A recent NASA satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights differs only slightly from one 18 years ago, when the last major El Niño brought heavy rains and flooding to parts of the southern U.S.
A recent NASA satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights differs only slightly from one 18 years ago, when the last major El Niño brought heavy rains and flooding to parts of the southern U.S.

California’s El Niño storm season has begun, and weeks of frequent rain are expected to bring harvest delays or damage to strawberries, citrus and vegetables.

The impact on spring vegetables may surpass any crop’s short-term losses or delays, as early January rains arrived in the midst of planting season. Mud stops planting.

Growers welcomed the storms, but don’t expect El Niño to end the state’s four-year drought.

“Rain is predicted for the next three weeks, basically all of January,” Jason Lathos, commodities manager for Salinas, Calif.-based Church Brothers Farms, said Jan. 5. “That will affect a lot of the late March, early April crops we transition to after the desert.”

Rain fell in Yuma, Ariz., too, a cause for concern among buyers already up against strong markets for cauliflower, broccoli and celery. But Yuma also saw a warming trend that could speed crop growth.

“You may have an increase in supply but a decrease in the ability to harvest it,” Lathos said.

“The industry will be challenged to get its Central California plantings in on the schedule we need to maintain for our customer base,” said Mark Adamek, general manager for romaine and mixed leaf production at Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle. “That’s where El Niño will really affect us.”

Tanimura & Antle, one of the few Salinas grower-shippers to retain a transitional deal in Huron, Calif., plans to stay there longer this spring to minimize supply gaps.

Citrus

While the Global Forecast System calls for 10 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada in the first half of January, and flash flooding has already hit urban Los Angeles County, the state’s biggest growing region — the San Joaquin Valley — is getting steady but lighter precipitation so far.

“Most packinghouses knew this was coming and got enough fruit in-house to carry them through a week or so,” said Bob Blakely, vice president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. “But if we don’t get a break in the weather and can’t get back into the field to pick, then we could see some impact on supplies.”

Citrus is more resistant than vegetables to rain damage. Growers will aim to ramp up picking and packing during storm breaks to get back on track. For now, the chief impact of El Niño on navels and mandarins is harvest delay.

“If we get a lot of rain, we’ll start seeing some rind issues but we’re a long way from that becoming a problem,” Blakely said.

If harvest delays stack up, the industry may get stuck with overripe fruit late in the season.

Strawberries

Strawberries have one advantage over vegetables — planting in California’s Watsonville and Salinas districts was completed before the storms.

But the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission anticipates crop losses in Ventura and Orange counties.

“When you get more than a quarter or half inch of rain in a short time, it affects the berry crop,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, the commission’s communications director. “This series of storms will probably affect supply.”

Even so, strawberry producers welcome the wet weather.

“Growers are always happy to see rain,” O’Donnell said. “It usually means a temporary setback to their crop. They’d rather have the assurance about a long-term water supply for irrigation.”

For strawberries the longer term outlook may include decreased volumes in 2016. Last year’s warmer, drier weather brought on Watsonville production three weeks early and saw some districts harvesting longer in the absence of rain disruptions.

Storm clouds gather

Up to 5 inches of rain was anticipated in Santa Maria, Calif., in early January and up to 2 inches in Salinas — early signs of a wet month in growing regions.

Beyond January, the outlook is more vague but potentially ominous.

Above average rainfall is forecast through March in California, Texas and Florida by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Based on NASA satellite imagery, climatologists say the warming trend in the Pacific Ocean equals that of the same months in 1998, when heavy rains and flooding rolled through the regions. It was one of the two strongest El Niño’s on record.

The Salinas Valley had extensive flooding in 1998. That was before grower-shippers founded the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. If it happens again, they’ll be bound by LGMA food safety metrics that require 60 days or more before a flooded field can be replanted. It would contribute to the expected spring supply gaps.

Whatever happens, Yuma’s vegetable crop issues have already lowered buyers’ expectations.

“A lot of customers are getting conditioned to seeing quality not at its best, and most are adjusting their receiving specs due to Mother Nature,” Lathos said.

Necessary, but no drought-buster

It will take more than one wet winter to end California’s drought, climatologists have said for months, and this El Niño hasn’t changed their minds. Growers generally agree, but take a wait-and-see attitude to how much benefit and harm they’ll experience.

“I don’t know anyone who expects it to break the drought,” Blakely said. “If rain comes as hard and fast as predicted, we won’t be able to hold it and won’t have that water next summer. And it won’t replace the groundwater pumped out in the last two years. Some will get down to the aquifers, but it won’t make us whole.”

The $2.7 billion in new water storage projects approved by California voters in 2014 are still years from being built.

“Storage is key because it allows you to catch water in the spring and release it onto the valley floor for recharge and let it percolate slowly into the aquifers,” Blakely said. “We have recharge basins and areas that can be flooded to replenish aquifers, but it’s got to be managed and that depends on surface storage.”

“It’s a double edged sword,” he said of the rainfall. “Sooner or later, we had to have this.”