Floods fill some of California’s summer strawberry fields

As river water gushed through a broken levee, thousands of people in a California farming town were forced to evacuate their flooded homes and destroyed businesses.

Yet another potential victim of the powerful rainstorms that have inundated the California coast: hundreds of acres of fresh strawberries slated for US supermarket shelves this summer.

Industry experts estimate that about a fifth of strawberry farms in the Watsonville and Salinas areas have been flooded since the levee burst Friday night about 110 miles south of San Francisco and another river has overwhelmed. It’s too early to tell if the berry plants can be salvaged, but the longer they stay underwater, the more difficult it can become, said Jeff Cardinale, spokesman for the California Strawberry Commission.

“When the water recedes, what does the field look like – if it’s still a field?” said Cardinal. “It could just be a muddy mess where there’s nothing left.”

For years, California farmers have been plagued by drought and battles for water as major springs have dried up. But so far this winter, the country’s most populous state – and a key source of food for the country – has been battered by 11 atmospheric rivers as well as powerful arctic air-fed storms that produced blizzard conditions in the mountains.

Many communities have faced intense rainstorms and flooding, including the unincorporated community of Pajaro, known for growing strawberries. The nearby Pajaro River swelled with runoff from last week’s rains and the levee – built in the 1940s to provide flood protection and a known hazard for decades – broke, forcing the evacuation of more of 8,000 people from the largely Latin American farmworker community.

PICTURES: Atmospheric river leaves flooded California, with another in the forecast

Farm workers have seen their hours reduced or cut entirely because of the storms, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, spokesman for United Farm Workers. The most critical issue, he said, is helping members of the Pajaro community rebuild.

The overwhelming majority of strawberries grown in the United States come from California, with farms in different parts of the state harvesting the berries at distinct times of the year. According to the commission, about one-third of the state’s strawberry acreage is in the Watsonville and Salinas areas.

Peter Navarro grows strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on a farm by the Pajaro River. He said he was lucky that his fields were not flooded by the breach of the levee, but still expects his harvest to be delayed for several weeks due to the rainy and cold weather.

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

“When it started to rain, we were overjoyed, happy, saying, ‘This is what we need, a rainy season,'” Navarro said. “We certainly didn’t expect all these atmospheric rivers. It just overwhelmed us – and overwhelmed the river.

Other crops are also affected by the flood in the Pajaro Valley, such as lettuce and other green vegetables. Some vegetables had already been planted, but many had not and could see planting delays due to storms, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

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

Monterey County is home to Pajaro and the crop-rich Salinas Valley, and has more than 360,000 cultivated acres, said county agriculture commissioner Juan Hidalgo. The county estimates the agriculture sector suffered $324 million in losses from the January storms, and strawberries, raspberries and green vegetables will likely be hit by this one, he said.

But, he added, many hectares of farmland will not be and consumers may not feel the impact of the storms. “We’re still going to have a lot of production,” he said.

A challenge for strawberry growers is that the plants are already in the ground. Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas, said the company works with a network of independent growers to package, ship and sell strawberries. In the Pajaro Valley, farmers planted last fall so the berries hit the stores during the summer when it’s too hot to grow fruit further south, he said.

At present, farmers cannot even access the fields because the roads are covered in water. But with about 900 acres (364 hectares) under water in the Pajaro Valley and an additional 600 acres (243 hectares) flooded near Salinas, Bjorn said the potential impact is significant, especially as farmers not only face the challenge of mud-soaked plants, but also damaged equipment.

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

“It’s too early to know the impact,” he said. “There is no way to get what we planned.”

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