“Too damn hot.” Farmers look for irrigation sweet spot to cool crops but there’s no beating this heat

July 9, 2024
by Lois Henry
Corn in Kings County is flood irrigated as crops weather the current, prolonged heat wave. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lois Henry

Share This: 

If the heat is sapping your will to live, most San Joaquin Valley crops are right there with you.

The blast furnace weather has farmers irrigating in cycles, using more frequent bursts, taking advantage of the coolest part of the day; anything to get crops through to harvest

But “it’s just too damn hot,” said Kern County grower and farm manager Keith Gardiner. “We’re trying to keep up but we can’t increase the number of cycles. There’s only so much water we have access to. We’re pretty much maxed out.”

Gardiner grows his own almonds and row crops, while his company, Pacific Ag Management manages acreage for other farmers as well.

Hot weather is nothing new in the valley. But extreme heat for this long – especially the high overnight temperatures – is putting crops through significant stress, Gardiner said.

“I’ve seen 30 days of 100-degree weather, but not 114 and 116,” he said. “Trees can stand a little heat, but it’s not cooling off at night. The crops aren’t recovering.”

Numbers from the National Weather Service, in Hanford, show the Bakersfield and Fresno areas both had more than 10 days of 100-or-above temps in June with lows hovering in the low 70s. In July, daytime highs soared past the 110 mark and the overnight lows shot up to the 80s.

In the Visalia and Hanford areas, National Weather Service numbers show highs well above average, up to 109 and 113, respectively. But the lows didn’t get as hot, remaining in the 70s. 

Forecasts show daytime highs will remain above 100 through next Wedesday, with lows creeping back down to the low 70s, eventually.

Gardiner anticipates the stress of all this heat will mean an earlier almond harvest this year, by as much as a month, and smaller nuts next year. 

“We’re irrigating at full capacity, but we’re just not able to keep crops as lush as we would like.”

Kern County farmer Jason Selvidge agreed, saying he’s already seeing almond hulls split open and it’s happening so rapidly, sometimes the nuts’ shells are splitting as well.

“One hundred degrees is normal for this time of year,” he said. “But we’re talking about 10 degrees above that. It’s, for sure, hard on everything.”

His operation is using slightly more water to match the evapotranspiration (how much water is soaked up and transpired off) of his plants. But he said water usage hasn’t increased significantly. The trick is how and when the water is used.

“For our potatoes, we’re near the end of harvest, so we’re trying to keep things cool by running more, short sets of water more frequently,” he said. 

It’s the same story in Tulare County where water demand is high, as usual for this time of year, but crops are stressed, Chris Hunter, Assistant General Manager of the Lindmore Irrigation District wrote in an email.

“Reports from the field are that there is some stress on the trees,” Hunter wrote. “LID is currently flowing about 75% of max queue.”

That’s no more than a normal year even though farmers are irrigating more often and in longer sets, he wrote. 

Selvidge and Gardiner agreed there is only so much farmers can do to get crops through the heat wave.

“They feel it just like we do,” Gardiner said of the crops. “But you can’t put A/C on your trees.”

  • SJV Water reporter Lisa McEwen contributed to this report

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER