By Steve Adler
First came the damaging freeze, followed three days later by a welcomed rain. Weather was on every California farmer's and rancher's mind last week.
It started on the night of Jan. 17-18, when overnight temperatures plunged to record lows for that date in many parts of the state. In Yuba City, for example, the overnight low hit 17 degrees and in Stockton, the 22-degree low broke a record that dated back to 1963. In the southern San Joaquin Valley, temperatures ranged as low as 28 degrees.
Fortunately, most crops, both annual and permanent, had been harvested by mid-January, so dollar losses were minimal. But freeze damage was observed on coastal artichokes and San Joaquin Valley citrus fruit. Farmers said it will be a few weeks before the actual extent of the damage can be known.
Monterey County vegetable grower Benny Jefferson said his artichokes were just starting to come back from a frost in December when last week's low temperatures caused more "frost-kissing" of his crop.
"So we are back in it again and it will take another five or six weeks to get a cosmetically attractive product. These frost-kissed artichokes actually taste better, but they don't look as good and they have to drop the price in the store," he said.
Other seeded lettuce and cole crops were just emerging when the frost hit, causing damage to them as well, the extent of which won't be determined for several weeks.
"The freeze pinched off some of the young plants that are coming out of the ground. Also, these tender young plants are favorite food for the birds, so people are out there with different devices to scare birds from their fields," Jefferson said.
San Joaquin Valley citrus growers will have to wait a few days to see the extent of damage that was done by the freezing temperatures, according to Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual. Frost protection methods, such as sprinklers and wind machines, helped growers to minimize the damage.
"Following a record-setting number of below-freezing nights in December, previously weakened fruit suffered these past two nights," Blakely said on Jan. 18. "The extent of losses cannot be determined immediately, as damage generally appears a few days following a frost."
Due to temperature variances throughout the citrus belt ranging as much as four to five degrees, losses were anticipated to vary from grove to grove, depending on the location. The mandarin crop was expected to see more damage than the navel orange crop, because the cold threshold for mandarins is generally 32 degrees, versus a threshold of 28 degrees for larger orange varieties, he said.
Blakely said there is currently a "bountiful supply" of navel oranges and that growers were optimistic with the arrival of rain, which enhances the flavor of oranges.
By Thursday, everything had changed as a new weather system moved into the state, bringing badly needed precipitation, both in the form of valley rain that replenished parched pastures, fields and orchards, and mountain snow that restarted the buildup of a winter snowpack that up to that point was virtually nonexistent. The series of off-and-on storms was projected to continue for several days.
Almond grower Darin Titus, farm manager of Hart Farms in Orland, said that like other farmers in California, he had been waiting for the winter rains to arrive.
"Out of this storm right now, realistically, we could use 3 to 5 inches before we see any real significant runoff out of the fields. And that's even taking into consideration the irrigations that we have done up till now. I mean, it is dry," he said.
"We're excavating tree sites and I'm doing a bunch of deep ripping on second-generation fields and it's scary how dry it is. So 3 to 5 inches and then we need a solid 10 to 15 inches of rainfall up here to kind of get things back to normal or get us close to average," Titus said.
How does moisture in the orchard impact the almond bloom?
"We are at the point where we need the soil moisture four to six weeks prior to bloom. We have the start of flush in the almonds and so it's important that we sustain our soil moistures," Titus said. "And then through bloom, ideally, it's nice if we don't have any rain or at least we have some decent weather through the bloom season and then the rain thereafter."
Titus said if there is rain during bloom, almond growers will likely have to follow up every seven to 10 days with a fungicide treatment.
Glenn County orchardist Mike Vereschagin said he was pleased to see the rain because the ground in his orchards was so dry. He had irrigated several times since December.
"I like to have 8 to 9 inches of water to leach the salts out of the root zone and since we haven't had the rains, I've been irrigating to leach the salts out," he said. "In normal years we get enough to leach the salts out, but if you don't do this you get salt burn on the tree."
Vereschagin said if the storms continue, enough time remains to fill the soil profile with needed water. But for the growers who haven't irrigated, he said, there will be concern.
"We're a month out before we start getting heavy bloom. A month from now, we want to have some good sunshine weather, warm weather for pollination," Vereschagin said.
Wheat grower Larry Hunn of Clarksburg, chairman of the California Wheat Commission, called the rain a godsend for wheat farmers, because the extended dry spell delayed maturity and possibly hurt wheat yields.
"We sure could have used some rain here two weeks ago," he said.
On the other hand, too much rain might not be a good thing for wheat growers either, Hunn said.
"If we had 15 inches of rain between now and say the first of April, that would be too much," he said. "I'd like to see 5 to 8 inches between now and March. I think it would probably put us in a good situation."
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com. Reporter Kathy Coatney contributed to this report.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.