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Rainstorms disrupt planting and harvesting in Southern California and Arizona

A series of storms during the last week of December and the first week of January dumped abnormally high amounts of rainfall across Southern California and into Arizona, disrupting planting and harvesting operations in several strawberry- and vegetable-growing districts.

The widespread storm systems drenched most of California and brought much-needed snow-pack to the Sierra Mountains, which will help fill reservoirs used for irrigation.

But in Southern California, where the winter-spring strawberry season was just getting underway in Oxnard and Orange County, the rain caused harvest delays and some loss of fruit. It is not unusual for the Southern California strawberry deal to be affected by rain early in the season, but the amount of rain that has fallen in recent days is unusual.

?We got 10 inches of rain last week," Don Hobson of Boskovich Farms Inc. in Oxnard, CA, said Jan. 5. Even more unusual is the large amount of rainfall that has hammered the winter vegetable growing areas in the deserts of Southern California and Arizona, which normally receive very little rainfall during the winter.

California?s Imperial Valley has suffered not only from the recent storms but also from an unusual amount of rainfall since the start of the planting season, said Jon Vessey of Vessey & Co. Inc. in El Centro. "All through the season, we have been having these periods of rains that have interrupted planting and interrupted harvest all the way through." It has been much wetter than normal, he said, and "the desert just doesn?t take water well."

Steve Davis of Mills Inc. in Salinas, CA, which produces winter vegetables in the Yuma district in southern Arizona, said that the same is true of the Yuma area. "The desert can?t really handle a tremendous amount of water," he said. Some fields had water standing in the furrows, he noted, particularly those in the northern part of the district, which received the heavier rainfall.

The rainfall has affected supplies of various commodities and in some cases quality, according to growers.

?On berries, it has set us back a little bit," said Mr. Hobson of Boskovich. Between storms, "you get in there and pick to get the fruit with color? off the vines before the next storm comes.

Following the heavy storm of Jan. 1-3, Boskovich?s picking crews were back in the fields on Jan. 5 trying to pick as much fruit as possible before the next storm which was expected the following evening.

Fruit that is not harvested can be damaged by the rain and may have to be thrown away, he said. The rain can also cause younger green berries to grow into misshapen fruit.

But the setback is only temporary. Even though Orange County and Oxnard are ?several times over normal? on rainfall so far this season, "surprisingly, the strawberries have held up remarkably well," said Carl Lindgren of Sunrise Growers Inc. in Placentia, CA, which grows berries in both districts. "We have lost some berries to rain damage. But fortunately it is early enough in the season and there is not a big load on the plants."

There are benefits to the rain as well, Mr. Lindgren said. "We certainly need the moisture " for irrigation."

In the Yuma district, growers have been unable to get into some fields to harvest the crops because the fields are too muddy. "There are fields we would like to have been in [that] we can?t get into yet," said Mr. Davis of Mills. "We did get quite a bit of rain, so it has been slow going." The amount of product the company has been able to harvest and pack has been limited by "just being able to get machinery in there? without "tearing up? the field.

Even after the fields dry up, there could be some residual problems such as mildew, he said. "We?re already starting to see some of that from the earlier rains we had."

The inability to get crops out of some fields has led to a tightening of supplies in the market. For Iceberg lettuce, that has resulted in a firming of market prices. "We?re seeing a little increase in demand and in price on the Iceberg lettuce," Mr. Davis said. "The last couple of days, we?ve seen [the price] get up off of the floor."

The price of other commodities had not yet been affected, he said, but they were generally a little better than lettuce prices to begin with. Green onion prices, in particular, "were already very, very active," he said.

The abnormal rainfall in the Imperial Valley has "slowed the harvest down? and affected quality, according to Mr. Vessey. "You could imagine that after the amount of rain we have had, the product is not normal, perfect quality."

But "for some reason," he said, people who buy the product expect that the weather should always be perfect, "so they get the same product 365 days a year. " I think they think we work in a factory and can stamp out these things at the same pace and same quality hour after hour, day after day, season after season."

What the buying public "needs to realize is we cannot always have a product that is exactly what they desire 365 days out of the year." Because of this year?s rains, "our yields are going to be less than normal in January, February and March," and the products are also suffering "in regard to size."

Mr. Vessey expects to see "a big change in the markets her in a couple of weeks. There are going to be some shortages."

In the San Joaquin Valley, where the winter Navel orange harvest is underway, the rain also disrupted harvest schedules since the fruit cannot be picked and packed when wet. However, according to California Citrus Mutual, growers have been able to get enough fruit off the trees during dry periods to keep inventories up, so shipments have not been hindered.

The storms have also caused some disruption of transportation. On Monday, Jan. 3, Interstate 5 " California?s main north-south route " was closed for more than 24 hours after two feet of snow fell on the 4,000-foot Tajon Pass, commonly called the Grapevine, between the southern San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles Basin. Produce trucks were forced to take alternate routes either to the east over the Tehachepi Mountains or to the west along the coastal route. Either route resulted in a delay of several hours.

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