Rainy winter, spring affects coastal vegetable harvest


Issue Date: August 14, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Salinas Valley vegetable growers say they expect a better harvest season than they experienced last year.
Photo/Richard Green

For coastal vegetable growers, the rains of winter continue to reverberate through the season.

"We're still dealing with certain aspects of a long, intense winter," including "a lot of foliage in the hills and in a lot of the outlying areas," said Richard Bianchi, who grows lettuce, romaine, broccoli, cabbage and other crops near Hollister.

That extra foliage, he added, means pests coming down into his fields, but so far he's only had to make minor tweaks to his crop-protection applications.

"It's just something you definitely have to be aware of," Bianchi said.

The abundance of rainfall led to deep moisture in the soil, which meant little or no need for pre-irrigation, he noted.

"Winter sets you up for your year in more ways than just, oh, you got a lot of rain," Bianchi said. "It's more than water. It sets you up for the conditions you're going to deal with for the whole season."

The summer has been mild, he said, with only a couple of 100-degree-plus days in San Benito County so far.

"Usually, we'll get a stretch where we get a few piled on one another, and that hasn't happened this year," Bianchi said.

Demand has been good, he said, although summer marks what he calls "the homegrown season."

"Everybody pretty much across the country has their gardens," Bianchi said. "The farmers markets are making an impact. So demand usually kind of flattens out this time of year."

On the labor front, Bianchi said things have been "surprisingly" OK.

"We're thinking the influx of H-2A has taken some of that pressure off," he said, referring to the guestworker program for agricultural employees. "There's not an abundance of workers, but most guys are probably at 90-95% staffed. And I don't think the last few years, most companies could say that."

Monterey County growers will likely have a better season than in 2018, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

"Salinas Valley farmers are rotating into their third crops for the season, with new fields of lettuce, romaine and spinach being planted in the coming weeks," Groot said. "Artichokes will be in continual harvest through the fall months, as well as our vegetable crops as they finish up their second rotations."

Although the Salinas Valley started late due to the wet winter, "we've had a pretty nice stretch of weather," said Richard Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor in Monterey County.

Smith said he's seen some of the usual disease issues, such as downy mildew.

"We have abilities to handle those problems," he said. "The things that are a little more scary are the soilborne diseases, Verticillium and Fusarium. Those are big concerns that the growers have, because if you get those issues in your field, they're there forever."

Farmers then manage the problem with crop rotation and planting tolerant or resistant varieties, Smith added.

Viruses such as impatiens necrotic spot, which affects lettuce, are also causing concern, as are soilborne insects, Smith said; the latter issue is getting more difficult to handle due to insecticide restrictions.

To Smith, the biggest game changer is the spread of technology, with automated thinners "pretty much just a normal practice." A field day held in May attracted widespread interest, he said. (See story)

Farther down the coast in San Luis Obispo County, Tom Ikeda said it "wasn't as good of a spring as we thought it might have been with all the rains."

"Usually, with that wet of a year, we're expecting the markets to be much better in April and May," Ikeda said.

There were a couple of market spikes, he added, but "nothing really sustained like we would have thought with that much weather."

Ikeda attributes that in part to rain that lasted well into May.

"The weather wasn't warm enough to really dry things out very quickly," he said. "Generally, you had to work the ground up wetter than you would like to, and that causes compaction problems. The plants can't send out roots like they would in a well-worked-up field," which limits plants' ability to pick up fertilizers and water, stunting growth, he added.

Markets historically come up in the fall, especially around Thanksgiving, he said.

"We'll see if that happens," Ikeda said. "We've had little glitches during the year. Sometimes, those little glitches carry on in the cycle throughout the year. So it may create other little spikes later in the year.

"We're hopeful," he added. "We're farmers. We have to be hopeful."

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

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