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Spring weather causes delays, and some losses

Issue Date: June 15, 2011
By Steve Adler

From the Mexican border to the Oregon border, cool spring temperatures and frequent rainstorms have resulted in California crops progressing through the growing season at a rate that is as much as four weeks behind normal.

A survey of agricultural commissioners in several major farming counties indicates that with a few exceptions—cherries and blueberries in particular—the delayed plant development hasn't caused significant problems to date. There is concern, however, that crops could be damaged by fall rains if harvest comes too late in the year.

Untimely rains that struck the heart of California's cherry sector right around Memorial Day caused damage to a crop that had been developing nicely up to that point. Rain that falls on cherry orchards at harvest can cause the maturing cherries to swell and split, making them unmarketable.

"We have had substantial damage to the cherries," said Scott Hudson, San Joaquin County agricultural commissioner. San Joaquin County is the leading California county for cherry production.

"The rains have caused much cracking in the cherries. It is pretty extensive, although the growers have given the fruit a couple days' rest and they are going back into some of the orchards to try to salvage what they have. Some orchards look better than others and some of the orchards are totally lost. We are sorting everything out and it will take some time before we know the full extent of the damage," Hudson said.

Farther south in Fresno County, blueberries suffered a similar fate, according to agricultural commissioner Carol Hafner.

"Quite a few of the blueberry growers lost some of their acreage and, in some cases, 100 percent of their crop just from splitting and damage to the plants themselves because of the rain and hail," Hafner said. "There was just too much water all at once."

Other than those two commodities, the greatest impact to date seems to be in cotton. According to reports from Hafner and her counterparts in Merced and Kings counties, much of the early planted cotton failed to germinate because of low temperatures and the later planted cotton is several days behind normal.

"We know of at least one grower who had to disk his cotton because the ground has been too wet and it is rotting the seeds. So he is opting to disk it under and go to melons," Hafner said.

In Kings County, agricultural commissioner Tim Niswander said strong cotton prices have resulted in a 30 percent increase in planted acreage, but much of it had to be replanted.

"We have some fields that are probably three weeks late because they had to be replanted and we have other fields of cotton that look to me to be 10 days to two weeks behind in growth," he said.

Niswander said his bigger concern about cotton is what might happen at harvest, because the increased acreage could put a strain on harvesting equipment.

"A lot of custom harvesters and perhaps some farmers sold off their cotton equipment a couple years ago. I don't think they envisioned cotton coming back like it has," he said. "That was one of the delays last year when growers had to wait for the person with the cotton picker to get to their farm."

Another consequence of a late cotton harvest is the state's plowdown requirement relating to control of pink bollworm. Depending on location within the San Joaquin Valley, plowdown must be completed sometime between mid-December and early January. There is the possibility of extending those dates due to delayed harvest, a situation that happened last year.

"The fear with the late cotton is that harvest could be pushed into that November-December time frame and we have plow down, as well as quality losses if we get too late and the cotton gets rained on," said Dave Robinson, Merced County agricultural commissioner.

Processing tomatoes are grown throughout the Central Valley, and although the crop is lagging behind normal in maturity, the plants themselves look very healthy for the most part.

"The tomatoes are doing OK, but the normal growth that we would expect at this time of year is just not occurring," Hudson said.

Robinson said the potential problem with processing tomatoes is that the canneries have schedules that are established to prevent bottlenecks during harvest.

"With tomatoes, you have certain market windows that you are shooting for. Plantings are timed so you hit those windows and right now, everything is messed up because of the delays," he said.

Farther north, Sutter County Agricultural Commissioner Mark Quisenberry said most of the major commodities produced in the county are two to four weeks behind normal, including rice, prunes, walnuts and canning peaches.

"We had good weather during bloom for our walnuts and prunes. We had some failures in the prunes a few years ago because it was too hot during bloom and they aborted their flowers, but this year the temperatures were cool and the bloom was much better," he said.

Weather on the coast has been more seasonable, according to Bob Roach, assistant agricultural commissioner in Monterey County. He noted that there were a few minor interruptions in strawberry harvest because of rain, but that growers were able to resume picking within a couple days of the storms, so losses were minimal.

Vegetable crops are a little behind normal, but nothing significant, and they will likely catch up as temperatures begin to rise. And, Roach said, the vineyards in the Salinas Valley are in the very early stages of crop development and they can catch up.

Just to the south in San Luis Obispo County, recently retired agricultural commissioner Bob Lilley said winegrapes have suffered some setbacks because of two nights of frost that struck just as the vines were beginning to leaf out.

"The first cluster that leafs out and forms the grapes was significantly damaged due to the frost," said Lilley, who still does some work for the county office. "The plants pushed out a second cluster, but it has been very slow in developing because of the cold and rain. There is also the concern about mold and mildew setting in. The grape growers are very frustrated with the weather."

Another concern on the Central Coast, Lilley said, is that the late rains are creating problems for dryland grain producers.

"The really late rains hit when the growers have already started to windrow the barley, wheat and oats," he said. "This creates a significant problem for them because they want the windrowed grain to dry before they bale it. Sometimes the rain leaves the crop so damaged that it cannot even be harvested. They just have to turn the cattle into the field then because it gets so much water damage on it."

In the Imperial Valley, farmer Joe Colace Jr. of Brawley said the cooler-than-normal temperatures have generally been good for desert crops.

"We are currently shipping cantaloupes, honeydews and the variety melons in large volume and we just finished our spring sweet corn deal," Colace said. "The cool spring has made for exceptional quality. We have had one of the best eating melons that we have ever produced."

Because of strong wheat prices, his company also double crops with wheat.

"We have wheat as a second crop to our vegetables, and we are getting good yields on the late wheat with high protein. The cool growing period helps dramatically," he said.

Hudson made this observation, which summed up the opinions of the others surveyed: "A lot can happen this summer—both good and bad—but if everything progresses nicely, we should be OK. A lot will depend on what happens this fall at the other end of the season."

(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.




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