There’s one weather phenomenon that terrifies every farmer, worldwide, no matter what crop they grow or where they grow it: Hail.
It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to growing crops than rock-hard pieces of ice falling miles from the sky at hundreds of miles per hour. And while golf- or baseball -sized hail makes national headlines, even teeny-tiny hailstones can easily destroy many crops.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Why is hail any different from snow? — it’s also frozen water falling from the sky”. In two important ways. First, snow is generally soft. In fact, in certain areas, a layer of snow can act as a protecting mulch against harsher temperatures and wind. Hail is usually hard — it actually bounces when it hits the ground.
Second, snow generally occurs in the winter, a season that is already too cold for most farming. Hail, on the other hand, can happen any time of year. It occurs when the ground is warm and a cold storm moves over it. This means it tends to occur during farming season.
Hail is a highly localized occurrence that can move across the landscape in narrow bands under thunderstorms or other atmospheric convection the way tornadoes do. For a farmer, this means that your crops might be destroyed while your next door neighbor’s are fine.
Luckily, hail is not a frequent occurrence in most areas of California. On average we get some hail somewhere on the farm once every 2-3 years. But only a few times has it caused serious damage.
One day several years ago I drove from our office, where it was dry, through a downpour and then into a band of hail that was just a few hundred feet wide. Unfortunately, that “few hundred feet” was moving from the southwest to the northeast — directly through our fields. The next day, it was very easy to trace the path of the hail by following the trampled plants. The hail had also gone through our summer fruit orchard, where it had left tiny pockmarks in all the nectarines that expanded as the fruit grew. That same storm left a path of destroyed crops between here and Woodland, 15 miles away.
Another time I remember vividly, I was in a meeting in Fairfield — about 15 miles away — during a hailstorm that left two inches of pellets on my car and flooded the streets. In a panic, I called the farm only to find out the storm had missed us completely.
Very young plants are the most vulnerable to hail damage, as it simply crushes them. But if it hails hard enough, even seeds that haven’t emerged yet can be affected. Hail smashes the soil down, compacting it into a hard crust that delicate seedlings can’t push through.
We had a brief hailstorm yesterday. While it only lasted for a few minutes, it’s very likely that it caused some damage to some crop or another. But it takes at least a few days for torn leaves or bruising to turn brown and become visible. And the hail missed the strawberry field completely, which was a stroke of luck.
The only thing funny about hail is, well, its name. Because the word itself sounds a lot like “hell”. And for most farmers, when someone says “it’s going to hail”, it also means that things are going to…well, you know.