While citizens across Calaveras and Tuolumne counties last week contended with power losses and freezing temperatures, local farmers watched as their crops, plants and future yields suffered damage from ice and snow.
According to Tuolumne County Agricultural Commissioner Vicki Helmar, farmers in the Cedar Ridge area and higher elevations are still struggling to get to their orchards to assess the damage after four feet of snow dropped on those areas last week.
“We’re still trying to make an assessment,” Helmar said. “We do have some apple growers at the higher elevations in Cedar Ridge and Big Hill that saw heavy snow and heavy ice that broke limbs. They do have some down trees.”
Though apples and other fruit have largely been harvested, the loss of entire trees and larger limbs — called “scaffolding” limbs — can seriously impact fruit yields in later seasons.
“If it breaks a limb, you lose all that production area, and you have to prune it out. That substantially reduces individual production,” Helmar said. “If it’s the main scaffolding, you can lose 50 percent of production and possibly shock the tree.”
If the tree sustains that level of shock, it might not produce as vigorously as it had in the past, Helmar said.
Damage to apple and grape plants won’t be fully realized until the next growing season, when it will become clear if the freeze damaged delicate buds or if the plants had gone dormant prior to the cold temperatures.
“We think the freeze came early enough that it won’t be a problem, but we can’t tell for sure,” Helmar said.
One crop that did not escape immediate damage was olives.
Half of Hurst Ranch’s olive crop was lost when the freeze swept in during the night on Nov. 23, according to owner Leslie Hurst.
Icicles were hanging off the fruit when she went out to look at the trees on the morning of Nov. 24.
“I was horrified when I saw them that morning,” Hurst said. “It just broke my heart.”
The ranch had harvested half of the crop before the storm came in, but the remaining olives needed to age on the trees just three more days before harvesting, Hurst said.
“The olive has to get ripe for the oil to be good. If you harvest immature olives, you’ll get immature oil and it’s going to be really tart and bitter,” Hurst said. “This year, we got bit.”
Hurst has enough oil out of the current crop to satisfy her customers, but olives go in two-year cycles — one year will be a bumper crop and the next will be considerably smaller.
“I will have enough to satisfy customers this year,” Hurst said. “Next year will be tricky.”
Full damage assessments for all crops will be completed within a few weeks, no later than the first of the year, Helmar said.
If a commodity takes a 30 percent hit, she will have to report it to California officials and declare a disaster designation for that commodity. Multiple commodities can be included in one disaster designation.
“It takes a lot to do that,” Helmar said.