Early-Autumn Weather Affects Coastal Crops

Taylor Hillman Weather

A strawberry field overlooking the Pacific ocean near Santa Barbara, California.
The California coast is usually a pretty cool place to be—but not so during the first week in autumn, when triple-digit heat caused records to fall from Monterey to Oxnard and gave farmers and ranchers more than one good reason to sweat.

In San Luis Obispo County, cattle rancher Joy Fitzhugh expressed concern about the health of her livestock, and more.

“Everyone has their fingers crossed that there’s not going to be a fire,” said Fitzhugh, also a legislative analyst for the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau. Her county had already had to deal with the Chimney Fire, which started Aug. 13 south of Lake Nacimiento and burned more than 46,000 acres before being contained Sept. 6.

Fitzhugh said her cattle were feeling the heat and the lack of water, given the dry springs and creeks on the ranch near Cambria, so she was moving her animals uphill toward sources of water.

“They’re doing pretty good,” she said.

Strawberry grower Peter Navarro in Watsonville said the hot spell could have been worse.

“We’re at the tail end of our production,” Navarro said.

Strawberry harvest in his neighborhood gets going in March or April and runs through November, weather permitting. The heat wave would have been more damaging for growers such as Navarro had it come in June or July; the late-season appearance of this one mitigated its effects.

Navarro said he saw some burnt fruit in his fields, but on a limited scale. Longer nights and more mature plants offered the strawberries better shade.

“The angle of the sun at this time of the year is a little different, so we didn’t have as much direct heat,” Navarro said. “We had a few heat waves earlier in the season; that affected us more. I’d say overall it’s been more of a normal weather pattern here in the Central Coast,” with morning fog, afternoon sun with mild temperatures.

Navarro also shuffled his irrigation and work schedules in reaction to the heat.

“We adjusted our watering schedule, trying to get more water to the plant, and we have a policy out here now that if it reaches 85 degrees, we go home,” Navarro said. “We send the crews home.”

A lot of work hours melted away in Ventura County too, where John Krist reported many crews were being sent home early during the worst of the heat.

“It’s been too hot to work in the afternoon,” said Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. Fortunately for his county’s farmers, he said, many crops are either already harvested or not yet ready.

“This is really a slow time of the year for us,” Krist said, noting that strawberries and lemons were in and the avocado harvest was proceeding nicely.

“It’s not a particularly delicate piece of fruit at this stage,” he said. “This year’s crop is pretty robust at this point.”

Also helping Ventura County farmers, Krist said: They’ve largely been spared from Santa Ana winds, which can blow in off the mountains at upward of 50 miles per hour; combined with high temperatures and low humidity, the winds make irrigation difficult if not impossible.

It was sweltering in Monterey County as well, but not enough to cause much crop loss.

“We’re not hearing of any significant effects on the crops,” Robert Roach, the county’s assistant agricultural commissioner, said. “The markets are kind of depressed anyway … a little reduction in supply might bring prices up.”

Winegrape harvesting is under way in the county, and the heat wave could actually be beneficial, he said.

“The wineries want certain levels of sugar in the grape,” Roach said. “The heat is helping to bring the levels up. Heat on the grapes at this time is not a bad thing.”

In Napa County, where the winegrape harvest is well along, Patsy McGaughy of the Napa Valley Vintners Association reported 40-to-50-degree temperature swings in a single day during the heat wave.

“Even though the days were warm, which obviously builds ripeness and sugar, the nights were cold, which helps the grapes to maintain acidity and contributes to creating really beautiful, balanced wine,” McGaughy said.

Early-fall heat is nothing new for Kevin Merrill of Mesa Vineyard Management in Santa Maria.

“We’re used to it,” Merrill said, noting that the heat can boost the sugar content of the grapes, but cooler weather such as that expected later in the week would bring it back down. As long as he could keep his grapes irrigated, Merrill said, they should be OK.

In Arroyo Grande, where Tom Ikeda grows leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbages, the heat wasn’t doing him or his crops any favors.

“We have seen some burn on the tender leafy vegetables, like lettuce and romaine,” Ikeda said. “I think that we may see more damage in the near future, things that may have affected the crops a little bit.

“You may not see immediate damage, but when your crops are used to an average of 65 along the coast, it’s going to have an effect,” Ikeda said.

As with his counterparts, Ikeda had to shorten his harvesting crews’ workdays, which means crops stay in the field longer than intended and become overmature.

In addition, Ikeda had to irrigate crops more often than usual, to help them withstand the heat.

“We’re trying to keep the plants cool and hydrated,” Ikeda said, while noting a downside: “Adding water and keeping things moist could create problems with rot and mildew.”

Until the last week of September, it had been a mild season along the Central Coast, and market prices had been low; a heat wave such as the crops experienced last week could cause what Ikeda called a market gap, in which an interruption in the supply leads to a short-term price increase.

“That’s looking at things optimistically,” he said.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at