Six months after late rains pelted South County with buckets of surplus moisture, local growers and ranchers are now feeling left out to dry.
“When you stick your foot in the dirt, it’s just dry. It’s not sticking to your feet,” said Janet Burback of Tilton Ranch in Morgan Hill. “It’s not muddy. It’s supposed to be muddy.”
It’s been the driest Bay Area winter in more than two decades, according to the National Weather Service, and forecasts aren’t calling for helpful drops of rain anytime soon.
Some cities across the region have received less than a third of their usual precipitation levels for this time of year, while Gilroy experienced its warmest New Year’s Day on record: 72 degrees, a hearty 13 degrees above the average, according to National Weather Service statistics dating back to 1980.
According to the Dispatch’s rain gauge, 11.5 inches of rain had fallen in Gilroy from September through December in 2010, while just 3.1 inches fell during that same period last year.
The dry spell could mean bad news and potential financial losses for some locals.
“Right now, you can’t find a bale of hay in Santa Clara County to save your life,” Burback said. “There’s going to be a shortage of hay next year if we don’t get any rain.”
Burback said her ranch usually produces enough hay to feed her 200 head of cattle and sells $10,000-15,000 more to cover the costs of growing.
Farmers and ranchers often don’t irrigate winter crops, but instead plant them in late fall in hopes that Mother Nature provides seasonal rains to grow them. Burback says she has enough hay saved up to meet her own needs through this summer, but doesn’t expect to see that extra revenue this year.
“We think we’re going to lose the crops,” Burback said.
As it stands, many crops that county cattle ranchers rely on, including naturally growing grass, are “three weeks behind schedule,” says Kevin O’Day, agricultural commissioner for the Santa Clara County of Agriculture and Environmental Management.
“From a cattle production standpoint, virtually all of the cattle in Santa Clara County rely on rainfall,” O’Day said. “It is unusually dry. We have very little to no growth on the hills.”
Because of that, a “considerable amount of supplemental feed” is being trucked into the county, including hay, oats and alfalfa, O’Day said. While he says that practice is not out of the ordinary, the lack of green has “everyone concerned.”
“Those crops are planted and have not yet emerged. Those are behind. If we get rainfall in the last part of January, there can still be a crop,” he said.
The unexpected dry spell is the result of a “stubborn” high-pressure system off the West Coast sending precipitous storms north to Washington and Canada, said Chris Stumpf, a National Weather Service meteorologist stationed in Monterey.
Stumpf says he expects “no change” in the dry weather for at least another week, maybe longer.
“It looks like that high pressure is just kind of hanging tough. It’s not budging at all,” he said. “Until we can get that to kick on out of here and replace it with area of low pressure, we might not get a change in the weather pattern. Hopefully that comes at the end of the month.”
The California Department of Water Resources announced Tuesday that water content in the Sierra Nevada mountains snow was 81 percent below average. On Wednesday, CalFire announced the abnormally dry winter had officials “concerned about increased fire danger.”
Though fire activity is rare in the winter because of cooler temperatures, officials “will be monitoring the rain levels over the next couple months, as it will be an indicator of the type of fire activity spring and summer will bring,” CalFire Director Chief Ken Pimlott said in a news release.
It’s still local growers, however, who are faced with making decisions right now. And while the dry conditions have been problematic for cattle ranchers, other growers could benefit from the recent spell, said Jennifer Williams, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.
“The impacts of the dry weather are varied. For row crop farmers, the dry weather has been a good thing because they have been able to get most of their ground preparation done,” Williams said in an email.
Williams added, “The drawbacks for orchards and vineyards are that the trees and vines may need to be irrigated for good plant health, which is very uncharacteristic during this season. This is similar to the problem many homeowners are encountering where they have unexpectedly needed to turn their lawn sprinklers back on.”
Peter Van Dyke of Van Dyke Ranch in Gilroy says he’s concerned by the lack of rain, but as long as he can irrigate, his selection of fruit trees will be able to hold out until the rains come. In fact, drier conditions can be a blessing for fruit growers, especially after last year’s torrential climate, when cherry growers, himself included, “just got beat over the head.”
“I think we’ll be OK. Sometimes dry years are better for fruit trees, as long as we can irrigate,” Van Dyke said. “If we don’t get a couple inches here by the next few weeks, I’m starting the pumps up.”