Timing of latest storm could mean trouble for farmers. Here’s what crops are at risk

More than a half-inch of rain fell on the Fresno area Wednesday night and Thursday morning. And while that may be good news for a region where rainfall can help recharge water tables stressed by years of drought, it’s a worry for farmers whose crops could suffer consequences from the ill-timed storm.

Right now, that means cherries and strawberries, said Ryan Jacobsen, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Both crops are in the heart of their harvest season and particularly sensitive to damage from rain this time of year.

Other crops that are starting to come into their harvest season now, such as peaches, plums and nectarines, could also feel an effect from the storms, Jacobsen said.

“This storm has been significant, and it’s not over. They’re talking about an ‘atmospheric river’ where we could see more rain coming this weekend,” Jacobsen said. “A light breeze and sunny weather helps dry these things out, but that’s not what’s forecast. … We’re not seeing that drying-out time.”

Fred Rinder, deputy agricultural commissioner for Fresno County., said, “Farmers aren’t complaining about the water; it’s all about the timing, and for some of these guys the timing is just not good at all.”

The National Weather Service in Hanford issued a forecast Thursday morning that predicted a cold front to push through the central San Joaquin Valley with the potential for thunderstorms Thursday afternoon. After some drying out on Friday and early Saturday, another series of storms was expected to arrive Saturday night and continue into Monday.

These are Brooks cherries at Erickson Ranches in Easton. The cherry season has arrived. Picking will cycle through the varieties and ripening times. JOHN WALKER

The threat of crop damage is not limited to cherries, which can split if the fruit takes up too much water at this stage of ripeness, and strawberries which are susceptible to mold if they don’t have a chance to dry out, Rinder said. Other crops could be harmed if muddy fields and orchards prevent farmers from going in with tractors to spray to minimize the potential for damage.

“Everything revolves around water on the fruit,” Rinder said. “If there’s no breeze, you could have mold issues, and growers have to treat for that.”

Some of Fresno County’s other major crops, such as almonds and grapes, are likely less prone to damage from May storms. “We’ve gotten through the majority of the bloom here in the Valley,” Jacobsen said. “But the mildew pressure goes up significantly in grapes, so we anticipate an additional challenge on that side of things.”

A bigger concern would have been hail that could scar fruit or knock it off the trees, a danger that this storm seems to have spared Valley farmers, Rinder and Jacobsen said.

“Rain in May is not uncommon, but usually it’s one of those things where it’s a matter of what cloud you’re under and it’s short in duration, and farmers are able to get out in their fields and do cultural practices as soon as possible,” Jacobsen said. “This storm dumped significant amounts of rain that will likely keep folks out of the field for a few days.”

Even growers of field crops like cotton and processing tomatoes could feel the effects, Rinder said. “There’s some planting going on, and you don’t want to get soil that’s too soggy,” he said. “Fields could get waterlogged, especially on the west side of the Valley where you have clay soil, and it could be weeks before they can get in.”

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.