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California farmers can't win as monster storms threaten crops

Vineyards and farmland along the Russian River are inundated by widespread flooding following days of torrential rain as viewed on January 11, 2017, near Healdsburg, California.
George Rose | Getty Images
Vineyards and farmland along the Russian River are inundated by widespread flooding following days of torrential rain as viewed on January 11, 2017, near Healdsburg, California.

January's monster storms and flooding in California inundated farmlands up and down the state, dealing a blow to crops of vegetables, citrus and nuts.

While the series of tropical storms benefited some drought-stricken areas of the state, the heavy rains brought flooding to vineyards in Northern California and harvest delays further south for vegetable growers. Some citrus and nut growers were hurt too, including the loss of trees during strong winds.

"For many of our farmers, it's difficult to get in to plant or they have crops in the ground that are hard to harvest because the fields are muddy," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, a California-based trade group representing farmers and their workers who grow about half of the nation's fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.

For the month, some farm regions of the state had rainfall totals exceeding 10 inches. Several areas in Northern California, including around the Sacramento River Delta farming region, have already exceeded their annual water year totals. (The water year began Oct. 1.)

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows that nearly one quarter of the state remains in extreme or exceptional drought, the worst two categories. That's down from just over 40 percent at the start of the calendar year and the weekly monitor scheduled for release Thursday morning could show further improvement given the rainfall over the past weekend.

"Continued rains have benefited the growth of already planted grains and field crops, but the rain has hindered ground preparations for continued planting," the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Monday in its weekly crop report. "Low spots in some fields were showing stress from repeated standing water."

The USDA and the state food and agriculture agency didn't have damage estimates.

Statewide, there were reports of muddy conditions and standing water in fields that hampered fieldwork and harvesting. It also interrupted the seasonal pruning of permanent tree crops that had been planned.

In southwest California's Imperial County, where the bulk of the state's winter vegetable crop is grown, there were spinach and lettuce fields that were soaked by the rains over the last couple of weeks. Imperial County is located along the U.S.-Mexico border and adjacent to Arizona.

"We haven't had a long enough period where we've been able to dry out," said Linsey Dale, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau. "It's just a mess. There's a loss of revenue because it's too muddy to harvest.

Rains also could produce mildew issues with some vegetables, particularly spinach.

In central and southern California, the USDA reported that "rain continued to slow the Navel orange and Satsuma mandarin harvests."

"The rain, although welcomed, did slow harvest," said Alyssa Houtby, a spokesperson for the California Citrus Mutual, which represents about 75 percent of the state's citrus industry. "We did see some tightening of supplies last week, but no significant shortages are expected."

In the state's San Joaquin Valley, the government said walnut and almond orchards were impacted by falling trees due to strong winds and the saturated ground.

Still, many growers welcomed the recent storms and suggested more rain would be helpful to restore the drought-depleted aquifers.

"It's all been good stuff," said Bill Diedrich, a farmer in the Central Valley who grows almond trees. "It's been effective rainfall — it's soaking in and going down."

Also, in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley grape growers and winemakers were thrilled with the precipitation after five years of drought conditions.

"We expected these rains last year but they didn't show up," said Karen Steinwachs of Buttonwood Farm Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley. "The biggest benefit is the aquifers are filling and the soils are being washed because we get a get a lot of salinity from the daily breeze… coming over from the ocean."

Further north, the wine growing areas such as Napa and Sonoma countries had flooded along the Russian River. There were vineyards with flooding but no major reports of any harm to the vines because they are dormant this time of year.

Some wineries were prepared for the rainy weather after taking measures to mitigate damage from storms, including putting straw in the vineyards to prevent erosion.

"You have to be careful not just what you ask for but what you pray for," said Nassif. "We prayed for rain — and the Lord answered us bountifully."