SAN FRANCISCO – California and its plentiful farm fields are soaking wet.
Asparagus farmers can’t get into fields to harvest the tender green stalks. Tomato growers have greenhouses bursting with seedlings but it’s too wet to transplant them. The planting timeline for lettuce keeps getting moved as fields stay drenched.
“It’s just too damn messy and muddy to create a quality pack. You don’t want a bunch of mud on the produce,” said Christopher Valdez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.
This sodden state is a reversal of last year’s drought, California has been hit by an absurd amount of water over the winter, with more than a dozen atmospheric rivers pouring more than 78 trillion gallons of water on the state.
City dwellers can reach for umbrellas but for farmers, too much rain can mean unplanted or washed out fields and unharvestable crops. Tractors could either get stuck in the mud or create ruts or compressed soil in fields that might take years to recover. There’s no choice but to simply wait until things dry out.
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That means difficulty for many of the state’s 69,000 farms and the communities that depend on them. The state is an agricultural powerhouse, producing over a third of the country’s vegetables and three-quarters of its fruits and nuts.
How have the drenching rains affected California’s bounty?
Will California’s deluge affect prices at the grocery store?
Although California is a major source of U.S.-grown fruits and vegetables in the spring and summer, the crisp greens, ripe fruit and luscious berries we eat come from across the United States and as far away as south and central America.
Because of this, even though 60% of California’s farmland had “surplus” water according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crop Progress report for the week ending March 26, produce shelves won’t be empty and prices won’t be significantly higher in the coming weeks and months, said Gary Keough, director of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Pacific regional office in Sacramento.
“The majority of crops are continuing to mature and will be available for harvest, so there will be a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables coming from ‘the salad bowl,’ as California’s Salinas valley is sometimes called, said Valdez.
How does so much rain effect California agriculture?
While the majority of acres are still able to produce, there are areas and crops that are being especially impacted.
In the central part of the state and in the cool-weather farms around the Salinas area, head and leaf lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and strawberries have had a rough time.
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In some cases, farmers have had to put off planting as far back as January. “That’s a loss. Now they’re in this period waiting until they can get crops in the ground,” said Valadez.
“I don’t expect there will be shortages, but there will be some gaps,” he said.
Farmers, workers hardest hit
While consumers aren’t likely to see big price jumps at the checkout stand, the economic pain is very real for farmers and farm workers.
Many of the crops grown in California are labor intensive and if workers can’t get into the fields, they can’t work.
“We’re talking about workers who aren’t getting jobs, and their homes may also have been flooded,” said Daniel Sumner, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis
Growers, too are hurting. Some are potentially looking at major losses, sometimes in the millions. As has long been the case in agriculture, those who succeed in the business are the ones who “have a diversified portfolio of crops, sophisticated algorithms, a lot of experience and really cast iron nerves,” Sumner said.
Nowhere to plant tomatoes
California produces 90% of the nation’s processed tomatoes and more than a quarter of the world’s total. From late summer to fall the roads of the state’s growing regions are packed with trucks filled with 50,000 pounds of tomatoes and the air is redolent of tomatoes being canned at local processing plants.
Mitchell Yerxa is a fourth-generation California farmer who hasn’t been able to start putting tomato starts into his fields because the ground is just too saturated.
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“The transplants are in the greenhouses but they can only get so big before you start to worry about what you’re going to do with them,” he said. “The greenhouses only have so much room and they need to free up space for the new incoming seeds.”
Not being able to plant now will cause problems when harvest begins. “They like us to stagger our plantings so they can stagger the fruit coming into the canneries,” said Yerxa.
With the state’s tomato growers producing two million pounds of tomatoes a week at the height of harvest, this year that’s likely to get backed up.
Fruit may be a little late this year
California leads the nation in the production of figs, table grapes, kiwis, nectarines, peaches, persimmons, plums and pluots. The cold, wet weather has slowed things down.
“The bees did not work as hard as we would have liked them to this year,” said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. “We’re seeing a later harvest period this year, probably by 7 to 10 days.”
That doesn’t mean the nation’s fruit bowls will be empty, he said. “For consumers throughout the United States, grocery shelves will still be full and they’ll be able to access most of the fruits and vegetables they’re used to.”
But as with tomatoes, the meticulous planning of different varieties will be off. Fruit growers plant a careful selection of varieties so they’re harvesting a given varietal for a week or two at a time.
“The beginning and early fruit might be late and then if the spring warms up you could have varieties catching up on each other,” LeMay said.
“It creates some harvesting challenges,” he said. “But we can’t control how Mother Nature influences when a piece of fruit is ready.”