As the river rushed through a broken levee, thousands of people in a California farming town were forced to evacuate as their homes were flooded and businesses destroyed.
Yet another potential victim of the powerful storms that drenched the California coast: Hundreds of acres of fresh strawberries slated to hit American supermarket shelves this summer.
Industry experts estimate that about a fifth of strawberry crops in the Watsonville and Salinas areas have been flooded since the levee broke last Friday about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of San Francisco and another river is overflowed. It’s too early to know if berry plants can be recovered, but the longer they stay underwater the more difficult it becomes, said Jeff Cardinale, spokesman for the California Strawberry Commission.
“When the water recedes, what does the field look like, if it is still a field?” Cardinal said. “It could just be a muddy mess where there’s nothing left.”
For years, California farmers have been plagued by drought and water battles as major sources dried up. But so far this winter, the nation’s most populous state — and a key source of the nation’s food — has been hit by 11 atmospheric rivers and powerful storms fueled by arctic air that have produced blizzard conditions in the mountains.
Many communities have faced intense storms and flooding, including the unincorporated community of Pajaro, known for its strawberry crop. The nearby Pajaro River swollen from last week’s rain runoff and the levee – built in the 1940s to provide flood protection and a known risk for decades – broke, forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 people from the largely Latino farming community.
Farm workers have seen their hours reduced or cut completely due to the storms, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a spokesman for United Farm Workers. The most critical issue, he said, is helping those in the Pajaro community rebuild.
The vast majority of strawberries grown in the United States come from California, with farms in different regions of the state picking 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 near the Pajaro River. He said he was lucky his fields weren’t inundated by the bursting of the levee, but he still expects his crop to be delayed by several weeks due to cold, rainy weather.
After planting berries last year, Navarro said he and other farmers were concerned about water sources drying up in the prolonged drought.
“When it started to rain, we were euphoric, happy, saying, ‘This is what we need, a rainy season,'” said Navarro. “We certainly didn’t expect all these atmospheric rivers. She just overpowered us and overwhelmed the river.
Other crops were also affected by the flood in the Pajaro Valley, such as lettuce and other vegetables. Some vegetables had already been planted, but many had not, and could face 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 is expected for the weekend.
Monterey County is home to Pajaro and the rich Salinas Valley, and has more than 360,000 acres under cultivation, said Juan Hidalgo, the county’s agricultural commissioner. The county estimates the agricultural sector was hit with $324 million in losses from January’s storms, and strawberries, raspberries and greens are likely to be affected, he said.
But, he added, many acres of farmland won’t be and consumers may not feel the impact of the storms. “We will still have a lot of production,” she 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 would hit stores during the summer, when it’s too hot to grow the fruit further south, she said.
At the moment the farmers cannot even access the fields because the roads are covered with water. But with about 900 acres (364 hectares) submerged in Pajaro Valley and another 600 acres (243 hectares) flooded in nearby 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 that most of the country’s strawberries come from this region.
“It’s too early to know the full impact of this,” he said. “There is no way we get what we planned.”