Planting Seeds - Food & Farming News from CDFA

California farmers eagerly await rain

Published Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012

Rain can’t come soon enough for California farmers and ranchers, who are counting the hours in anticipation of Thursday’s forecast arrival of meaningful showers.

A nearly bone-dry fall/early winter season has been accompanied by periodic freezing conditions in December and this week.

Hard freezes have already caused crop damage in some California fields, but agriculture industry officials say a good soaking – and the accompanying warmer temperatures – will go a long way toward easing landowners’ anxieties.

“The absence of rain has been of greatest concern to the cattle ranchers and other livestock owners,” said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau Federation. “The rangelands have pretty well dried out. They need rain to replenish grasses on the hillsides and where cattle go to drink water.”

Central Valley farmers are likewise looking for storm clouds.

“They’ve been irrigating trees and vines that need moisture now, and they’re not getting it from the clouds,” Kranz said. “They’ve had to tap into their irrigation supplies weeks earlier than they typically would.

“Some good rainfall now would allow them to stop doing that.”

Agriculture groups throughout the state are still assessing crop damage caused by Tuesday morning’s hard freeze, which saw temperatures dip into the 20s in Northern California’s agricultural valleys.

Dean Thonesen, vice president and general manager of Sunwest Fruit Co. in Fresno County, said mandarins and navel oranges are being harvested in fields where wind and water machines are being used to moderate temperatures. He said it might take up to a week to determine the extent of any cold damage to crops.

The National Weather Service said temperatures dropped to as low as 19 degrees in some citrus-growing regions early Tuesday morning. Oranges begin to suffer at about 28 degrees. Temperatures are expected to continue gradually warming today, right up to Thursday’s expected rainfall.

California Citrus Mutual, the growers cooperative based in the Tulare County community of Exeter, said Tuesday that citrus damage did not appear to be widespread as temperatures stayed in the mid-20s in some key citrus regions.

Kranz pointed out that oranges have by now built up quantities of sugar and acid, “which actually helps insulate them from the cold … So we’re fairly optimistic that they have avoided significant problems.”

Kranz said mandarin oranges grown in the San Joaquin Valley are “a little more vulnerable” to cold conditions, but he said sugar buildup appears to have saved that crop from extensive damage.

The Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which has the authority to withhold damaged citrus from the fresh-fruit market, will examine fruit later this week to determine the extent of any damage.

Farmers in Monterey County on Tuesday reported some freeze damage to vegetables in that region. The extent of damage to artichokes and broccoli in the Salinas Valley is still being assessed.

Even farmers who are not now in urgent need of rain are eagerly anticipating its arrival. For example, it’s the offseason for rice farmers, but officials at the California Rice Commission said rice growers are hoping for sustained rains from the approaching weather system.

Kranz explained that last year’s unusually heavy rainy season created “a situation where we do have adequate water storage this year, so that’s one reason that people have not been as concerned this year as in past years.

“But (farmers) still want rain. The vast bulk of farmers and ranchers expect it to rain. You’d be hard-pressed to see anyone disappointed with a good, steady rain. That should take a little pressure off.”


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