North Bay farmers still concerned about drought effects and heavy rains
The heavy rain pattern of early 2023 delayed the planting season in some areas and has contributed to rising food prices, while increasing costs for farmers still recovering from high feed prices incurred during the drought.
The National Weather Service reported that California received an estimated 78 trillion gallons of water during the winter and early spring 2022–2023 delivered by more than a dozen atmospheric rivers, narrow bands of intense moisture, that drenched the state. As a result, some 60% of the state’s farmland had surplus water.
California produces nearly 50% of U.S. fruits, nuts and salad ingredients such as lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, and kale, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. While greenhouses had tomato and leafy green vegetable seedlings, it was too wet to transplant them.
Brad Rubin, sector manager for specialty crops with Wells Fargo’s Agricultural Food Institute said, “Consumers may see smaller selections, lower supplies and higher prices due to rain and later plantings.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that egg prices, are 60% higher, butter is up 35%, and lettuce 25%.
Canned fruit and vegetable prices have risen 18%. Those increases are projected to go even higher during the year ahead. Canned tomatoes, for instance, could be scarcer because fields were soaked by all that heavy rainfall. As a result, farmers had to postpone the season's start by three weeks, according to the California Tomato Growers Association.
In other instances, excess rain led to unplanted or washed out fields along with unharvestable or rotting crops, and tractors were either getting stuck in the mud or carving ruts and compressing soils, according to Christopher Valdez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.
Meanwhile, growers continued to find ways to cut spending while also creating alternative revenue streams to offset an overall 21% to 30% decline in farm revenue in the Golden State and elsewhere in an area of the U.S. known as the “Fruitful Crescent” — a farming region extending from Washington State through Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida.
Andrew Smith, Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner, said while we have not received the benefit of such substantial rainfall in recent memory, heavy rain is a mixed blessing and can cause plants to mildew. The presence of fungus in soils requiring farmers to treat these conditions or risk crop losses.
“The three-year period between 2020 and 2022 was the driest on record for California,” Smith said. “Last year did not have a long cold period except for some frost. It was also a good year for growing field crops with hay, for example, that once sold for $5 now going for more than $20 a bale.”
With this year’s rain, crop yields should be much higher, especially for water intensive crops such as alfalfa, that requires five feet of water per acre, as well as for fruit and nut trees, rice and other water-intensive produce.
“The good news is that heavy rains filled our rivers, lakes and reservoirs helping to recharge Sonoma County’s three groundwater basins,” Smith added.
Need for capturing groundwater
According to Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, vineyards also play a critical role in capturing groundwater. She said many grape growers throughout the county have invested in storage facilities to contain rain.
“Heavy downpours quickly filled grower ponds, which should more than satisfy the irrigation needs for the harvest season,” said Kruse. “We have not heard of major weather-related issues among our members.”
She said winter rain, flooding and cold temperatures felt like a return to a more normal year for Sonoma County grape growers, and noted that the timing of these storms, while the grape vines were dormant, did not damage the vineyards or impact vine health.
Kruse said there were additional positive outcomes due to cold weather in terms of reducing disease and pest populations.
“Growers also believe the wet, cold soil provided a more effective winter chill for the vines which led to a better bud break this spring,” Kruse said.
“Our local grape growers are looking forward to a great harvest season. It is too early to predict the size of the crop, but they hope it will be an uneventful summer and are excited to see another harvest season upon them.”
Impact on North Bay agriculture
Dayna Girardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, summed up overall ag community conditions she is seeing across the county.
“All dairies have been hurting with organic hay prices high and hay shipments going out of state,” Girardelli said.