Farmers brace for more destruction, losses from floods

Months of heavy rainfall and subsequent flooding have dealt a new financial blow to California farmers as they come out of a multiyear drought that had them fallowing land and plowing under crops due to water shortages.

They now face flooded fields, waterlogged plants, crop delays and property damage. From dairies and orchards in the San Joaquin Valley to strawberry and vegetable fields along the Central Coast, farmers are also bracing for longer-term fallout that could threaten one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

With some fields still underwater and farmers continuing to tally losses and damage, full extent of the storm impacts remains unclear. Farmers say time will tell how fast fields dry out and whether crops on them will survive.

“We’ve still got ways to go in all this,” said Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of Tulare County Farm Bureau. With a record snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, “there could be months of flooding in front of us,” she added, as warmer weather and rain melt the snow in the weeks ahead.

In the Salinas Valley, a survey has begun collecting data on flood impacts, “but it will be weeks before we have a good sense of damages,” said Norm Groot, executive director of Monterey County Farm Bureau. He noted many fields remain in flood stage and said he expects new agricultural damage will exceed the $330 million caused by storms in January, when more than 15,000 acres were flooded. He estimated another 20,000 acres were hit by March storms.

An estimated 47,000 acres of farmland have so far been impacted by floodwaters in Kings County, said Dusty Ference, executive director of Kings County Farm Bureau. The number is expected to grow. With the return of Tulare Lake—once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River—areas around the town of Corcoran, which sits near the lake bottom, have seen substantial amounts of flooding. Ference noted crops including alfalfa, barley, wheat, canning tomatoes, corn silage, grapes, pistachios, almonds, walnuts are all grown in the lakebed and have been underwater for weeks.

“We don’t know what all we’re going to see yet, but we are expecting significant crop loss,” he said.

Tulare County farmer Josh Pitigliano, who has wheat, almonds and pistachios in standing water for several weeks, said he doesn’t think those crops will survive. The wheat crop “looks very yellow.” The almond trees still have green leaves on them, with nutlets developing, “but I think it’s just a matter of time till they shrivel up and are no longer viable,” he said.

Pistachios are coming out of dormancy and going through bud swell. But trees on the edge of the lake bottom probably won’t make it, he said, as “the water is not going to come off of them anytime soon.”

As many as 40,000 to 75,000 acres in Tulare County could still be underwater, Stever Blattler said. She noted a lot of standing water is going down faster on the east side of the valley. That means permanent crops there will probably survive, even though they will encounter some disease and rot from being wet for an extended period. That will impact their ability to set a crop this year, she said. The region also has many newly planted pistachio trees on the southwest side, she added, and if those trees stand in water for one to two months, they likely will be destroyed.

As the largest dairy-producing region in the state, Tulare County has so far seen 12 to 15 dairies needing to move some animals due to flooding. Stever Blattler estimated around 20,000 to 25,000 dairy cattle have been evacuated, with another 10,000 to 20,000 that may need to be moved depending on severity of floodwaters in the coming days.

Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairies, estimated some 75,000 dairy cattle statewide had to be hauled to safer ground due to flooding. Evacuating dairy livestock took a “mind-numbing amount of logistics,” she said, as it required identifying not just places to relocate them but facilities where the cows could be milked. Going too long without milking could adversely impact the cows’ health and even result in death, she pointed out.

Some cows were moved to vacant dairies that had gone out of business, others to feedlots and stockyards that sell cattle, Stever Blattler said. The rest went to neighboring dairies on higher ground generous enough to take them. To be able to milk the cows, milking permits had to be transferred to those dairies. Empty dairies had to be cleaned and inspected by the state.

There are other “hidden impacts” to evacuating dairies, Stever Blattler said, noting that replacing damaged feed “is a major problem,” with silage in short supply. Flooded dairies not only lost their stored silage and hay but crops in the field.

Though some flooded cows and calves were not evacuated in time, Raudabaugh said, “we haven’t lost a lot of cows” thanks to the hundreds of people who volunteered their time, vehicles and equipment without expecting any compensation.

“People dropped everything,” she said. “If they had a truck and trailer, they showed up to move these animals, sometimes moving through the night without sleep.”

The crisis has proved the resilience of the agricultural community and its willingness to band together in times of need, said Stephen Mancebo, a dairy farmer in Tulare County.

Lerda-Goni Farms in Tulare, whose owners are related to Mancebo by marriage, was one of the first ones to evacuate when Lake Success spilled 2 feet of standing water onto the dairy last month. Housing and feed crops were flooded. Mancebo, whose own dairy was not hit, helped with the evacuation and took in some of Lerda-Goni’s more than 2,000 animals, now housed in six different locations.

“It took a village to help save those cattle and what business they might have left,” Mancebo said, describing the emotional toll the ordeal had on his in-laws, who initially did not think they could salvage the dairy. The farm is now “in a better spot,” Mancebo said, noting the property has dried, and the owners are rebuilding and starting to take some cattle back.

But other flooded dairies in the region have not been as lucky, he said. Those on the west side of the valley, particularly in the Corcoran area, are expected to remain underwater for some time, possibly months to a year, according to estimates.

“It’s really hard for me to fathom how some of these people are going to come back to business,” Raudabaugh said, noting two dairies that were forced to disperse their herds have called it quits.

Despite recent floods, Jeff Cardinale, spokesman for the California Strawberry Commission, said 95% of the state’s strawberry farms remain in good shape and are waiting for warming weather to boost productivity of the plants. As with other state crops, strawberry production has struggled due to delays from rain and below-normal temperatures.

“As soon as the California sunshine returns, we expect strawberry farms to surge with hiring and harvesting,” Cardinale said, adding that by Mother’s Day, the state should be supplying more than 95% of all strawberries on grocery store shelves.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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