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Floods Fill Some of California’s Summer Strawberry Fields

As river water gushed through a broken levee, thousands of people in a California farming town were forced to evacuate as their homes were flooded and businesses destroyed.

Yet another potential casualty of the powerful rainstorms that drenched coastal California: hundreds of acres of fresh strawberries slated for America’s supermarket shelves this summer.

Industry experts estimate about a fifth of strawberry farms in the Watsonville and Salinas areas have been flooded since the levee ruptured late Friday about 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of San Francisco and another river overflowed. It’s too soon to know whether the berry plants can be recovered, but the longer they remain underwater the more challenging it can get, said Jeff Cardinale, a spokesperson for the California Strawberry Commission.

“When the water recedes, what does the field look like — if it is even a field anymore?” Cardinale said. “It could just be a muddy mess where there is nothing left.”

For years, California’s farmers have been plagued by drought and battles over water as key sources have run dry. But so far this winter, the nation’s most populous state — and a key source of food for the nation — has been battered by 11 atmospheric rivers as well as powerful storms fueled by arctic air that produced blizzard conditions in the mountains.

Many communities have been coping with intense rainstorms and flooding, including the unincorporated community of Pajaro, known for its strawberry crop. The nearby Pajaro River swelled with runoff from last week’s rains and the levee — built in the 1940s to provide flood protection and a known risk for decades — ruptured, forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 people from the largely Latino farmworker community.

PHOTOS: Atmospheric river leaves California inundated, with another in the forecast

Farmworkers have seen their hours reduced or slashed entirely due to the storms, said Antonio De Loera-Brust, a spokesperson for United Farm Workers. The most critical issue, he said, is helping those in the community of Pajaro rebuild.

The overwhelming majority of U.S.-grown strawberries come from California, with farms in different regions of the state harvesting the berries at distinct times of the year. About a third of the state’s strawberry acreage is in the Watsonville and Salinas areas, according to the commission.

Peter Navarro grows strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on a farm by the Pajaro River. He said he was fortunate his fields weren’t flooded by the levee rupture, but still expects his crop to be delayed several weeks due to the rainy, cold weather.

After planting berries last year, Navarro said he and other farmers were concerned about water sources drying up due to prolonged drought.

“When it started raining, we were elated, happy, saying, ‘This is what we need, a rainy season,’” Navarro said. “We certainly were not expecting all these atmospheric rivers. It just overwhelmed us — and overwhelmed the river.”

Other crops are also affected by the deluge in the Pajaro Valley, such as lettuce and other greens. Some vegetables had already been planted, but many hadn’t, and might see delays in planting due to the storms, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

“Right now, I think everyone’s out trying to save the farm, so to speak,” Groot said, adding more rain was forecast for the weekend.

Monterey County is home to Pajaro and the crop-rich Salinas Valley, and has more than 360,000 farmed acres, said Juan Hidalgo, the county’s agricultural commissioner. The county estimates the farm sector was hit by $324 million in losses from January storms, and strawberries, raspberries and greens will likely be affected by this one, he said.

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Why Rob Saik is Trying to Build the World’s Most Connected Agriculture Network

Video: Why Rob Saik is Trying to Build the World’s Most Connected Agriculture Network

In a recent interview at the SeedLink Conference in Brandon, Man., Rob Saik, author, speaker, and CEO of AGvisorPRO, took a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the beginnings of his career and what the future holds.

Graduating from the University of Alberta in 1983, Saik embarked on a journey that started in Brandon, Man. “I got a job with Elanko, got a U-Haul truck, threw everything I had into it, drove to the Victoria Inn, and lived there for three months while they tried to find an apartment for me to move into. So I started my career in Brandon,” Saik shared.

Fast forward to the present, Saik has evolved into an accomplished author and speaker, traversing the globe to engage in high-level discussions about the future of agriculture and the critical role it plays in feeding the world. Yet, despite his global presence, he finds himself back in Brandon, addressing a group of seed growers. But why? Saik emphasizes the fundamental importance of seeds, stating, “It all begins with a seed, doesn’t it?”

Reflecting on his own experiences as a farmer, Saik expresses his excitement when a planted seed germinates and evolves into a thriving crop. He underscores the significance of technology and breeding in seed development, recognizing the crucial role they play in ensuring farmers can propagate seeds, grow profitable crops, and contribute to global food security.

Saik delves into the challenges faced by the agricultural community, particularly the rapid pace of technological advancements. He believes that the key lies in connecting farmers to experts swiftly, boosting farmers’ confidence in adopting new technologies, and ensuring the timely implementation of these advancements. According to Saik, this approach is crucial for steering agriculture towards sustainability and profitability.

As Saik works on his upcoming book, tentatively titled prAGmatic, he sheds light on its central theme. “The thesis would be that I want to write a book that takes what the consumer wants, challenges what the consumer believes, and positions that against what the farmers can actually do pragmatically,” he explains. The book aims to bridge the gap between consumer expectations and the realistic capabilities of farmers, promoting sustainable intensification as the necessary path to feed the planet.

Looking ahead to 2024, Saik emphasizes the need for enhanced connectivity within the seed industry. He discusses his platform, AgvisorPro, which is designed to facilitate connections between farmers, experts, and companies in a way that transcends conventional social media platforms. Saik envisions a credible, connected agricultural network that goes beyond the noise of platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter.

In a passionate vision for the future, Saik imagines a tool for teachers that allows them to pose questions from students, answered by verified farmers and ranchers. This, he believes, would provide an authentic and valuable educational resource, connecting classrooms with individuals who truly understand the intricacies of agriculture.