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Spring Rains Bring Bummer Crop

May 23, 2003|Juliana Barbassa | Associated Press

FRESNO — Farmers in California's Central Valley got too much of a good thing this spring, as heavy rains and cool weather damaged fruit trees and caused costly delays for cotton planting.

The pea-sized hail dumped by storms in April and early May scarred peaches and nectarines. Cherries soaked up the rain, swelled up and split. Pima cotton, a long-fibered, premium variety that can fetch high prices was planted nearly a month too late, when it was planted at all.

The damage added up to about $30 million, farming experts said, and it's irreversible.

"This has been a really unusual spring," said Mark Bagby, a spokesman for Calcot, a cotton grower's cooperative in Bakersfield. "Between the cooler temperatures and the excessive rain, it really shut down planting."

Pima cotton crops were hit the hardest, because the premium cotton has a longer growing season, and seeds ideally should be in the ground by March.

"We've already lost potential yield," said farmer Paul Betancourt, who grows Pima and Acala cotton.

Pima represents about one- fourth of the cotton grown in California; Acala represents most of the rest.

There are no good alternatives for those who planned a Pima crop, farm experts said.

"Corn and alfalfa would be considered options, but those prices are hard to hang your hat on," Bagby said.

Betancourt said farmers in his gin cooperative planted about 25,000 acres of Pima last year, but this year they've put in only about half that and have decided to try their luck with other crops. A lot of them have just given up, he said.

"This is going to be a challenging year," Betancourt said. "We'll find out how good we are at managing cotton -- it'll take all of our experience."

Cotton was Fresno County's second-largest crop in 2002, with a value of $345 million.

Among fruit growers, cherry farmers suffered the most this spring, taking losses of about $7.2 million in Fresno County alone, according to Robert Vandergon, assistant county agricultural commissioner.

Some cherry farmers lost half or all of their crop to the wet weather. Fresno County is the second largest producer in the state, behind San Joaquin County.

Last year, Fresno's cherry crop made $27.5 million.

"The split cherries are unmarketable," Vandergon said. "All we can hope for is a higher price for what remains."

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