At Heritage Oak Winery, acres of 10-year-old grapevines are still underwater.
It’s been days since Lodi’s last rainfall, but for Heritage Oak’s owner, Tom Hoffman, it may be a while before the flooding brought by two wet months begins to recede.
Plenty of farmers still have fields, vineyards and other land covered by standing water. Not Hoffman.
“I don’t have standing water, I have running water,” he said.
Heritage Oak’s property in Acampo includes about 60 acres of bottom land along the Mokelumne River, and 10 acres are planted with grapes, he said. But the rushing Mokelumne broke through a levee and the bottom land — including the grapevines — was completely submerged.
“I don’t know if any of the vines will survive. I don’t know when the water’s going to go down,” he said.
Parts of Kautz Farms in Thornton are still underwater, too — not just the farm’s Pinot Noir grapes, but acres of almond trees.
“Standing water isn’t good for most things,” Michelle Leinfelder-Miles, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser for the Delta, told the San Joaquin Farm Bureau. “Plant roots need air like humans need air. When you have anaerobic conditions, you’re eliminating air in the root zone.”
That can lead to rotting roots or other diseases, San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican said.
“If it’s a young orchard, that could potentially kill the trees,” he said.
Grapevines and older trees are more resilient, but it’s still hit or miss. With grapevines or trees, growers really won’t know until later in the year if they’ll survive, Pelican added.
“Some of the orchards, even if they’re under standing water, the trees may have energy to flower,” he said. But if their roots are gone, that’s as far as they’ll get.
The Department of Pesticide Regulation is permitting fungicide applications even in orchards with standing water — normally not allowed — to try and prevent any further damage to fruit and nut trees already under pressure, he said.
For crops like alfalfa and grains like oats, the winter is likely to cause a total loss, Pelican said.
In eastern San Joaquin County, the dry bean harvest was mostly lost, he added. The county declared a crop disaster; total losses are about $4.56 million, he said. It’s a small portion of the county’s $3 billion ag industry, but that number could climb.
The truth is that officials just don’t know how bad it is yet, Pelican said.
The Ag Commission doesn’t usually evaluate crop losses until the season is over, so they’re still waiting for farmers and growers to check in. There’s also the prospect of more storms in the next few months, plus the melting Sierra snowpack.
Local crops are far from the only ones to suffer.
In the Salinas Valley, farmers reported lost artichoke and cauliflower crops due to standing water, the Capital Press reported. Other fields were so muddy that while the crops survived, workers could not get to them, slowing harvest and replanting.
The California Farm Bureau said rain and high winds may have kept bees from their pollination jobs in some almond orchards. While farmers reported fewer tree losses than expected, it could be some time before they find out if their almond blossoms will bear fruit or not.
“In the long term, the surge of storms should bring an improved water outlook, but it has definitely brought worries to farmers and ranchers whose land is inundated or whose crops may be at risk,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said last week.
For Hoffman, the cleanup hasn’t even begun. It can’t until the Mokelumne River goes down a bit, something that may not happen until after the snowmelt in late spring and early summer.
“We may need to replace the vines. I know I need to fix the levee,” he said.
The farmers along the Mokelumne are responsible for their own levees, Hoffman said. When Camanche Dam was built in the early 1960s, each farmer had their own levee along the river. Officials came around and asked the farmers if they wanted to form a levee district, which would be responsible for building and maintaining the levees.
The farmers said no.
Beyond the levee repair, Hoffman doesn’t know what he’ll do. He’s hoping some of the vines can be saved, but if not, he’s not sure he’ll replant. Putting in a new vineyard could run $8,000 to $10,000 per acre, he said.
“There’s so many questions. If you replant and spend all the money and this happens again next year? It’s a tough decision,” he said.