Farmers Check Impact of Spring Storms

Taylor Hillman Environment, Weather

Strong storm gathers
Rain, wind and hail that hit parts of California during the past week have caused farmers some concern, as they evaluate the potential impact to a number of crops in the Central Valley.

Kern County almond grower Jenny Holtermann said a thunderstorm this past weekend brought quite a bit of rain, for which farmers are thankful, but also brought winds and quarter-sized hail in parts of the county.

“Our farm has received most damage from the multiple windstorms we have had,” Holtermann said. “We have suffered some minor crop losses, but we lost about 300 mature trees over the past few weeks.”

Shallow-rooted almond trees sometimes cannot withstand high winds and drenched root zones, she added.

Jake Samuel, who farms cherries and walnuts in San Joaquin County, said cherries may have been affected by the recent weather, with growers expressing concern about the fruit splitting or cracking.

“Sometimes, the splits can heal if small enough and not create any mold issues; however, in massive downpours and the closer it is to harvest, the cherry can split from top to bottom, making the cherry unsalvageable for the fresh market,” Samuel said.

In Colusa County, rice grower Randy Johnson said a freak hailstorm and heavy rains early this week caused him to set new priorities and move equipment to a different part of the county where it was not raining hard. Rain in Colusa also reportedly damaged some cut hay and knocked a few leaves off of almond trees.

In the Sacramento Valley, prune growers say earlier storms took a severe toll on the 2016 crop, resulting in much heavier-than-normal shed of the developing fruit. Cold temperatures, high winds and heavy rains hit prune orchards in March.

“When we first looked at the crop, it looked really good because we had a lot of fruit set, but a week and a half later, we looked again and most of the fruit had dropped off,” said Neill Mitchell of Mitchell Ranch, who farms prunes and walnuts and operates a dryer in Yuba City. “We usually have a little rain during the bloom, but it blew and rained so hard that it did damage.”

His son, Joe Mitchell, said the farm doesn’t have much of a crop.

“The fruit dried up, yellowed and fell off of the trees,” he said. “Now, the trees are real green and leafy—they look like a shade tree with not a lot of fruit on them. On some trees, you can count on two hands how many prunes are on the trees.”

Franz Niederholzer, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Yuba and Sutter counties, reported widespread damage throughout the primary prune-growing area from Red Bluff to Yuba City. Orchards that bloomed in the middle of the storm—between March 3 and 13—are most impacted, Niederholzer said, with very little crop remaining on the trees.

During the storms, some orchards experienced up to 8 inches of rain, and heavy winds blew petals and pollen out of the trees. Average temperatures for many of those days dropped below 60 degrees, Niederholzer said, which slows the biological activity of the flowers. In many orchards, stormy weather also prevented honeybees from flying. Although prunes self-pollinate, Neill Mitchell said, the bees help increase fruit set.

Typically during bloom, more than 20 percent of the blossoms pollinate and become developing fruit, Niederholzer said. This year, some UCCE test blocks in the Yuba City area show only 2 percent to 12 percent of blossoms growing into fruit in the lower half of the trees.

“By the first of May, we usually see that 20 to 40 percent of the blossoms set. This year, even some well-cared-for orchards have only 25 to 30 percent of a normal crop,” he said. “I talked to some growers that are really on the fence about harvesting, based on the cost of getting the equipment in the field and hiring the crew and potential returns, so this is really bad.”

Prune orchards that bloomed at the end of the storm, Niederholzer said, appear to have more fruit on the trees.

Prune and kiwifruit grower Dan Bozzo of Gridley said his prune crop is lighter than usual, but he believes he may be one of the luckier growers whose orchards bloomed as the storms died down.

“I feel better about our trees. We’ve got a light crop, but our intention is to harvest everything,” Bozzo said. “We have probably 1,000 to 1,500 pieces of fruit on each tree. Generally, around 3,000 to 4,000 pieces is a pretty good amount.”

The crop loss comes at an inopportune time for the California prune business, said Greg Thompson, general manager of the Prune Bargaining Association, which negotiates with buyers to establish the price for prunes. If California prune growers are unable to effectively supply the market, Thompson said, this may open more doors for global competitors such as Chile and Argentina, which have had large crops in recent years.

In addition, Thompson said, the amount of prune acreage in California has dropped during the past 10 years, from 60,000 acres to the 40,000-acre range.

“We lost a lot of acres and we’re hoping that we can have strong prices moving forward. A short crop will help stabilize pricing, but we’re going to see more imports to make up for the shortfall,” Thompson said. “One good thing is we have a fair amount of inventory from the 2015 crop that will help balance things out and keep the market supplied.”

Neill Mitchell said given what he sees in his orchards, he will likely file a claim with crop insurance, which reimburses between 50 percent and 75 percent of the damage, depending on a grower’s coverage level.

Jeff Yasui, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency Regional Office in Davis, said considerable crop losses have been reported for prunes.

Yasui said growers who suffer damage must report losses to their agent if they have crop insurance, and cautioned that failure to report the information right away could jeopardize the crop insurance indemnity. Farmers who have Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) coverage must contact their local USDA Farm Services Agency office to report damage for that program.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.