Rains help, but could be 'too little, too late'

Issue Date: April 4, 2012
By Ching Lee
Winegrape grower Steve Heringer, center, talks with crew foreman Emilio Rios in his vineyard in Clarksburg. Heringer’s crew has been in and out of the vineyards between rains, training vines and doing other trellis work.
Photo/Ching Lee
An employee ties vines on a trellis at Heringer Estates Vineyards and Winery in Yolo County during a break in the rain last week.
Photo/Ching Lee

After months of meager rainfall, California farmers and ranchers say the storms that have come through in recent weeks have been a huge relief—although for some growers, the timing has not been great.

"We're having our spring in the winter and our winter in the spring," said Jim Borchard, who grows processing tomatoes in Yolo County. "Don't get me wrong—I appreciate the rain, but I almost want to say it's too little, too late—or maybe it's too much, too late if (the rain) keeps going."

Recent storms have delayed his planting schedule for nearly two weeks. For some of his neighbors who did manage to get in the field, the young plants are now at risk of fungal diseases and will need crop protection. That will increase production costs and could reduce yields down the road, he said. If the cool, wet weather continues and further interrupts the growing season, that will ultimately throw the harvest and canneries off schedule as well, he added.

But there's no doubt the rain has helped crops such as wheat, which Borchard also grows. Those fields were seeded last fall and were "looking pretty dire for a while," he said, but they have taken off overnight after getting so much moisture recently. While yields may still be down a bit, Borchard said the rain reduces the expense of having to irrigate.

Yolo County winegrape grower Steve Heringer said the amount of precipitation his area received last month has definitely been good for his vineyard, which is just starting to see bud break. Before that, the ground was so dry that he had to irrigate his grapes, which he typically never has to do at this time of year. And because temperatures have been cold enough, he said he has not had to worry about heavy mildew problems yet.

The weather also hasn't slowed down his work, he said, noting his crew has been in and out of the vineyard between rains, tying up vines and doing other trellis work.

"The state needed the water so desperately that we've been delighted to see the rain," Heringer said. "Certainly at this point, every little bit is positive, especially early in the season like this for us."

The rain has also been a blessing for the state's ranchers.

Cattle rancher Henry Giacomini, who is grazing his cattle in the foothills of western Shasta County, said that region received plenty of water last month that has greatly improved his winter and spring range, ensuring his cattle good grass until he moves them to the mountains in May.

But the condition of the summer range remains questionable, he said, because it's still too early to tell if there will be enough snow runoff to create adequate stock water. He said there will probably be enough grass in the mountains for the cattle to eat, but there also needs to be a good distribution of drinking water throughout the range so the animals can graze all of that pasture.

"This rain is not going to fix everything, but it's going to be a great relief," he said.

For Glenn County dairy farmer John Zuppan, the rain means not having to irrigate his alfalfa, oats and wheat, all grown for feed. Recent storms did set him back on ground work for planting corn, but he said that could start later and that he expects to have it planted by May 1.

In the southern San Joaquin Valley, which did not receive as much precipitation as Northern California, Bob Wilson, a diversified grower in Kings County, said his tomato planting is "still pretty much on schedule," with three-quarters of his crop already in the ground as of last week. Cotton planting, however, has been delayed somewhat, and if more storms come through to prevent planting, growers will be concerned, especially with pima cotton, which requires a longer growing season.

Pat Borelli, who grows alfalfa and other field crops in Merced County, said the few showers that came through his region "actually did quite a bit of good for the young hay," which was planted in late December.

Both Borelli and Wilson said there has been delay in cutting their more mature alfalfa, though. With the current high price of hay, Wilson said he wants to make sure the weather is right, because if the bales are rained on, he will have to sell the hay at a discount.

The wet weather has also forced him to apply fungicide to his garlic, onions and young tomatoes, which he said is "pretty standard" practice for this time of year to keep crops "healthy and growing."

Franz Niederholzer, a University of California Cooperative Extension fruit and nut crop farm advisor for Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, said the rain has been "a positive thing" for many crops, "as long as the grower takes the steps to protect with fungicides."

He noted that a cool spring is good for stone fruit such as peaches and prunes, helping them to size better. But the lack of sun and warm temperatures are a concern for almond growers, Niederholzer said. Poor sunlight does not provide the energy the trees need to make sugar, which can lead to nut drop.

"I don't think it'll be a disaster, but if I was an almond grower, I'd be a lot happier with blue skies," he said.

Colusa County rice farmer Bill Wallace Jr. said he should be working his ground right about now, but has held off due to wet conditions.

"I'm not really nervous yet," Wallace said. "I've enjoyed getting the rain. I think it's good for everybody because we need the water—let's not kid ourselves here."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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