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Farmers try to combat Mother Nature

Courtesy of Jay Mahil

Icicles hang from almond trees during last week’s freezing temperatures. Almond blooms are in a delicate stage this time of the year and the frost could damage crops.


After a couple of weeks of warm temperatures, the Central Valley hit a cold wave that led to some below freezing temperatures last week.

The freeze comes at a delicate time for almond farmers as most of the trees are in bloom.

“It’s a concern for us, right now,” said Creekside Farming president Jay Mahill, whose company has acres of almonds and grapes throughout California. “Almonds are in bloom. We’ve gone past bloom. You’re going to start seeing petals fall. Whatever almond is going to get pollinized to become an almond has been done. Now is the fragile time for the stage of almonds to be in. The cold streak we have been having is tough. Temperatures ranged from 25 degrees to 28 degrees. If a tree sustains under 28 degrees for a few hours, it can burn the nut and void the crop on the tree.”

Two of the ways farmers can combat the freezing temperatures is to make sure their orchards are free of weeds and by running water.

“Some of the easiest things farmers can do for frost control is to make sure there are no weeds in the field,” Mahil said. “Make sure everything is mowed down so you have a clear floor to try to capture as much heat as possible in the soil. If you have a lot of grass or weeds, it doesn’t let the soil warm up that much. That’s usually the first thing to make sure the orchard floors are perfect and clean.

“The second easiest thing, but it goes with a grain of salt, is to run water. Water helps raise temperatures a few degrees. You’ve probably seen that over the last few days with people running irrigation water this early in the season. Water is a precious commodity to preserve and use when we need to use it. We’re having to dig into our toolbox now and use that water to help protect our crop. If we don’t have a crop, water is not going to matter to us because we’re not having anything to grow.”

Farmers are pumping out of their wells, which is a lot warmer than the outdoor temperature, which will raise the temperature of the soil and prevent harm to the orchards.

“What people are doing is pumping water out of the aquifer,” Mahil said. “The water out of the aquifer is a lot warmer than the atmospheric temperature is. Usually, when you are driving around, you can see the steam coming out of the water. That’s because the water coming out of the aquifer is warmer than the atmospheric temperature. That’s why we’re using a deep well for frost control. We’re trying to put warmer water on to the soil to raise that temperature up.”

Some farmers may be using wind machines, but Mahil said those are primarily citrus growers.

“Almond farmers don’t use too much wind machines,” he said. “When frost hits, in December and January, almonds are usually dormant, but citrus is growing. Most of the time, you are going to have wind machines in citrus orchards. It’s not uncommon to see people use helicopters for frost protection in almonds, as well. Those will create a loud noise. If there’s a warm level of air trapped below the cold layer, helicopters can help move and mix that air around to raise the temperature of the air you are trying to protect. That’s a costly measure to run.”

While farmers may be using water to raise their ground temperature, it’s not something they really want to do. However, if they want to have a crop in the future, they need to make sure there is a crop at the present.

“It’s not our goal to waste that water this time in the season,” Mahil said. “The growers would like to preserve it for later on in the season. Our hands are kind of tied right now. we have to protect what we can protect, at this point. If we don’t protect it, there will be nothing left to farm later in the year.”

While last week’s freezing temperatures came out of nowhere, it’s not an uncommon sight for farmers.

“This weather kind of comes and goes,” Mahil said. “It’s been rare for the past few years. We’ve been pretty fortunate we’ve gotten past this time frame with decent weather. You can see what this year’s weather pattern has been like. It’s been all over the place. December was one of the wettest months we’ve had and January was one of the driest. February was very dry until the past week. It went from 80 degrees to 50s and lows in the mid 20s. We’ve seen both sides of the gamut this year. We don’t know what to expect, right now.”

However, Mahil really doesn’t feel comfortable his crops are past the cold until the first week of May.

“April is usually the common time you’re going to get frost and it’s usually for the vineyards,” he said. “They usually start bud break in March. The rule of thumb is farmers watch and pray until Easter Sunday. Usually, after Easter, the frost events will start declining because the weather will start to change. My rule of thumb is to wait until the first week of May, and then I stop worrying. After that, I know we’ll be in the clear. We’re going to get warm this week and it might get cold again. I don’t know what to expect.”

Although many people tune in to news broadcasts to see what the weather will be, maybe the best source of what the weather will be is to ask a farmer.

“I check the weather in the morning, midday, evening.,” Mahil said. “We watch it pretty stringently. It changes at a moment. You have to be prepared. As growers, you can’t just flip a switch at a moment. It takes planning to make sure you have the right amount of valves open. You can’t run the whole fields with water. You have to have some preparation going into it. We saw the frost event late last week so we started preparing for it. We stopped some irrigation rows to make sure we had enough water to put on throughout the whole field. A majority of growers have drip systems of micro-jet sprinklers. Very few people have flood systems. That would be the best for frost control. When you have a drip or micro system, you can’t run the whole orchard in one set. You have to shut a few rows off to make sure there’s enough water for the whole field.”

Water allocation

Another piece of news that hit the farmer’s this week was the news about water allocation.

“The Bureau of Reclamation came out with an announcement yesterday for farmers south of the Delta water users, which is predominant in the west side, came out with zero percent allocation, which is very frustrating,” Mahil said. “In the last decade we’ve had six years of 20 percent or less allocation. That’s pretty bad. You would think California would figure this out. Things are changing. We should figure things out to be able to store more water. The east side growers, which is the Friant system, was allocated 15 percent, which is growers in Madera Irrigation District. It’s a really low allocation. It’s difficult for growers on the west side to start making decisions. Most of those growers are row crop farmers, like tomatoes. Do you order your plants? Are they going to give more water?” They are assuming zero means zero and leave the ground idle. That’s millions of dollars in loss of property taxes, revenues, tax generation and employment for those communities. For those with permanent crops, it puts them in a situation of abandoning orchards or vineyards because they have no water to farm.”

Mahil said farmers kind of knew that was what they were going to get, but they were holding out hope to get some to be able to keep their crops productive.

“Farmers on the west side knew there was going to be a bleak chance of an allocation,” he said. “December looked pretty good, but January, they understood, but held off hope the bureau would give five or 10 percent. Maybe they could move the allocation to the permanent crops to keep the crops going and keep them alive. It just never happened. They came out with zero percent. It’s very disappointing.”

The heavy rain the Valley received in a week period in December is the reason why farmers will get 15 percent allocation. The snowpack was pretty full, but the Central Valley experienced a very dry January and February.

“They are taking their calculations of the snowpack and how much water it’s holding,” Mahil said. “They are getting 15 percent of that water to the Friant water users. It’s not a lot of water at all. It’s about a month or a month-and-a-half of irrigation. It’s nothing for a grower. It puts a burden on the system. It’s a burden on the aquifers and the growers will have to pump water. There’s no other resources or choice for us to do something.”

Mahil said that if the state built more aquifers, they could have held enough water to allocate 30-40 percent to the farmers in the Friant water system.

“We wish the state would work with the growers to fund more recharge basins to recharge more water or create some type of storage,” he said. “If we were able to capture a lot more of the December rain with more storage areas, the 15 percent could have been 30-40 percent. That means that much less water to be pumped out.”


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