Allen Freeman stands in his citrus grove, thankful for a sunny respite from the recent rains. Even though the skies have briefly cleared, the weather has taken a toll on his family’s orchards, 110 acres of citrus spread across the East Valley.
"Rain is really cleansing for the tree, it takes all the dust off the leaves and promotes photosynthesis. But the fruit is what it’s hurting," Freeman said.
The rains haven’t been all bad, but it’s not been that great either, said Kevin Rogers, president of the Arizona Farm Bureau, a statewide organization with more than 5,000 members.
The weather has postponed the tilling of soils and the planting of new crops and delayed harvesting of others, Rogers said.
At the same time, it has contributed to healthy water levels at reservoirs and dams throughout the Salt River Project system.
The change has been so dramatic that SRP has restored full water allocation to farmers for the first time in three years, said Scott Harelson, an SRP spokesman.
"Our reservoirs are in much better condition now than they were this same time last year," Harelson said.
The SRP water system, comprising reservoirs and dams along the Salt and Verde River watersheds, were 81 percent full this week.
That compares with 42 percent full at the same time last year, he said.
Because of that, farmers will receive three acre-feet of water per one acre of land this year.
In 2003 and 2004, SRP cut agricultural deliveries by a third to two acre-feet of water because of the ongoing drought. An acre-foot of water is equal to 325,851 gallons, Harelson said.
While there’s plenty of water now in the reservoirs, there’s just too much of it on the fields.
The wet weather has prompted the Arizona Department of Agriculture to extend the statewide deadline for farmers to till the stalks of harvested cotton plants back into the ground. For Maricopa and Pinal counties, it has been extended until March 1, said Arizona Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Katie Decker.
Cotton is usually harvested between November and January. Fields are typically tilled soon after the harvest to make room for new crops, such as wheat, Rogers said.
But that, too, isn’t happening, he said.
"If you were going to follow your cotton crop with wheat and you’ve got caught up in this rain, you’re not able to get your wheat planted," Rogers said.
The same is happening for alfalfa, which is usually cut on a 30-day cycle. Farmers harvest the growth while leaving the plant in the ground.
Drenched alfalfa is basically useless and the continuing dampness makes the crop more vulnerable to pests, Rogers said.
Even if there is something to harvest, the 30-day cycle has been interrupted, cutting into a solid, dependable revenue stream for farmers, he said.
While the rain may not be falling, the moisture continues to hurt Freeman’s citrus crop and those of other growers.
With the rain, droplets of water collect on the crowns of the citrus, forming a ring of water that channels down to the stem.
Without a chance to dry, the moisture causes stem rot, resulting in unmatured fruit dropping off the trees, cutting Freeman’s harvest and reducing his overall yields.
While lemons and navels have already been harvested, it’s the late varieties of Valencia and mandarin oranges that are suffering the most, Freeman said.
Freeman couldn’t estimate how much damage the rain has cost him. "You never know till it’s over," Freeman said, as he looked at more than a dozen oranges that had fallen from a single tree.