Farmers assessing damage from storm

Crop values plummet after severe weather

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comApril 14, 2012 

From drought to punishing storms, Central Valley farmers this year have felt the wrath of Mother Nature.

White ice rained from the sky Thursday night, smashing strawberries, brutalizing almond trees and inflicting other harm.

Farmers suffered thousands of dollars in crop damage in less than an hour.

The hail started around 6 p.m. during a heavy rainstorm that featured frequent bolts of lighting. The half-inch-wide pellets ripped through miles of farmland between Atwater and Merced, as well as other parts of the county.

"It was a crazy night," said Scott Hunter, an almond farmer southwest of Atwater. "I've never seen anything like that before. Just driving around, the extent of the damage is very severe."

Because hailstorms come in "bands," it's hard to assess just how much total damage was done, said David Robinson, Merced County agricultural commissioner. "You may have one grower that's completely wiped out but the next-door neighbor didn't get hit at all."

Growers in Fresno County endured an unexpectedly powerful hailstorm on Wednesday that caused damage that some estimated could be in the millions.

It will take time to assess the full damage of storm, Hunter said. "You can see the sap is coming out of the almonds where the impacts were. It's clear what's on the ground is lost. But it's not sure what the trees will look like in a few days."

Just outside the city of Merced, 20-year resident Chue Xiong was expecting his two-acre plot of strawberries to bring in between $7,000 and $10,000 this year. However, a week before harvest, the hail ruined his entire crop.

"The ice poured from the sky and destroyed all my strawberries," he said. "My wife cried but I say, don't cry -- this is only for this year."

Xiong works at a nonprofit that provides social services to the local Southeast Asian community. His optimism is remarkable considering his concern that he might lose his job by the end of June because of funding cuts.

It's hard to tell just how many people are in similarly tough situations because of the storm. Robinson said the county should have a damage assessment by the middle of next week.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209)385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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