Twenty years ago, a friend of mine went to work for a farm on the San Mateo Coast. She had been put in charge of a new ranch they had expanded to, right on the ocean just north of Santa Cruz. She called me in a panic to describe a problem: all their crops were being damaged by the constant strong wind that the area experiences. I remember quite clearly being incredulous at the problem she was describing — cosmetic bruising that would turn brown and sometimes rotten a day or two after harvest.
At the time, most of the land we farmed was tucked into a narrow valley along Putah Creek — the westernmost finger of riparian soil below the Coast Range. The hills around us protected the farm from the strongest winds. But in 2003, we expanded further east into the open valley. Since then, we have learned all about the terrifying power of the wind.
I’m not talking about storm winds — although they can of course be destructive in their own ways. Rather, these are the dry winds that rake the landscape of California when a storm passes over the state and mostly misses us. We get very little or no rain, followed by two or three days of bone-dry, dessicating wind. It can either be cold or hot, but either way it dehydrates people, plants and the landscape. It picks up and carries dry soil, in essence sandblasting anything it hits.
Dry years are almost always windier than wet ones, and the wind is more damaging. The lower the humidity, the more moisture it sucks out of the plants and soil. The driest winds can kill young plants entirely if they last for long enough. It’s mostly pointless to irrigate during wind events, as the dry air pulls more water out of the plants then they can pull from the soil anyone. In this case, preparation is key. We make sure to soak all the crops on the farm before the wind arrives.
Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of the damaging wind events here. Instead of happening a few times a year, the winds come almost once a month now. And rather than peaking at 40 mph — already bad enough — they now peak at 50 mph. That’s borderline hurricane strength.
In the last few days, we had 12 hours of gusts close to 50 mph, and another 48 hours of gusts to 40. The crop we were most worried about was the strawberries. Both the plants and the berries themselves sustained damage. The wind stripped many of the leaves off the plants, and the blowing soil abraded the surface of many berries, leaving them bruised. Luckily, the windstorm was followed by cool and cloudy weather rather than hot sun, which would have cooked the unshaded fruit. And despite dropping a ton of damaged berries in the field, we still ended up with enough fruit for all your CSA boxes.
Unfortunately, the damage was not limited to the strawberries. Several of the leafy crops we had ready for harvest for your boxes had foliar damage that made them unusable.
As if the wind event this week was not extreme enough, temperatures on Monday dipped below freezing in many areas. Terra Firma was thankfully spared (“thanks” to the unrelenting wind), but all the rest of the farms in our area who grow asparagus were not. Asparagus spears literally melt down when exposed to freezing temperatures. And with the overall chilly weather we’re having now, our own asparagus field has slowed down dramatically.
But a freeze on our farm would have hurt more than just the asparagus. We have numerous fields of frost-sensitive crops planted now: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, watermelon, sweet corn and green beans. We lucked out tremendously.
With chilly weather and sprinkles in the forecast for at least a week, the strawberry plants will have a chance to grow new leaves to protect the green fruit from the hot sun when it returns. After what they went through over the weekend, they could use a break. And so could we.