Since 2020, farming in the winter in Northern California hasn’t been much different than farming in the desert valleys of Southern California and Arizona where most of the winter produce in supermarkets is grown. It’s been sunny, warm and dry during the day and a little frosty at night. Rain was rare and unsubstantial, meaning we had to irrigate every few weeks. The crops grew at a predictable pace, we had no gaps in our harvest due or planting schedule due to storms or muddy soil. Weeds grew more quickly. There were several periods where we struggled to keep up with harvest and other tasks, as our team members generally schedule vacations in January and February — aka, “the slow season”.
It’s tempting to say this was not “normal”, but in fact it was very similar to winters we had in 2015 and 2016. Drought has always been part of the two-sided coin that is California’s climate. The coin has now flipped. Last year’s very wet fall gave us a reminder of what it’s like to farm in a stormy climate, but the rain stopped by New Year’s and the rest of the winter was very similar to 2020 and 2021.
This year, however, we find ourselves frequently racing the weather to harvest our crops and then sitting out the next few days waiting for the rain to end. We’ve only worked a few “five-day weeks” since November. And last week was the first time we were able to plant any crops since just before Thanksgiving. That’s not unusual — prior to 2015, we rarely planted anything at all in January.
What’s been really great, though, is not having to worry about irrigation. Last year, despite seeing our fields flooding in October and December, we still had to start irrigating again in January. This year, we have not turned on a pump since Thanksgiving and most of our crops have been watered only with rainfall since November 1st. Our Head Irrigator has been on vacation since Christmas.
Like many places in California, Terra Firma has now received over 100% of our average annual rainfall. That means we don’t need any more heavy rain or big storms, and honestly, I don’t want any. With the warmer temperatures this time of year, too much moisture brings in fungal diseases that damage our garlic and onion crops as well as our apricots, peaches and nectarines that are just now beginning to bloom. Small amounts of rain every few weeks, followed by dry wind like we had earlier this week, are perfect for keeping the soil moist without causing flooding or fungal disease.
And after not seeing the sun much for almost two months, just about all the plants on the farm are responding with a growth spurt. We’ll start to have a little more abundance to share with you, although the variety of produce we’re growing is limited as always by the fact that it is still winter. Fruit trees are responding as well, with several varieties beginning to bloom, which is a bit concerning given that it’s still getting quite cold at night. Because the trees lost almost their entire crop last year, they are loaded with fruit buds this year and we are really hoping they avoid another catastrophic freeze.
Keep your fingers crossed!