News From the Farm | February 20, 2017

Rain in buckets; a raging tumultuous Cache Creek; soggy broccoli that is beginning to crown rot; soaked, matted sheep; croplands that fill, drain and fill again; saturated fields gasping for air; slogging vegetables picked and packed out of long muddy furrows; wiping saturated soil off of every carrot picked; rain this Monday morning with 2-3 inches more predicted this week… We are in the middle of a ‘100 year event’ with repeated atmospheric rivers overhead ending a 7-year drought in California.

Folks have been inquiring about how we are doing here on the farm and for the most part we are doing fine. Cache Creek, our unstable neighbor to the east has been churning with more water trucking by than we’ve seen in recent memory. It is a brown torrent contributing to a deepening inland sea that is swamping the Sacramento River basin. The Yolo Causeway, protecting Sacramento from flooding, is running full with the water and sediment collected from thousands of tributaries that are running brown and swift.  The farmland underneath this sea benefits from much of the silt and clay that is passing our farm in Cache Creek.

We are watching water volumes in the creek approach 20,000 cubic feet per second rush by in a timeless power of water and erosion and the literal movement of mountains to the sea. The dams and lakes above us are storing an additional 250,000 acre feet of water over this time last year—a drop in the bucket to the projected 150,000 cubic feet per second that will be released from Oroville and Shasta dams.

Those who watch climate over time tell us that we have had 80 years of relatively benign climate upon which we have built the assumptions of city landscapes, energy use, dam construction, housing design, farm management, road placement and the very structure of our food system. It is easy to forget that the extremes of California weather require a long memory so that the flood protection design is resilient, reflecting that California has a climate of widely variable wet and dry periods.

Two years ago at this time we had less than 2 inches of rain on the books—this year at the farm, we are heading toward 40 inches, but this is less than experienced in the 1861-62 floods when Los Angeles got more than 60 inches of rainfall, causing Leland Stanford to row a boat to the capital building for his inauguration as governor of California, and row back to the governor’s mansion to enter the building from the second story balcony.

That year, California experienced what some climatologists called an ‘ARkStorm’ a series of Atmospheric Rivers (AR’s) that turned central California into a wide inland sea. These Atmospheric Rivers have also been seen here in 1969 and 1986. In a paper evaluating risks from West Coast Winter storms the USGS wrote:

“The atmospheric mechanisms behind the storms of 1861-62 are unknown; however, the storms were likely the result of an intense atmospheric river, or a series of atmospheric rivers, striking the U.S. West Coast. With the right preconditions, just one intense atmospheric river hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range east of Sacramento could bring devastation to the Central Valley of California. An independent panel wrote in October 2007 to California’s Department of Water Resources, ‘California’s Central Valley faces significant flood risks. Many experts feel that the Central Valley is the next big disaster waiting to happen. This fast-growing region in the country’s most populous state, the Central Valley encompasses the floodplains of two major rivers—the Sacramento and the San Joaquin—as well as additional rivers and tributaries that drain the Sierra Nevada. Expanding urban centers lie in floodplains where flooding could result in extensive loss of life and billions in damages.’”

It is a sobering moment and mud on carrots dwarfs the potential risks if the rain keeps coming and the storms turn warm and melt Sierra snowpack. We certainly keep an eye on the hills above us, realizing that we are simply subject to a much larger power of nature that humbles us and challenges our short-term assumptions of stability and regularity.

At the farm we are trying to find innovative ways to keep planting in the short breaks in the weather, doing things that we have not done before like transplanting into old tomato beds without working soil; planting some things by hand; and spraying for brown rot in our peaches and almonds whenever we can get into the orchards.

We know that this soggy mess shall pass. By this time of year, normal during the drought has been that we have usually planted much of our spring crop, 15 acres of potatoes, many more flowers, and the vegetables that will be in your March and April boxes. Our crew is usually working long days of picking, weeding and other field work creating paychecks that cover their bills. We watch our cash flow decrease from a lack of things to pick, while there is an estimated 50,000 lbs of fall potatoes in the ground that need to be harvested, waiting for enough dry weather to get out there and harvest. This year’s continued wet is the reason why some of your cabbage has been peeled back, carrots are getting pale, oranges need to be eaten in a week, and some of your broccoli may not have kept as well.

We are unable to look forward, but as I sit here this early Monday morning and hear the squalls of rain hit our roof, I give thanks for the rain (for one should never curse rain in California) and understand that history has lessons that need to be heeded. Folks give our flood control engineers a hard time, but it is difficult to argue that our projects be designed and built for the 100 or 200-year event- because that kind of planning would challenge the very design of so much of what we take for granted.

We may well be in the middle of ARkStorm, hoping that you will ride out this new adventure and be patient with us and know that the contents of your boxes reflect the challenges of too much mud and a farm that is plenty wringing wet.

–Paul Muller

Greenhouse is flooding!