Downpour delights SLO County farmers

Farmers throughout the county are rejoicing over this week’s soaking rain, even as some of them deal with a handful of problems caused by wet, muddy conditions.

An unusually intense October storm dropped record amounts of rainfall in many parts of the county, said John Lindsey, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. forecaster in San Luis Obispo.

Several locations in San Luis Obispo County received more than 4 inches of rain, while Highway 41 between Morro Bay and Atascadero recorded 9.25 inches. The storm eased the grip of drought that the county has been in for the past three years.

Overall, the storm was good for agriculture, said Bob Lilley, county agricultural commissioner. The biggest winners were ranchers and dry-land farmers, who are dependent on rain, as well as avocado farmers.

“A good soaking replenishes the groundwater tables and refills reservoirs,” Lilley said. “It also really leaches out the salts that tend to build up in the soils.”

Avocados are a tropical tree, so a heavy, warm rain like the one that fell Tuesday is ideal for that crop. Some of the fruit might have blown off the trees, but that damage is not expected to be major, Lilley said.

Vineyards and vegetable farmers were busy Wednesday assessing any damage the rain might have caused. No significant losses had been reported, Lilley said.

The rain came at a crucial time for the wine industry as vineyards and wineries finish up the fall harvest and crush. The biggest concern is the thin-skinned red varieties — such as zinfandel, pinot noir and petit syrah — which have not been harvested yet, said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

These varieties, as well as most white wine varieties, are susceptible to rotting if conditions stay wet for a prolonged period. However, this concern is minimal because warm, clear weather forecast for later this week should dry things out.

“Most of the grapes have been brought in already, so the sky is not falling,” Jacob said.

The rain is expected to slow the grape harvest a bit. Growers must wait until sugar levels in the fruit return to optimal levels.

This provides a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of harvesting caused by a post-Labor Day heat wave that caused sugar levels in the grapes to spike.

“This will allow the wineries to catch back up,” Jacob said.

Vegetable farmers are also waiting for things to dry out. Fields at Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande are so muddy that Friday is probably the soonest the harvest can resume.

Bell peppers and zucchini are the biggest concern because they are summer crops and don’t do well in wet conditions, owner Brian Talley said.

“We’ll let everything dry out and assess the situation,” he said.