There’s an agricultural region in Argentina that is almost perfect for growing winegrapes.  Mendoza is located just east of the Andes, and just enough cool air flows down into it to balance the heat of the valley and ripen Malbec grapes that make great wine.

Except for one thing.  Several times each year, the wind from the Andes causes intense hailstorms that fall in random locations. So often, in fact, that the highways have “hailsafe” structures along them where motorists pull in during storms. As is the case with most hail storms, one spot might get hammered while just across the road is dry and undamaged.  Depending on how big the hail is and how long it lasts, a vineyard that gets hit will lose just a year’s crop, or the vineyard will be completely destroyed.

Farmers in the area protect their vineyards with expensive and complicated hail protection structures.  The better off the farm, the more of their acreage they have covered.  But few can afford to cover all their vineyards.

The first time I heard about this area, I thought “Those farmers are crazy!”.  How could you put your life’s work into an effort that you are pretty sure will get destroyed at some point.

Lately, I find myself identifying with the Argentine wine grape growers more and more.

When I first moved to Winters in 1992, the area had just endured a “once in a lifetime” December freeze that was cold enough to kill orange trees down to their roots.  It hasn’t been that cold since, but in 1998, 2006,2007, 2009 and 2011, we had temperatures cold enough to damage most or all of the crops we grow in the winter.  Weather forecasters have taken to calling these events “one in five” instead of “one in ten” year events now, but it seems to me that we are actually averaging a damaging freeze even more frequently than that.

There are very few farms in Yolo and Solano County that harvest crops in the winter, as we do.  And the ones that do are first-generation farms, like ours.  Which means that no farmer was ever so successful at growing crops in the winter here that their children kept doing it. By comparison, farmers have been growing grapes in Mendoza for a hundred years.

We will spend the next three days worrying and wondering “how cold is it going to get” as a large mass of cold air from Alaska descends upon Northern California.  With the warm fall we’ve had, the crops in the field are like Southern California beachdwellers, beautiful, healthy and completely unprepared for severe cold.  Damage to plants from cold is always relative to the conditions that preceded it, and so it is different every time.

What we need, of course, is clouds and rain.  Not just because wet weather in the winter (usually) keeps it from getting too cold, but more importantly, because we need the water.  All of us.  Not just us crazy winter vegetable farmers.