From Drought to Flood, California Farmers Eagerly Await Spring

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
March 3, 2017

With California’s reservoirs overflowing, it’s official: an end to the five-year drought is in sight. A year ago, 90% of California was in some state of drought; today that number is 20% and falling.

But when it rains, it pours, and after some of the driest years on record, the “Pineapple Express” has delivered the wettest winter in recent history. After years of water restrictions, dry fields, and general uncertainty, having so much rain all at once has been a mixed blessing for farmers. It has come with a different set of challenges and complications, from flooded fields to sluggish farmers market sales.

Although farmers market shoppers are already seeing early signs of spring, such as green garlic and a healthy crop of asparagus, the season may come later than we’ve all become accustomed to in recent drought-stricken years.

Spring Plantings Delayed

Iacopi Farms’ peas are a much-heralded sign of spring at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. But Louis Iacopi lost most of the crop he planted over the winter, as plants drowned in cold, waterlogged fields. “Between the winds and rain and the constant moisture on the plants, about 90% of them died,” says Louis.

In dryer years, he starts picking peas in late March; however, this year’s setback means he may not have peas until May, creating a gap in the farm’s seasonal income stream. Row crops (like vegetables, legumes, and grains) are especially vulnerable in the winter, and Iacopi’s winter broccoli and cauliflower were also hit hard. “Instead of picking 100 boxes, I’m picking one box,” Louis says.

Based in Half Moon Bay, Iacopi Farms relies on direct rainfall for much of their water supply, so Louis is grateful for the rain, but he is also ready for a break so he can start replanting, which will cost an additional $1,500 per acre.

“If this rain continues into April and May, it’ll kill our summer growing season,” he says. “We just have to keep planting and hope we have a better spring.”

Muddy Strawberry Fields

At Lucero Organic Farms near Stockton, Curtis Lucero has had to delay planting strawberries, which he usually has in the ground by January 1. Shoppers anticipate Lucero’s return to the Ferry Plaza in April, but it’s now looking like he won’t be back until May.

Curtis must wait for his fields to dry out before planting his new strawberry plants, which currently sit in cold storage. Putting tractors or workers out in mushy, muddy fields creates compaction, which is bad for the soil. Baby plants also struggle in soggy soil: “When it’s super wet, the soil gets really hard and crusty on top, and it can choke out the plants,” says Curtis. “They shrivel up and die because the roots don’t grow.”

He’s been busy rebuilding greenhouses that were damaged by wind over the winter, and prepping his summer seedlings, so they’re ready to go as soon as the soil is dry enough to work with. “It’s always a gamble,” he says. “We try to get everything in early, so we can get a head start, but Mother Nature dictates whether we’re going to have an early season or not.”

The Perfect Storm

North of Sacramento in Hamilton City, Massa Organics, a diversified organic farm specializing in rice, almonds, and pasture-raised livestock, has faced an especially hard winter, having lost 150 acres of crops to flooding.

Over the winter, Massa plants hay, wheat, safflower, and bell beans as rotational crops for their rice fields. Some of those crops are used to feed their animals, while others are sold for income. “We put tons of time, energy, and money into planting our winter crops, and basically they are all dead,” Greg Massa explained. On Facebook, Greg Massa shared pictures of fields submerged inches deep.

The cold, wet season has also been difficult on the farm’s pigs and lambs. Lambs usually graze in the orchards, but with fields under water and the farm’s organic hay crop destroyed, feed has been scarce. The farm has had to supplement the animals’ forage with organic alfalfa pellets, another large expense.

On top of it all, rainy days mean farmers market sales have been significantly down, a harsh reality many farmers have faced this season. “We can take a 50% hit or more on a stormy market day,” says Greg. “There’ve been days where we didn’t even cover our cost of labor and transportation because nobody showed up to buy anything.”

As Greg waits for the fields to dry out, he’s taking inventory and trying to figure out how to recoup losses, while making the best of things. “Thankfully we’ve had a week of dry weather, and while it’s helping dramatically, we still can’t put our animals out to graze,” says Greg. “Right now we’re trying to just keep all the animals fed and happy.”

Blooms Bring Hope

For Bella Viva Orchards, which grows stone fruit and nuts near Modesto, the forecast has been more optimistic. In the midst of drought two years ago, the Martino family was concerned that they might have to rip out orchards and possibly cease farming altogether.

“It’s been famine, and now it’s flood,” says third-generation farmer Victor Martino. With reservoirs full and the snowpack looking good, Victor has high hopes for the season ahead. “Things look really good. We got a lot of rain, and it came at a good time before things were in bloom.”

Almond trees are in full blossom, apricot blooms are finishing up, and peach trees are just starting to flower, boding well for the season ahead. However, Bella Viva is not out of the woods quite yet: more rain in the next couple weeks could make the trees susceptible to brown rot, which is difficult to control with organic methods.

Victor is now taking comfort in the “normal worries” of farming: “We’re worried about frost, then hail. Those two things could be coming still. But we’re not concerned about having enough water for this season.”

For Greg Massa, a dry week in the orchards has also brought a ray of hopeful normalcy in an otherwise trying season. “We’re turning our attention to spring tasks like pruning the almond orchards. All the bees are out now, and we’ve had pretty good pollination weather. That’s what’s keeping us going right now.”

Read more about how the rain has impacted our farmers in the San Francisco Chronicle. Support our farmers rain or shine at our Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday markets!

Photos from Massa Organics.

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