One fine spring day in 2001, I was working on the tractor on a gorgeous afternoon in late winter. It had been rainy and wet for weeks, and I was taking advantage of a break in the weather. I don’t remember if I noticed the large dark clouds piling up to the north, but even if I did I wouldn’t have known what they meant.
Then it got very cold and dark and started to pour. I was under the roof of the tractor, so I didn’t instantly realize that it was not liquid water falling from the sky but rather tiny ice balls. That is, until they started hitting me in the face as they bounced off the hood of the tractor. I stopped the tractor and covered my face with my hands until the cloudburst passed.
That was my first time in my farming career that I got a close up look into hail. Before that, I thought hail was only for other people.
Hailstorms don’t usually last very long — thankfully. And because they are generated from isolated storm cells, they are often highly localized. On our farm, which is spread out over four different ranches and ten miles, this can mean that hail will hit one field while missing another entirely.
The second hailstorm to hit our farm came ten years or so after the first one. I was driving in my truck past one of our fields when it happened, and I had the incredible opportunity to stop and watch it moving from the southwest to the northeast. The hail fell in a narrow band just 1000 feet wide or so. After it passed, you could easily see on the road where it started and ended, like the gates of hail.
Unfortunately, the path of the storm had gone right through several of our fields, leaving a thousand-foot wide path of destruction. The hail made a mess of things, smashing young tomato plants, pockmarking tiny nectarines, and flattening pea plants. And it continued on past our farm for 30 miles, eventually developing into a small tornado south of Yuba City.
On Monday, we experienced the third and largest hailstorm that we’ve had at Terra Firma. I saw this one coming from ten miles away and immediately recognized its signature: a giant, swirling black cloud appearing out of nowhere on an otherwise warm and sunny day accompanied by an immediate temperature drop just before the hail starts. Something bad was coming, either hail or high water.
The 2018 hailstorm cut a much wider swath than the others we’ve had, at least a mile in width. Although it hit almost all of our fields as it traveled from the northwest to the southeast, the heaviest band of hail fell in on a part of the farm where no crops are currently growing. And as you probably saw in the news, a much more intense storm hit Sacramento and the areas north and south of it, leaving some areas inches deep in hail.
Had this hailstorm hit our area in mid-April or later, it would have been an absolute catastrophe for agriculture — ruining crops and defoliating trees. Happening as it did in February, there was very little for it to damage as most fields are still unplanted and trees are still just blooming.
Even on our farm, the damage is far less than it could have been. We may have lost some spinach and lettuce but most of the vegetables that we are currently growing are winter-hardy and fairly resilient at this point. And our tree crops haven’t finished blooming so there was no fruit to damage yet.
As amazing a sight as a hailstorm is, I would be perfectly happy to never see one again in my life. At least not at Terra Firma. So I guess you could say I’d rather go to hail then have it come to me.