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Meager Rains Showering Blessings on Some Farms

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For local farmers, January is a nerve-racking month.

Between frosts and floods, the weather can quickly turn ugly for growers any time from December to March. Strawberries can crack their delicate skin during periods of severe cold. Crops in the Oxnard Plain can be swamped if too much rain comes at once, as happened last January.

Or fields may get just a drizzle, like Thursday’s less than one-tenth of an inch of rain, instead of the sustained soak they need.

Although local farmers are wondering when the real rain will come, many are cautiously pleased with the January weather. This week’s cold snap, with temperatures in the 30s and low 40s most nights, may have sent some farmers racing to their wind machines, but temperatures are expected to climb to the upper 60s through the weekend.

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And this season’s meager rainfall--about a third the normal amount--has even helped produce an unusually large strawberry crop.

“We get a little bit of rain, then some wind to dry things out--it’s been perfect,” said Scott Deardorff, manager of the Deardorff-Jackson Co., which grows strawberries and vegetables in Oxnard.

The weather is a far cry from that of last January, when torrential rains pounded the county. A normal rainy season, which begins Oct. 1, would have brought the county about 10 inches of rain so far, said Terry Schaeffer with the National Weather Service. This season, most areas of the county have received 3 inches or less.

But the dry weather has also been warm, a blessing to many local crops. Typically, the county’s agricultural areas will get frost about 30 to 35 nights each winter, Schaeffer said. Compare that with just two nights so far this winter--on Monday and Tuesday.

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“We’re way behind,” Schaeffer said. “This has been an extremely mild winter until this last week.”

After a cold front moved through the area Sunday, nighttime temperatures dropped into the low 30s, bringing frost to the valleys and scattered spots on the Oxnard Plain. In Bardsdale, which is between Moorpark and Fillmore, temperatures bottomed out at 26 degrees Monday night.

Conditions have been kindest to the strawberry, susceptible both to cold and the fungi that damp weather can bring. Since Dec. 26, Ventura County growers have harvested about 9.78 million pints of the berries, compared to just 156,000 pints at this time last year, according to the California Strawberry Commission.

That huge difference reflects the devastation of last year’s torrential rains, which flooded many of the county’s strawberry fields. By Jan. 11, 1995, the rains had caused an estimated $8 million in damage to the county’s strawberry crop, said Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Alan Laird.

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This year, Deardorff said, his company’s 200 acres of strawberries had been producing about three times the normal amount of fruit before this week’s cold snap.

Strawberry growers are not defenseless against the weather. When temperatures drop into the mid-30s, wind machines can circulate the air above their fields and bring down warmer air from 40 or 50 feet above the ground. Sprinklers can emit a fine mist of water to coat the berry with ice, which surprisingly helps to insulate it.

“That will freeze way before the strawberry freezes,” Deardorff said.

The recent chill slowed the harvest, he said, but did not seriously damage the fruit.

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Lemon and avocado grower Will Gerry said his trees in the Santa Rosa Valley can easily handle a little 32-degree weather, so long as the freeze doesn’t last very long.

“We’ve run our wind machines, but these are very mild types of frosts,” he said. “They’re not the hard frosts you fear.”

Don Hobson, sales manager at Oxnard-based Boskovich Farms, said light frost, which burns off in the early morning, also posed no serious problem to his outfit’s onions, lettuce and other crops.

“It just means you can’t get into the fields until about 9 o’clock,” he said. “If it’s just a little bit of frost that forms before sunrise, that isn’t really a problem.”

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If most area growers are untroubled by the chill, they remain concerned about the relatively dry weather. Light rains, like the showers that caressed the county Thursday morning, may be preferable to a flood, but they do not cleanse the soil of harmful salts the way heavier rains can.

“The problem is, this year we have not had a week of sustained rain to really leach the soil,” Gerry said. “It replaces the ground water, washes the salts out and we don’t have to pay for it.”

* RELATED STORY, RAIN CHART: B2


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