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Continuous storms have S.J. farmers worried

By Reed Fujii
Record Staff Writer
March 22, 2011 12:01 AM

Spring may have officially arrived Sunday.

But after a weekend of showers, wind and rain, and looking at forecasts of another week of rain and cold, San Joaquin County farmers wondered Monday.

"It doesn't feel like spring out here," Marc Marchini said while looking over a Delta asparagus field.

The most immediate impact may be on tree crops that are in bloom or just past bloom. Wet, cold weather hampers pollination and plant development, and may foster fungal diseases.

Also, shallow-rooted almond trees were lost to high winds that struck late Saturday. Wind gusts of up to 55 mph were recorded at Stockton Metropolitan Airport shortly before midnight.

"This isn't the weather the almond growers are looking for," said Dave Phippen of Travaille & Phippen, an almond producer and packer with extensive acreage in the Ripon/Manteca area.

"We've got a lot of almond trees laying over this morning, so the chain saws are going," he said. "We're making firewood for next year."

While Pippen may have lost 300 to 400 trees in his orchards, he's more concerned with the continuing rain.

There are small nutlets on his trees, although the on-and-off rain and partly cloudy conditions earlier this month were less than ideal for full pollination. He worries they may fail to develop due to the cold, wet weather.

"We'd like to see some sunshine just to send some energy flowing through those trees," Phippen said.

Almonds play an important role in the San Joaquin County farm economy, with a crop estimated at $134 million in 2009.

Cherries, another top county crop worth $160 million in 2009, also may be affected.

Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board in Lodi, said that crop is in the midst of its crucial blossoming season, with some orchards past bloom, others in full bloom and some still in bud.

The rain and cold temperatures will keep honeybees in their hives and not pollinating the crop, as desired. "You're not going to set fruit in this weather, period," he said.

Forecasts call for scattered showers this afternoon leading to rain Wednesday through Friday, easing to a chance of showers over the weekend.

"More than likely, we'll just be in a holding pattern waiting for the weather to improve," Culbertson said.

For asparagus growers like Marchini, rain won't harm the crop directly, but it hampers the harvest, and cold temperatures slow its growth.

"We are seriously slow in our production right now," he said Monday. "The cold is probably worse than the rain, although the rain gives us fits in terms of getting into the field.

"I'm looking at a field right now that's ready to cut, but it's too ... muddy," he said by cellphone.

"The asparagus crop is there. It's ready to grow. It wants to come out of the ground," he said. "If this would let up a little bit, we'd be in business."

Other spring planting and field preparation work also will be affected by the rain, as would any harvests of alfalfa hay.

Contact reporter Reed Fujii at (209) 546-8253 or rfujii@recordnet.com. Visit his blog at recordnet.com/fujiiblog.