California storms flood strawberry farms, others in the valley

As river water surged over a broken dam, thousands of people in the California farm town were forced to evacuate as their homes flooded and businesses were destroyed.

Another potential casualty of heavy rainstorms hitting coastal California, hundreds of acres of fresh strawberries will hit US supermarket shelves this summer.

Industry experts estimate that about a fifth of strawberry farms in the Watsonville and Salinas areas were flooded after another river burst its banks about 70 miles (110 km) south of San Francisco late Friday night. It’s still too early to know if berry plants can be restored, but the longer they stay submerged, the harder it can get, said Jeff Cardinale, spokesman for the California Strawberry Commission.

“When the water recedes, what does the field look like, if it is already a field at all?” Cardinale said. “It might just be a dirty mess with nothing left.”

For years, California farmers have suffered from drought and water struggles as the main sources dried up. But so far this winter, the country’s most populous state — and a key source of food for the nation — has been hit by 11 atmospheric rivers, as well as severe arctic-fueled storms that have sent mountain blizzards.

Many communities are coping with heavy rainfall and flooding, including the unincorporated community of Pajaro, known for its strawberry crop. The nearby Pajaro River swelled in the last week’s rains, and a dam built in the 1940s to keep out floods and known for decades broke, forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 people from the predominantly Hispanic community of farm workers.

United Farm Workers spokesman Antonio De Loera-Brusta said farm workers had reduced or lost their working hours because of the hurricanes. According to him, the most important issue is to help the people of Pajaro rebuild.

The vast majority of strawberries grown in the US come from California, and farms across the state pick the berries at different times of the year. About a third of the state’s strawberry cultivation is in the Watsonville and Salinas areas, according to the commission.

Peter Navarro grows strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on a farm by the Pajaro River. He said he was lucky his fields weren’t flooded by a dam break, but still expects his harvest to be delayed by a few weeks due to rainy and cold weather.

After planting the berries last year, Navarro said he and other farmers were concerned about the drying up of water sources due to the prolonged drought.

“When it started to rain, we were ecstatic, happy, saying, ‘This is what we need, the rainy season,’” Navarro said. “We definitely didn’t expect all these atmospheric rivers. He just swept over us – and swept the river.

Flooding in the Pajaro Valley also affected other crops such as lettuce and other greens. Some vegetables have already been planted, but many have not yet, and planting may be delayed due to hurricanes, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

“Right now, I think everyone is trying to, so to speak, save the farm,” Groot said, adding that more rain is forecast for the weekend.

Monterey County is home to Pajaro and the harvest-rich Salinas Valley, and has more than 360,000 acres of cultivated land, said Juan Hidalgo, the county’s agriculture commissioner. The county estimates that the agricultural sector was hit by $324 million in the January hurricanes, and strawberries, raspberries and greens are likely to be affected, he said.

But, he added, many acres of farmland will be gone, and consumers may not feel the impact of the storm. “We will still have a lot of production,” he said.

The problem for strawberry growers is that the plants are already in the ground. Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas, said the company is working with a network of independent growers to package, ship and sell strawberries. Farmers in the Pajaro Valley planted the berries last fall, he said, to bring the berries to stores in the summer, when it’s too hot to grow fruit further south.

Now farmers cannot even get into the fields because the roads are flooded with water. But with about 900 acres (364 ha) under water in the Pajaro Valley and another 600 acres (243 ha) inundated in nearby Salinas, Bjorn said the potential impact is significant, especially given that farmers face more than just impregnated mud plants, but also with damaged equipment.

Bjorn said that at the height of summer, most of the country’s strawberries come from this region.

“It is still too early to assess the full implications of this,” he said. “There’s no way we can get what we planned.”

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