How flowers, avocados, oranges, tomatos, succulents, eggs, dairy did in San Diego's El Nino

We've never seen tortrix here before.

— Now it can be told. Now the growers of the top-ten moneymaking crops in San Diego County for 1996 can gather 'round, take a look back over 1997, and weigh in with their judgments. They can talk about wage increases, the market, feed prices, pests, and, as always, the weather, which there was more of last year than you might have noticed.

The spokesmen for the top three -- cut flowers, bedding plants, and ornamental trees -- sound the most corporate. Asked about production and profits in '97, Mike Anthony, speaking from the San Luis Rey office of Milano & Co., growers of cut flowers, answered, "We don't generally give that kind of stuff out. In general, things went well -- production was up, and our sales are moving forward -- we had a better year than the previous year. However, the minimum wage [increase] was a difficulty; created its own problems as far as operations were concerned."

Anthony was willing to talk about changes in growing strategy. "[We're growing less of] some of the crops that are under heavy import pressure, things like pompons, chrysanthemums.... One crop specifically, caspia, is being replaced by a product called limonium Misty Blue. In general, large crops are being splintered into a lot of smaller crops. We used to grow 30 acres of Shasta daisies; we're now growing about an acre and a half." In '97, French tulips and Asiatic lilies did well enough as experimentals to become small-scale production crops. "Last year, we were doing maybe 30 or 40 bunches a week," says Anthony. "Now we're up doing three, four, five hundred bunches every other day." The weather didn't hit Milano & Co. hard, but they have started "playing around with plastic hoop houses" to protect from wind and increase production.

Gregg Opgenorth, production manager for Color Spot Nursery in Fallbrook, also made note of the minimum-wage increase as a "major added expense," but Color Spot, too, had a good '97. Color Spot produces the "little six-packs or four-inch pots of your petunias, your pansies, your tomatoes, your peppers. We also do gallon pots and some hanging baskets." They sell to chain stores such as Home Depot. Because their product is what Opgenorth calls "definitely a luxury-type item," he cites the healthy economy as a reason for success. They had good weather, meaning good sales, but "it's kind of a double-edged sword. To support our sales, we need to have our reservoirs full. It's kind of a catch-22 for us."

According to production manager Greg Clarke, the 25 percent increase in production (to around 225,000 plants sold) in '97 over '96 for Pardee Tree in Oceanside was the result of a 15 percent expansion and the economy helping the economy. "We produce ornamental nursery stock, trees and shrubs, for the landscape industry," explains Greg. A good year for business means more businesses, and that means more development and more landscaping. "Our biggest sellers were 24- and 30-inch box trees. Queen palms are very popular, and the California pepper trees." Sales prices were up 10 percent last year, and the weather has been kind. "There hasn't been any frost the last few years. The summers have been average, but the winters have been warmer. Our rainfall in '97 was about average."

Furthest from the particulars of this-or-that planting is Tom Bellamore, senior vice president of the California Avocado Commission. A lot of things, he says, are put in terms of projections and averages with regard to place and time of year. "In '96-'97, we projected a crop out of San Diego of 138 million pounds, and in '97-'98, we've projected a crop of 139.5 million pounds," coming from roughly 24,000 acres of avocado trees. "We've had two very good years back-to-back," continues Bellamore. "Last year, overall, set a record in terms of crop value" -- 78.8 cents a pound to the grower, for a total of more than $108 million dollars. Weather has been good, despite some knockdown-inducing wind and harvest-delaying rain each year, and water prices, which make up "as much as two-thirds of production cost, have remained relatively stable." He stresses that his numbers are averages and that some San Diego avocado growers may not be doing as well.

Starting with number five, eggs, the talk starts to sound more like farm talk. There is also the first hint of bad news, though not too bad. "Production in '97 was comparable [to'96]," says Jerry Armstrong, an egg farmer in Valley Center. "We had lower feed costs, quite a bit lower, up until the end of the year. The year before, worldwide demand for grain had a big increase. The next year, the farmers, being true farmers, planted driveway to driveway." Armstrong feeds his chickens milo- and corn-based feed, and though he paid less for it in '97, he also had a hard time getting it to his million-plus birds. The Atchison-Topeka & Santa Fe/Burlington Northern railroad merger took place, and "all of a sudden, they were not able to do as good a job. We have to get grain shipped out of Texas and the Midwest, and those cars weren't coming, or they were sidelined, or they said, 'Not enough engine power.' The [railroad is] getting better, but for a few months..." El Niño has also caused some railroad tracks to go down, making for shipping difficulties.

Craig Anderson, a Valencia orange grower in Pauma Valley, had troubles of his own, even though fruit size was good this year. "You're trying to produce the best piece of fruit inside and out, but more specifically, outside, as far as being unscarred. In '96, we picked approximately 50,000 cartons. In '97, we picked about 72,000, [but] a much lower percentage actually made it into the carton. There was a much higher percentage of juice fruit -- probably at least 50 percent. Anything you can put in a carton, you're gonna make more money on than you can for juice. It saved our butts that we had more boxes picked. I think we did about the same [as '96]."

What happened? "We had some bugs that got in. One was what they call a tortrix. It's a little worm, and it burrows in through the rind and then comes back out. The puncture hole through the rind weakens the fruit so that it's unshippable. It wasn't any good for export, which is where the money generally is -- you can usually command $2 or $3 more for an export carton than for something domestic." And a lot of it wasn't even fit for that. Holes make weak rinds, weak rinds invite decay, and "you get one that starts decaying in a box, that decay will spread" to other healthy fruit. So fruit with holes gets juiced. Anderson also suspects that the climate affected fruit shape.

"We've been farming Valencias since the '60s," says Anderson, "and we've never seen [tortrix] here before. There's no spray, other than to absolutely nuke the place," and that would destroy the good pests Anderson depends on to fight other orange invaders. "It's just one of those things you hope doesn't happen again next year."

Oceanside tomato growers Harry Singh and Sons fared better. "Tomatoes are one of the few produce commodities that you speak to an average person about, and they get emotional," says Dick Keim, director of sales and marketing. Harry and sons grow vine-ripened tomatoes, not the ethylene-oxide-dosed mature greens, and '97 was an improvement over '96. Keim attributes this to "not so much the weather here, but the weather in areas that were competitive with us. Our very worst marketing time is always in August, and we had a pretty good market through August, [because] there was bad weather in Baja California, and that's one of our big competitors.

"There were some strong rains in the Southeast, and of course, rain doesn't do tomatoes much good. If you get continued rains, it allows certain plant diseases to get started. And the fruit isn't as strong as it otherwise might be. Sometimes when you have weather like that, you'll pack the tomatoes, and they'll look just fine. A week or so later, they've got black spots all over them, things that people don't care to [see] on tomatoes in the store."

Besides gaining from the misfortune of competitors, the growers "were blessed with good quality and good sizes," says Keim. "Customers equate size with quality. Last year, the difference between the larger-size fruit and the smaller could be as much as $5 or $6 a box. The shape and color and texture were very nice, and they had a real good flavor. I think a lot of this is thanks to our new variety; we call it a Sweet Ten."

Chuck Badger, Jr., who works for the family lemon business in Rancho Santa Fe, thinks production was down a little bit in '97, but he doesn't know if it was a statistically significant drop. Sales were pretty good, "especially if growers had fruit later on in the summer," which the Badgers did, though not as much as in '96.

Another whiff of tough times comes from William DeJong, dairy herdsman for Hollandia Dairy in San Marcos: "1997 wasn't a bad year. In '96, we had a real easy winter, and that helped us coming into '97. It started early, and it was supposed to be tough, but it ended when the rain stopped in the beginning of February. We were able to get things cleaned up, the corrals dried up, and the cows in shape." Rain is bad for cows because "it makes the corrals muddy, and it requires more energy for the cows to walk. If you have a tough winter, they come into spring with a little less flesh on them, and that makes the whole year a little bit tougher.

"Where we had some trouble was in August," admits DeJong. "We had a lot of heat and a lot of humidity at the same time, and production fell off. They're trying to keep themselves cool," which takes energy. "Plus, it's like a person -- when it's hot and humid, you just don't eat as much, and milk production is driven by a cow's consumption. Then it takes a while for them to come back up again. Let's say a cow was at 90-days milking [a little past her peak production for the year], and that heat and humidity hit her, and she dropped five or ten pounds of milk. Through the rest of her lactation, she's going to be down five or ten pounds; she doesn't really bounce back up."

And though El Niño didn't explode exactly as predicted here, "it's been a little bit extra wet. The winter started plenty early, in November." That, combined with high corn and alfalfa prices and a reduced milk price, meant '97 couldn't match the boom year of '96, when prices were up because of the low milk supply. The low supply was caused by a '95 so bad that many dairies went out of business.

Finally, representing the cactus and succulent industry, Tammy Crofutt, grower of two-inch decorative cacti in Valley Center, reports "'96 was a great year, the best year ever, and '97 was better than that. We didn't get a lot of cold, wet weather here. Cacti thrive on the warmth." And the dryness. "Moist air doesn't allow the soil to dry and aerate properly, so the roots sit in moisture, and it rots the roots. If it's really cold and wet outside, we don't water, and therefore, we don't get any growth during the winter time. Most of the plants shut down. It might take a month or so to even wake them up." This year, "the plants are not dormant. They're growing. They'll just take the moisture from the air and take off."

Like Opgenorth at Color Spot, Crofutt worries that this year's rains will scare off customers. "'94 was an awful year, even though it hadn't rained much. I think people were recovering from '93, the really bad weather. It didn't seem like anybody got out; they weren't concentrating on decorating their homes. That's what we're afraid of this year."

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