Al Steindorf gambled when he planted tomatoes, hoping to glean a winter crop from his Carlsbad fields. It was a farmer’s version of a trip to Las Vegas, he said.
Steindorf, an organic vegetable farmer, estimated he ditched about $30,000 in tomatoes that recently froze on the vine.
“It was going great until this storm, and we had this killer frost,” sighed Steindorf, who also lost about 15,000 young tomato plants growing in his Carlsbad greenhouse because of the cold.
But most San Diego County growers appear to have been spared major crop damage from last week’s cold front, although strawberry plants have dropped their blossoms and might not produce as many berries this season, the county Agriculture Department said Monday.
Steindorf and other farmers are trying to evaluate damage already done and to figure what the next weeks might hold. According to the National Weather Service, there will be no immediate relief as temperatures continue to drop at night and a frost advisory remains in effect. Around Thursday, a cold front from Alaska is expected to hit Southern California, and another storm is expected this weekend, said forecaster Harvey Hastrup.
“Normally, Christmas in San Diego is shirt-sleeve weather, but this year, I’ve been out in a parka and gloves,” said John R. Moore, who runs Zany Acres, a small El Cajon herb and vegetable farm. “This winter will be tougher on growers because suddenly, we have to end the growing season.”
Last year, many farmers were able to continue harvesting produce until late December. This winter, however, frosty weather put the kibosh on the growing season early in the month.
“It’s a difference of four weeks. The average person says it’s only four weeks, but four weeks to a farmer is a lot,” said Moore, a farmer for 15 years.
So far, however, the destruction from the cold has been minimal. A county inspector who looked at fields all over the county reported Monday that he had found little crop damage, said Marilyn Corodemas, chief deputy agriculture commissioner for the county.
“It did get cold, especially Saturday night, but there was kind of a warm breeze,” said Corodemas. “It was windy, and it wasn’t real damp, and that seemed to have a warming effect on the crops. We were lucky.”
But a number of farmers are concerned about whether their luck will hold during this winter, which has been more severe initially than previous ones. Some farmers have resorted to using artificially generated heat, an expensive option that will probably be passed along to the consumer, they say. Others are trying various oil-based sprays to ward off frost. But organic farmers, like the Moores, can do little but keep an anxious eye on their crammed greenhouses.
“The frost and cold, wind damage is really hurting,” said Jeanne Moore, who works with her husband on their farm, which supplies a health food store and three restaurants with fresh produce. “It’s getting to the point where it’s too expensive to grow anything.”
Many of the small farmers are feeling the sting of the cold. Gary Iles estimated that he lost about 80% of his harvest from his 2 1/2-acre citrus and avocado farm in Fallbrook because of the recent cold.
“I got fried,” said Iles, who does not depend on his farm for his income.
Farmers, however, worry not only about this year’s profits but also about long-term damage to the plants.
Charley Wolk, an avocado grower and former chairman of the county Farm Bureau, said his groves are showing some signs of cold stress, but the big chill’s lasting effect won’t be so easy to determine.
“It’s not only the physical damage that might be done to the fruit, but you also impact the future production. Sometimes that’s more expensive than what you actually lose,” Wolk said.
The cold puts stress on the plants, cutting fruit production. For instance, after three years of inopportune cold weather, a 2-acre avocado tract that Wolk farms near Rancho California produced only about 200 pounds of fruit last year--a marked decrease from previous years.
Wolk said he feels that the largest agricultural interests in the county, producers of nursery plants and cut flowers, also often are overlooked when the public assesses agricultural damage from cold weather.
These growers accounted for $375 million in crops in the county in 1989, nearly double the next most valuable group of commodities--fruits and nuts.
But cold weather can hurt flower growers by increasing the cost of heating greenhouses and by resetting the plants’ biological clocks so that they flower at the wrong time.
“Their energy bills just go skyrocketing,” Wolk said. “So cold spells can drive the growers right up to the point where they’re going to operate for a year and make no profit. They sell their plants, and all they do is pay the energy bill.”
And flowers must be produced at the right time for the two biggest floral events of the year, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.
“You can produce a beautiful rose,” he said, “but, if that sucker comes off the plant the Monday after Mother’s Day, you might as well throw it in the trash can.”