Farmers assess impact of rain on late crops


Issue Date: October 12, 2011
By Steve Adler
Jeryl Fry, president and CEO of Mohr-Fry Ranches, checks on heirloom beans that were harvested at his farm in Thornton. Fry was able to harvest most of his beans ahead of last week’s storms.
Photo/Steve Adler

Farmers raced against the clock throughout California last week to harvest their crops ahead of a storm front that weather prognosticators predicted was on its way—and were mostly successful, according to reports from around the state.

In general, farmers said they were able either to get their most vulnerable crops out of the field in advance of the rains or held off their harvest until the weather cleared and fields dried out.

The storms that brought rain to the state last week were caused by Hurricane Hilary in the eastern Pacific. Long-range weather forecasters issued storm warnings at least 10 days ahead of the storms, and farmers credited the accuracy of these predictions for allowing them to prepare.

Crops that are most susceptible to rain damage at this time of year include almonds, cotton, processing tomatoes, raisins, rice and winegrapes.

Winegrape grower Brad Goehring of Lodi said farmers in his district harvested around the clock in advance of the storm to harvest their vulnerable thin-skinned grape varieties.

"The weather reports were extremely accurate eight or nine days coming into this thing, and that really prepared us well to get ready for it. We have been working around the clock and we finished our last variety that is sensitive to rain just before the rain arrived," he said. "We aren't done harvesting by any means, but the wineries really cooperated in helping us get the crop in. We are about 75 percent through our harvest and we should be able to finish in about two weeks if we have ideal weather."

After some drying weather allowed growers to resume harvest activities toward the end of last week, another weaker storm on Monday brought rain to growing areas from Sacramento north, resulting in another disruption. Weather forecasts for California call for sunny skies and mild temperatures over the next several days—conditions that growers say they need to resume their harvests.

Jeryl Fry, president and CEO of Mohr-Fry Ranches, with farms in the Lodi and Thornton areas, said that they were also able to harvest their thin-skinned winegrapes ahead of the storm, as well as most fields of heirloom beans.

"We were late getting started planting our beans and it was a very cool spring. We were concerned that we would be going too far into the fall to get everything harvested," Fry said. "There is one nine-acre field of rice beans still to be harvested and we will be able to harvest it once the field dries out."

Almond growers gave mixed reports. Farmer Ron Macedo of Turlock noted that because of the long-range forecast, very few growers had almonds on the ground when the rains came.

"It is late enough in the season and the ground was pretty dry, so the growers had a chance to plan for the rain. Everyone picked up what they had on the ground, took a little break and then went right back at it once the orchards dried," he said.

But that wasn't the case for everyone. Almond grower Marvin Meyers of Firebaugh said that even though he knew the storms were coming, it was not possible to sweep and gather everything.

"We have quite a few acres of hard-shell almonds on the ground. Some varieties we left on the trees because we knew it was going to rain, so we hadn't shaken those yet. There are a lot of nuts still out there because it is so late. Everything is two weeks late this year," he said.

Diversified grower Mark Borba of Riverdale said that in his observation, most crops in the Central Valley escaped serious damage—although the storms further delayed crops that were already several days behind normal in maturity.

"In general, all of the crop harvests are 10 days to two weeks behind normal, and as a result we have almonds and cotton on my ranch that are exposed. Almonds are in all various stages of harvest up and down the valley," he said.

"The cotton crop is delayed. Most folks won't start harvesting before Oct. 20 and some later than that. This rain will really slow the defoliation and likely shorten up the harvest hours. It is going to be a little more problematic," he said. "It has been my experience, though, that when there is a storm and subsequently it dries and the wind blows and the sun shines, it doesn't have too much of a quality impact."

Borba said raisin growers also prepared for the rain.

"I also passed a lot of raisin vineyards driving through the valley and the growers had their raisins up or at least cigarette-rolled. I didn't see anything that was exposed," he said.

But that isn't the same for processing tomato fields, he said, noting that he saw numerous tomato fields that weren't yet harvested when the rains came, making them vulnerable to mold.

"Depending on what kind of rain we got, it really starts the clock running on mold and splitting, and there isn't a lot of time to gather the crop and get it to the processor," he said.

Farther north in the Sacramento Valley, last week's storms created some headaches—but no significant losses—for rice farmers who are just now beginning to harvest in earnest.

Grower Doug McGeoghegan of Colusa reported a double whammy: First was the extensive amount of lodging in his rice and second was the arrival of hungry migratory waterfowl.

"The wind and the rain created an ocean of sodden rice out here and knocked a lot of it over," he said. "We have a lot of lodging. I was really surprised to see how much of the rice got flattened and I'm not alone in that.

"When I was checking out the ranch early the next morning, I was greeted by the sight of probably 50,000 Pacific white-fronted geese and a lot of ducks in the unharvested rice. This time of year, when the white-fronts come in, they are generally polite enough to stick to the harvested fields, but because these fields are practically indistinguishable, they decided to break with tradition and land in the rice," he said.

McGeoghegan said he sent employees out to the fields with propane-powered cannons to encourage the birds to shift to harvested fields instead.

With an estimated 580,000 acres of rice this year, he predicted farmers would need at least another month to wrap up the harvest, particularly because some fields weren't planted until late May or early June.

Another rice farmer, George Tibbitts of Arbuckle, said he also had a lot of lodged rice. Rice that has toppled over or lodged can still be harvested, but it is a slower, more difficult process.

"We knew the storm was coming. It didn't seem to be as bad as we feared. North winds can dry things out," he said. "We were harvesting around 24 to 25 percent and normally we would be harvesting around 20 to 21 percent. But we didn't have the luxury of waiting for ideal moisture because of the storms. The rice is mature at that level, but we will have to pay a lot more for drying costs."

Macedo, who also operates a pumpkin patch and corn maze, said there was one bright side to the storm: "For me, the rain was perfect timing. I couldn't irrigate my Halloween corn maze because it would make it too muddy, so the rain was perfect. It was just enough rain to keep the corn green because as soon as Halloween is over, I still want to chop the corn for feed."

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at sadler@cfbf.com.)

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