June 20, 2019
Only a few weeks after farmers were dodging raindrops and taking stock of crop damage from late-spring storms, agencies are now warning growers and others who work outside to take precautions against the summer heat.
As highs during a mid-June heat wave topped out at 108 in Bakersfield, 106 in Fresno and 105 in Redding, the National Weather Service started urging people outside to drink lots of water, wear light-colored clothing and avoid being out during the hottest times of the day.
Meanwhile, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health reminds employers with outdoor workers that state regulations require them to take the following four steps to prevent heat illness:
Plan – Develop and implement an effective written heat illness prevention plan that includes emergency response procedures.
Training – Train all employees and supervisors on heat illness prevention.
Water – Provide drinking water that is fresh, pure, suitably cool and free of charge so that each worker can drink at least 1 quart per hour, and encourage workers to do so.
Shade – Provide shade when workers request it and when temperatures exceed 80 degrees. Encourage workers to take a cool-down rest in the shade for at least five minutes. They should not wait until they feel sick to cool down.
HAVE A PLAN
Employers should have training and other procedures in place each year before it gets hot, says David Hornung, CalOSHA’s heat and agriculture program coordinator.
“Workers should know the signs and symptoms of heat illness and what to do in case someone gets sick,” Hornung says. “This helps prevent serious and fatal heat illnesses while working outdoors.”
The heat illness warnings come as harvests are ongoing for numerous crops, including Valencia oranges, Mandarins, apricots, peaches, plums, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and eggplant, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's (NASS) weekly crop progress report.
Other field work is also underway, as growers have been applying nutrient sprays and pesticides, herbicides and fungicides to orchards and vineyards; thinning and positioning shoots in vineyards; cutting hay; repairing irrigation lines; and mowing orchard floors, NASS reports.
A few weeks earlier, farms were scrambling to harvest fruit before unseasonable late-spring storms.
While spring showers are usually little trouble for the Central Valley's hearty orchards and field crops, the wind and rain in May were enough to hamper field work while damaging ripened fruit still on trees and vines.
Cherry growers in the northern San Joaquin Valley say rain split some of the ripening fruit on their trees, while mid-May storms interrupted berry harvest in Central California and brought concern for growers of grapes, tree nuts and other crops, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF).
Rain also pushed rice planting to the brink, as any rice planted late runs the risk of not being ready for harvest before the next winter’s rains come. The series of storms soaking much of Colusa County in May forced grower Kurt Richter to wait weeks to seed his land, he told The Associated Press.
Intermittent storms that arrived May 15 dumped 3.07 inches on Sacramento — well above the city's average of 0.52 inches for the month. For the water year that started Oct. 1, Sacramento has sopped up 24.25 inches of rainfall, significantly exceeding its average of 18.14 inches at this point in the season, according to the National Weather Service.
In perhaps the most visible example of storm damage, the National Weather Service confirmed an EF0 tornado east of Huron, Calif., in mid-May that looks to have briefly touched down on the edge of Ted Sheely’s pistachio orchard.
Wind from the severe thunderstorm significantly damaged one mature pistachio tree and destroyed another, snapping it just above the ground and tossing it about 100 feet, Sheely says.
More significant and widespread was the hail damage that resulted when two storms combined right over the San Joaquin Valley. Kris Mattarochia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford, Calif., said the hail wasn’t large by meteorological standards – perhaps a half-inch in diameter at the most. What did the damage to Sheely’s crops, including cotton, onions, processing tomatoes and pistachios, was the volume of hail, which accumulated to at least an inch and was responsible for at least one traffic accident in the area.
Sheely gave Western Farm Press a tour of his fields, highlighting damage he says he’s never seen in such a large scale since he began farming in California decades ago. The hail damage goes on for miles, affecting several thousand acres of row and field crops, and orchards.
“The devastation is unbelievable,” Sheely said.
Because of the timing of the event, Sheely will not replant cotton this year.
“The last day for planting Pima was over a month ago,” he said.
The rain hit virtually every cherry-growing region, including the southern Santa Clara Valley and parts of the San Joaquin Valley, damaging part of a crop that had been projected at a record 10.5 million boxes even though growers hustled to harvest as much as they could before the rains came, reports KCBS Radio in San Francisco.
The harvest wrapped up by mid-June in most areas after a rough season, NASS observes. Losses were so severe in some areas that Kings and Fresno counties were considering disaster declarations at press time, according to the CFBF.
The rain also complicated strawberry harvest just as it started its peak season, with all three main growing regions — around Watsonville, Santa Maria and Oxnard — producing berries. Rain can cause ripe berries to get moldy and waterlogged.
On May 20, California's strawberry farms produced 465,117 flats, or less than one-third of the nearly 1.7 million flats produced statewide on May 15, according to the National Berry Report. As of June 15, farms statewide had produced 88.2 million flats in 2019, down from the nearly 100 million flats that had been picked at that point last year, reports the California Strawberry Commission.
Rain also affected an estimated 16,000 acres of processing tomatoes, the CFBF reports. It pushed planting back about a week, although growers still expect to harvest more than 12 million tons this summer, according to NASS.
The late-season rain has benefitted grass and forb growth, as foothill rangeland and non-irrigated pasture is in good to fair condition, NASS reports. One drawback there is that it has also added to weed pressure across much of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys this year, notes Mark Canevari, a University of California professor emeritus in weed science.
The wet winter produced an abundant snowpack and full reservoirs and helped all but a sliver of Southern California recover from abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
But weather-related problems may still be ahead. Last summer, seemingly relentless July heat damaged peaches, prunes and other fruit and forced many growers to protect their crops from sunburn and step up irrigation schedules.
This summer may be similar. The federal Climate Prediction Center foresees a strong chance of above-average temperatures throughout the West through at least mid-September.
As for heat illness, the most frequent heat-related violation that CalOSHA cites is for failure to have an effective written prevention plan specific to the worksite, officials say. Serious heat-related violations are often related to inadequate access to water and shade, and to a lack of supervisor and employee training, they say.
“We continue to conduct outreach, training and enforcement to ensure the heat illness prevention standard is followed and outdoor workers have access to the water, rest and shade that keeps them healthy,” says CalOSHA Chief Juliann Sum.
[Western Farm Press Associate Editor Todd Fitchette and freelance writer Logan Hawkes contributed to this report.]
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