Cold snap hits farmers hard
Chilly spring has warm-weather crops waiting for sunshine
Many local growers are eager to see the end of an unusually cold and wet spring, which has stalled the growth of many warm-weather crops and potentially set the stage for disease.
A wide array of crops is affected by the cold, said Stacy Gore, vice president of the Butte County Farm Bureau as well as an almond and rice grower.
“In particular, I know that walnut growers were a little worried about the cold temperatures [a few weeks ago], as were some stone-fruit growers,” he said. “I also saw a little frost damage on corn plants.”
This past May was particularly cool, with high temperatures hovering around the 76 degree mark and lows dipping down to 40. According to Weather.com, May in Chico sees an average high of 80 degrees and low of 51.
Heavy spring showers have also been causing local growers to lose sleep. Literally.
“Right now many rice growers have been struggling to get their fields worked and planted because of the wet weather,” said Colleen Cecil, director of the Butte County Farm Bureau. “The rain storms taking place every other week or so and the widely varying temperatures have impacted all growers.”
Al Vogel is one such grower. He’s found himself working in muddy, miserable conditions on his one-acre farm in Durham during the last several weeks. He grows roughly 350 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, which he has been selling at the Chico Certified Farmers Market since 1984. Vogel anxiously awaits summer temperatures in hopes they will jump-start the growth of his melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplants.
“It has really affected me economically, and on top of that I feel like it’s been a bad economic year for the Saturday market,” he said.
For those depending on farmers’ markets as a source of income, temperatures can affect more than healthy plant growth. Warm weather usually means more foot traffic and more business for vendors.
“We have a dedicated core of customers that will be there rain or shine, but a rainy Saturday is always a problem,” Vogel said. “You could lose a lot of money because of a lousy day.”
The poor growing season was punctuated for Vogel during a farmers’ market several weeks ago. Temperatures dropped so low that his eggplants began to wilt while sitting on the table at the market.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “Fortunately, it wasn’t permanent damage, and they rebounded later that day.”
It has been a trying year for Vogel, who lost his citrus fruits during a cold snap in January and then watched his peach and plum blooming season go awry as the fungal disease “peach leaf curl” began to deform his trees in February. In addition to the poor start, transferring crops from the nursery to the field has been difficult, as plants in early stages of growth are more susceptible to the cold.
Though large-scale farming operations will face the same problems, they aren’t as likely to struggle financially as a result, Gore said.
“If you are well capitalized, own your property, have low debt and have efficient equipment, a down year or two might be an opportunity for expansion,” he said. “However, if you are leveraged to the hilt, lease or rent your ground and have to borrow for cultural and equipment needs, a down year might be a tough situation to suffer through.”
Larger farms with permanent irrigation systems have the option of watering their crops at night, which aids the circulation of hot and cold air to prevent frosting, Gore said. Smaller operations may be forced into more creative strategies on particularly chilly nights.
“Last year a friend who grows tomatoes in the Buttonwillow area down by Bakersfield placed hay bales around his tomato fields and lit them on fire,” Gore said. “Now, I thought that was a little like trying to heat your house with a match, but there was just enough mixing of air to keep the temp barely above critical levels.”
The diversity of crops on Vogel’s farm will be his saving grace, he said, as some plants will struggle with the given conditions and others will thrive. He does his best to remain positive.
“One good thing is that we haven’t had to irrigate,” he said. “I’ve also grown the best spring broccoli I’ve ever seen.”