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California farmers, ranchers plod through hot summer


Capital Press

ANDERSON, Calif. -- As Northern California's afternoon temperatures soared high into the triple digits earlier this month, Corning, Calif., peach grower Karen Mills was moving from farmers' market to farmers' market.

At one morning gathering around the Fourth of July, it was already 92 degrees when she arrived at 6:45 a.m.

"I did five markets during that heat," said Mills, referring to the six days out of seven that the high was above 110 degrees.

At her R and K Orchards, pickers were in and out by 10:30 a.m., she said.

"You don't touch fruit when it's melting," she said, adding that earlier rains had already softened the peaches. "The skins wanted to pull away.

"It definitely affects the crops and affects how it all works," she said.

Mills and other Central Valley growers are plodding through what is expected to be a hotter summer than normal. In Red Bluff, Calif., nine of the first 11 days in July were in triple digits, and it got as hot as 116 degrees on July 3. After a week of highs in the upper 90s, the triple-digit heat is expected to return the week of July 22, and Red Bluff could get as hot as 108 degrees by that weekend, according to AccuWeather's long-range forecasts.

Fresno, meanwhile, had seen 15 straight triple-digit days as of July 11, and following a brief cooling period, it's expected to climb back up to 109 degrees there by July 27, AccuWeather predicts.

The heat has prompted fruit growers to irrigate heavily and has accelerated development of nut crops, reports the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sacramento.

Some walnut and prune producers have reported minor scorching, and some walnut growers have applied a kaolin clay solution to protect their trees from sunburn, said Kari Dodd, manager of the Tehama County Farm Bureau.

Among other crops, according to NASS:

The harvest of apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums continued at an increased rate, and the maturity of table grapes was at least a week and a half ahead of last year and 11 days ahead of normal.

Sensitive avocado varieties were stressed because of the warm temperatures, and regreening of valencia oranges is becoming more common because of the high temperatures.

The deterioration of range and non-irrigated pasture continued, as red flag warnings were issued in some areas because of the fire danger. There was a growing concern over diminishing watering holes in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and dwindling range on the east side of the coastal mountains has been supplemented with baled hay.

In Tehama County, the lack of spring rain led to a loss of at least 70 percent of rangelands, said Josh Davy, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock advisor in Red Bluff. The heat stresses whatever cattle are still in the valley, too; a test showed a group of cattle didn't gain any weight during the hot spell after having gained an average of 3 pounds a day leading up to the summer, Davy said.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture named Mariposa, Merced, San Benito, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties as disaster areas because of drought, making farmers and ranchers there and in neighboring counties eligible for aid.

Around the state, farmers have been rescheduling harvest crews to work in cooler morning and evening hours and assuring breaks for water, shade and rest, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. In barns, farmers use fans, misters and extra drinking water to cool dairy cows and other farm animals, the CFBF reports.

The heat has already been blamed for at least one death. California workplace safety officials temporarily shut down McFarland-based Etchegaray Farms LLC's operation after a 37-year-old farmworker employed by the company died of possible heat-related causes. State officials are also investigating the possible heat-related death this month of a 30-year-old farmworker who had been working in a watermelon field southwest of Fresno.

Austin Harter has picked some produce this summer for Julia's Fruit Stand in Dairyville, Calif., which specializes in heirloom tomatoes. The operation was hampered when rain in late June split some tomatoes and the heat "baked what was left," he said.

"That pretty much shut us down for about two and a half weeks, and now we're just getting back going," said Harter, who was operating a booth at a farmers' market here. "The key to it is just to keep hydrated and find shade when you can. There's no easy way to work in the heat, that's for sure."


NASS California crop weather reports: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Crop_Progress_&_Condition/

National Weather Service: http://www.weather.gov


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