EXCLUSIVE: A Watershed Year for California Produce

Farmers share insider crop information pertaining to this year's produce category
Lynn Petrak, Progressive Grocer
Greater precipitation is resulting in healthier plants and berries, according to AgriCare of California.

It’s not quite a feast-or-famine scenario, but weather conditions in California this year are in stark contrast to the past three years and subsequently impacting produce crops and the availability and cost of some fruits and vegetables. Following a stubborn drought, heavy rainfalls and elevated snow levels are now changing the landscape for production, with the U.S. Drought Monitor reporting the state is now about 92% drought-free.

Such relief is welcome as concerns mounted at the end of 2022 about tight water supplies and record-low reservoirs on the West Coast. For many in the growing industry, the relief outpaces shorter-term concerns about this flip side of precipitation.

[Read more:  "Value-Added Produce Strikes a High Note as Organic Takes a Hit"]

For example, flooding in the Salinas Valley earlier this spring impacted several farms and ranches near the Salinas River. While there were reports that crops were washed away and lands had to be replanted and retested, one local vegetable producer noted that flood events are a way of life in the area and farmers are able adjust to conditions on the ground.

“We have more flooding than not, and stakeholders in the 1950s came up and built a reservoir to control the big rainfalls,” John Baillie, president of Jack T. Baillie Co., Inc. and a third-generation farmer, told Progressive Grocer in an exclusive interview. His ag business manages nearly 300,000 irrigated acres in the Salinas Valley, which has been called the “Salad Bowl of the World.”

Baillie reported that only about 5% of the company’s acreage was affected by flooding in March. "Crops have been planted and transplants have been planted,” he said, adding that water and soil are rigorously and continually tested for safety.  

As for the impact on produce, Baillie reported that some crops, like broccoli, have been a bit behind this year. This year’s cold, rainy weather may affect harvest times for other types of produce as well.

Elsewhere in California, the massive snowpack in the San Joaquin Valley in the Sierra Mountain range is beginning to melt as summer arrives. This weather-related event, too, has its benefits and challenges, according to Gunnar Avinelis, CEO of AgriCare in Porterville, Calif., which manages tens of thousands of acres of farmland, including citrus, blueberry and tree nut farms.  

“It’s been an incredible year in so many ways. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen this mix of rainfall, snowpack and flooding. It’s eye-opening, coming off a year when we were deep in a drought cycle and scrambling to find water for farms,” he said during a recent interview with Progressive Grocer.

The unusual melt can cause issues for growers like tomato farmers, whose fields were or may be underwater at some point. “Thousands of acres of farmland are impacted right now and may not be able to be used for production as normal. But overall, though, this has been a blessing. Before this, the allocation of state water projects and the federal system have been very limited,” Avinelis explained, adding that many farmers had to pump underground and thereby start to deplete aquafers during the drought. 

By using fresh water, crops are heathier, Avinelis added. “With the rains we’ve had, the water has flushed out a lot of the soil impurities and we are seeing foliage and trees that look a lot happier,” he reported.

Like Baillie, he noted that there may be some ripple effects in the produce category, at least for now. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some disruptions in the regular supply of a few core items, but I don’t expect it be long term,” he said. For example, there has been a delay in the maturation of blueberries and some citrus crops.

Ultimately, Avinelis pointed out, there are benefits to this year’s rain and snow for those throughout the food supply chain. “The plants look strong and we are really excited about having amazing fruit quality. The health of our berries is very much tied to the quality of fruit they produce,” he remarked.

Despite supply-related price fluctuations, fresh produce remains popular with grocery shoppers. According to the "Power of Produce 2023" report published by FMI – The Food Industry Association, overall produce sales were up 19% in 2022 over the previous year and volume sales rose 4.3%, underscoring the ongoing trend of consumers choosing fresh options even during inflationary times.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds