How too much rain – not drought – devastated a popular California crop
The vast majority of the country’s table grapes are grown right here in the San Joaquin Valley. But this year, a freak summer storm took a big bite out of that production.
SHAFTER, Calif. – On a bright October morning, Margaux Hein crouched under the shady cover of grapevines. She held up a hefty bunch of a variety known as Autumn King – green berries nearly the size of ping pong balls.
“It's crunchy and it's a big, green, good-eating fruit,” she said. She bit into one, producing a loud and crisp crunch. “People say they're like baby apples,” she laughed.
Hein is the farm manager at this vineyard near Shafter, and she was searching for healthy bunches of grapes. It should have been easy; over the summer, she was expecting the best harvest the vineyard had produced in all the decades her family has been managing it.
But that potential was never realized. Now, for every plump, green grape, there’s another one that’s purple and shriveled.
“Hurricane Hilary hit,” Hein said.
Though it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached California in late August, Hilary was the first storm of this kind to hit the state in decades. It dropped more than four inches of rain on some parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
All that rain made a fungus named botrytis, or bunch rot, very happy – and farm managers like Hein not so much.
“It was so severe that it took over many berries and many clusters, causing a full decline or a full collapse,” Hein said. “I didn't drive by the field for like two weeks because it just was really sad.”
But it wasn’t just these 45 acres of Autumn King grapes that were hit.
Kern and Tulare Counties, which produce the vast majority of the country’s table grapes, have filed federal disaster declarations related to the storm. Together, they estimate they lost $723 million, just to the table grape industry.
Vineyards devastated by too much moisture
As soon as the rain began, Tian Tian knew the grape crop was in trouble.
“I was watching the rain out of my home in Bakersfield on the Sunday when the storm happened and I could say, ‘Oh my God, this is a lot of rain,’” she said.
Tian is the viticulture advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Kern County. She said rain, of course, is essential — but not in August, when the grapes are nearly ready for harvest.
“When you have a lot of water entering berries, it will be like a balloon,” she said.
The grapes puff up, the skin cracks and the berries separate from their stems, all of which she said create entryways for botrytis. The fungus isn’t visible at first, so it’s impossible to determine which grapes will stay healthy and plump and which will decline.
“It's a gambling decision,” said Tian. “If you stay in the production and you push to harvest, the fruit can have the risk to rot in cold storage, even you trim it really well.”
That’s why Hein made the excruciating decision to simply not harvest the grapes this year. Not knowing where the botrytis was lurking, it would likely end up costing more to store the grapes and lose them than to just let them rot on the vine.
Many growers were forced to make that decision.
The California Table Grape Commission estimates that Hilary resulted in loss of 25 million boxes of grapes, or around 475 million pounds — making for the smallest crop since 1994.
“I have been with the Table Grape Commission for 36 years. I have never seen anything that comes even close to the kind of devastation that hurricane Hilary provided,” said Kathleen Nave, president and CEO of the organization. “It was a huge, huge hit at the very worst time for grape growers.”
Roughly three-quarters of all U.S. table grapes are grown in Tulare and Kern Counties. Tulare County estimates Hilary caused $191 million in damage to its table grape crop, while Kern County estimates $532 million.
“A survey of Kern County grape growers revealed a loss of approximately 44% in overall production,” reads the disaster declaration signed in October by Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser. “Kern County’s #1 commodity, Grapes were at the peak of harvest, leaving vineyards unharvestable, damaged by mildew, bunch rot and decay.”
Together, the two counties also estimate losses to another crop – almonds – topped $450 million.
Grape losses reverberate throughout the workforce
For growers, some relief is available for those who pay into crop insurance. Others hope for aid in the form of emergency grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For farmworkers, particularly those who find temporary jobs through farm labor contractors, lost harvest means lost work and little hope for protection.
Ignacio Martinez knows this firsthand.
For 28 years he’s been a farmworker in Poplar, a rural, unincorporated Tulare County community roughly halfway between Tipton and Porterville. Most of that time he’s worked with grapes. In August, he was a foreman at a Tulare County vineyard, overseeing a crew of 20 other workers. His wife worked alongside him.
But all that changed with Hilary.
“The boss had originally told us that we were just going to take a break for a few days while the storm passed, but a few days turned into much longer than that,” he said in Spanish.
I don't count with unemployment or social security, I don't count with other benefits and we don't make a lot of money.Ignacio Martinez
In total, they were out of work for almost two months, at a time that normally would have been one of the busiest of the year. This with four kids and family members they support in Mexico.
“To be sincere with you, it was really hard. I don't count with unemployment or social security, I don't count with other benefits and we don't make a lot of money,” Martinez said.
He and his wife are back to work now, harvesting late-season grapes and preparing for next year’s crop. However, he’s at a lower rank, no longer a foreman. And once the last of the grapes have been harvested in December, work will slow down again, for them and the others who bring grapes to market, while the vines go dormant for the winter.
“I do know a lot of other farmworkers that were impacted,” he said. “It affected us gravely.”
California hurricanes likely to remain ‘very rare occurrence’
Hurricane Hilary formed in late August over the Pacific Ocean and first made landfall as a tropical storm on Mexico’s Baja California peninsula.
When it reached the San Joaquin Valley on Aug. 20, it moved directly over Kern County, dumping more than an inch of rain on Bakersfield and upwards of four inches on desert and mountain areas further east.
Daily precipitation records were broken in cities throughout the Valley. Many of those, according to the National Weather Service, had never received any precipitation at all on that date since records began in the late 1800s.
“It's a very rare occurrence,” said Michael Anderson, state climatologist with the Department of Water Resources. “In fact, last time we had a storm like that hit us was in the 1930s, 80 years ago."
It really takes kind of a unique set of conditions to manifest themselves for the storm to really make it all the way up to California.Michael Anderson
He explained the arrival of Hilary in California was the result of a confluence of factors that typically don’t align: Pacific ocean temperatures were warmer than usual, winds over California that typically blow westward were slack, and a massive high-pressure system in Texas prevented the storm from moving inland out of Mexico and instead pushed it to the northwest.
“It really takes kind of a unique set of conditions to manifest themselves for the storm to really make it all the way up to California,” he said.
Anderson said, in an era of climate chaos, it isn’t likely that more of these hurricane-turned-tropical storms are in store for the Valley.
“We have some elements in the climate system that work in our favor to kind of shield us from them,” he said. “So we kind of expect it to be that rare event that happens.”
Hein, who manages the farm just outside Shafter, hopes that’s true.
She’s looking ahead, getting ready to drop all her rotten grapes to the ground and try again next year.
“So you cut it off and then we'll start fresh and then next spring hope for a good bloom and move on from there,” she said. “That's all you can do.”