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Local farmers fear dry weather could take toll on crops

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Posted: Friday, March 9, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 7:43 am, Fri Mar 9, 2012.

Lodi-area farmers are struggling through one of the driest winters in recent history as they continue to hope for what they call a “miracle March” to keep their crops watered and healthy come harvest.

So far, records show that since Dec. 1, 2011, the Lodi area has only received only a quarter of the typical rainfall expected for this time of year, said Dave Samuhels, senior meteorologist of AccuWeather.com, a private forecasting service.

The lack of rain is thanks to the phenomena known as La Niña, he said.

And while farmers are hoping for even a few showers before crop-picking begins in April, Samuhels said there was very little chance of a rainy reprieve.

Farmers’ only hope for some wet weather is in the next two weeks, he said, when a chance of showers could finally make its way into the Lodi area.

For Ross Schmiedt, co-owner of CLR Farms on Cherry Road in Lodi, he fears the worst for his crops, which he said could start sprouting prematurely, and then, due to lack of rain and water, could suddenly stop growing.

Schmiedt said he and many other farmers in the Lodi area have started irrigation far earlier than last year, when Mother Nature was dumping buckets of rain on the San Joaquin Valley.

While watering plants typically starts in April or May, Schmiedt said, he and other farmers began irrigating as early as January.

“We got off light last year because there was so much water,” he said. “But we can’t get behind now, we can’t play that game. I’d rather take a chance and give extra water early on. It’s too dangerous a game to wait and see.”

But starting water pumps for crops early is costly.

According to Joe Petersen, president of the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, a typical year will allow farmers to begin using pumps later in the season, and those costs would range roughly between $80 to $100 per acre per year.

However, with starting up the water pumps early, this means more costly utility payments to Pacific Gas and Electric, Petersen said. And farmers may not be prepared to make those bill payments just yet.

Even with more expensive payments, using water pumps so early in the season could also indicate another frightening problem for farmers in the future, he said.

Petersen said that without any way to conserve some water for next year, this year’s dry winter could spell disaster for crops in the next harvest.

“We are not prepared for a long-term drought,” he said. “We do not have enough water stored up to sustain us.”

Robert Pirie, one of the founders of Colligere Farm Management on Linn Road in Lodi, said farmers are noticeably nervous as harvest season approaches.

He said based on projections, crops could be blooming roughly seven to 10 days earlier than last year, meaning issues such as frost bite could become a bigger problem for farmers’ crops.

“You can only slow your crops’ bloom down to a certain degree,” he said. “Cherries are already blooming. At this point, we just have to keep our fingers crossed.”

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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