Wet weather ruins crops
To the layman, a long rainy season would seem to be a farmers’ recipe for success. In reality, however, El Nino storms last year did much to wash away profits and throw a wet blanket over El Dorado County’s fragile agriculture industry.
“The Jekyl and Hyde weather we experienced hit some farmers very hard,” said El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner Bill Snodgrass. “We had such a good year in 1997. But in 1998, where the weather was concerned, everything went wrong.”
Final figures are not yet in, but the Department of Agriculture estimates that El Dorado County growers will take a $4 million loss due to weather conditions. Hardest hit were apples, the county’s signature crop. Some growers lost as much as 70 percent of their apple crop due to mildew and infestation, which was fostered by persistent rain.
“It was a disastrous year,” said Carl Visman, owner of Boa Vista Orchards in Placerville, the county’s largest apple producer. “Only about 20 percent of our apple crop turned out to be good fruit. It was a real bummer.”
Boa Vista, a popular stop on the bucolic Apple Hill Tour, has been in existence since 1918. It is one of the largest farms in the county, and also produces cherries, peaches, plums and chestnuts.
But Visman reports that his cherry crop was reduced by 20 percent last year, and that there isn’t a grower in the region who has not been slapped in the pocketbook by the unpredictable weather.
“The problem is that we had a very wet spring, and it even rained into the summer,” said Ed Delfino, who operates the Kids, Inc. farm in Camino.
“When you have continuous moisture, you have a disease problem,” Delfino said. “I had a pretty good (apple) crop, but I was lucky. I have only seven acres (of apples), so I was able to spray it all in one day. That way I was able to stay ahead of the storms.”
But for those with larger farms, it was sometimes impossible to keep pace with the weather.
“My crop was down only about 15 percent, but my costs were a lot higher,” Delfino said. “My costs for spraying went up triple.
“We’ve had other bad years due to frost, when entire crops were wiped out. But when you’re talking about rain, (1998) was the worst year in my memory, and I’ve been here since 1960.”
Apples tend to develop scabs and brown spots when exposed to excessive moisture. The rain also promotes infestation, primarily by worms.
Apples are El Dorado County’s biggest fruit crop, bringing in $6.8 million in 1997 (14,000 tons produced). Overall, the county’s fruit and nut production brought $12,346,900 (about 20,000 tons).
And that figure does not reflect tourism dollars. The Apple Hill area alone got 500,000 visitors last season, most of whom purchased baked goods, attended fairs and patronized area businesses.
Also hard hit was the county’s burgeoning wine industry, which the Department of Agriculture estimates will suffer a 20-percent decrease in production in 1998 over the previous year.
Grape growers report that quality was up – perhaps the best in several seasons. But quantity was way down, prompting some major growers, such as John McCready of Sierra Vista Winery in Pleasant Valley, to buy stock from an outside producer.
“Buying grapes was a first for me,” said McCready, who reports that his crop was down about 25 percent – primarily in the Syrah and Chardonnay departments. “Blame it on the crazy weather.”
The weather snapped a five-year winning streak in the county wine industry, which had reported substantial gains each year since 1993. County grape growers produced 3,638 tons in 1997, with $3,798,000 return to growers. Overall, the wine industry accounted for more than $50 million to the county economy in 1997.
But how do things shape up for the future?
“The good news is that things are looking good for 1999,” Delfino said. “All this good, cold weather we’ve been having will help the trees enter their dormant stages correctly. And the good snowpack will guard against a water shortage.
“Mother Nature can play her tricks, but as farmers we are forever optimists,” he said. “We pretty much have to be.”
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