Ag at Large: Climate a Major Issue for Farmers

2019 has been a relatively good year so far for California regarding climate. (Envato Elements)

The California wonderland for agricultural production depends heavily on soil and water, but the third leg of the stool is climate.  Even before environmentalists made it their cause and began predicting its behavior, farmers knew they had to respect it and live with it.

2019 has been a good year to study the climate’s effect on the production of food and fiber, but whatever is learned can’t be expected to apply next year, or any year in the future.  The climate can be friendly or ferocious, mild or monstrous, but always fickle and unpredictable.

September is always a tense, climate-focused time of year in California’s Central Valley, particularly for those who produce raisins, one of the area’s major crops.  Rain on raisins lying on trays and drying in the sun can be disastrous, but not a drop touched them in 2019.  The collective sigh of relief can still be heard.

For the broad range of tree and vine crops so prominent in the same area, several weather-related events can be damaging.  A few more days of higher heat than usual persisted in 2019, but producers of the typical broad range of crops and dairymen and their cows weathered the summer well.

Strong weather dynamics occurred around the Thanksgiving holiday, a noticeable break from the consistent mildness of fall.  Even climate experts wonder if this is the beginning of strong and nearly unpredictable winter weather events, and growers wonder what those events will mean for their trees, vines, soil and animals.  Pruning is on their schedule, but weather can delay that as well as pollination to boost next season’s production.

Harsh winter weather may bring nighttime temperatures low enough to threaten Central California’s gigantic citrus crop.  Wind machines and limited irrigation through sprinklers have replaced the “old days” method of lighting heat-producing smudge pots to warm the trees and their fruit.  Winter chill is an important growth element for most tree and vine crops, but too many nights with temperatures in the teens can be damaging.

Citizens of many states can boast about their typical climate characteristics, even if they just produce the elements for ice skating or snowmobile racing.  By contrast, a preponderance of California’s climate favors food production.  A study of the state’s micro-climates reveals the type of food crops by areas of the state.

The inner valleys depend on their typical climates to favor the production of rice, grains, hay and all the tree fruit, nut and grape crops.  Several fine wine grapes prefer the climate characteristics of neighboring areas.

California’s vast coastal plain is well known for climates that favor the tender leafy green vegetables, a mammoth lettuce industry, strawberries, colorful floral products and adjacent mountain ranges where cattle can graze contentedly.  In contrast the inner Coachella and Imperial Valleys boast not only of high heat ranges, but spring and fall warmth enough to allow record production of citrus, grape, vegetable and animal feed.

Climatologists have been fascinated for centuries by California’s unique weather patterns and their support of food production and consistent living.  Those who call themselves environmentalists have been with us for shorter terms, profoundly interested in what the climates can and will allow.  Even though their views are often wrapped in packages of doom and gloom, climates probably will ignore or overrule them to persist and fascinate – and support the production of wholesome food and fiber.