretty much all at the same time, when they could. In my case, we had to shift plantings around to try to stay on schedule."

This could ripple through the rest of the season, he noted.

"If things go as I think they might, there's going to be spikes in the market throughout the year because of having to plant in different places," Ikeda said. "The rotation to that second crop could get affected, too, which means that crop may get pushed back a little bit."

He's also keeping a wary eye on the rain-fed vegetation in the hills, because it could be harboring an invading army.

"Once that starts to dry up, a lot of those insects will be looking for the moisture that the crop plants have, so they'll be moving into the crops," Ikeda said. "It's something that we're going to have to stay on top of and keep an eye out." Lygus, leafhoppers, cabbage maggots and worms are among the potential pests, he added. He doesn't want to spray for them now, because that could end up being a waste of time and money. Even so, timing is critical.

"There could be a very small window between just a few and way past an economic threshold, and it's going to be tough to control," Ikeda said.

Ikeda has been harvesting some crops and noted rain damage on some. But what he does bring in could command a good price, he noted.

"The challenges bring opportunities," Ikeda said. "Was it difficult during the winter? Did we have to put a lot more labor in to get fields in the condition to plant? Yes. But we do all that because we understand that there is an opportunity there also for us to reap."

Even for all the challenges presented, Bianchi is not going to turn down any wet weather.

"We'll take it," he said. "I guess, in a way, guys are complaining, but not really. We all know we need it and we want it."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.