After five years of gripping drought followed by a rainy El Nino-fueled winter, Bay Area farmers are expressing a bit of relief — mixed with a heavy helping of caution.
In the Livermore Valley, where vineyards abut cattle ranches, farmers were seeing signs the year’s roughly normal rainfall totals leave their mark.
“It almost looks like Ireland,” said Livermore wine grape grower Jim McGrail, looking out toward a patchy green field of grass. “We’re blessed that we had a great year this year with the rain, the water, the mud.”
Over the last few dry years, McGrail said the area’s reservoirs dropped to dangerously low levels. But he said the winter rains helped the aqueducts finally begin to reverse their precipitous fall.
“Our groundwater basin is getting replenished,” McGrail said. “Not as much as we wish it would.”
McGrail walked along a row of verdant cabernet vines, pulling back leaves to reveal tiny clusters of emerging grape buds. A gentle but steady rain drummed down on the vines — a late spring rain that left him mildly worried about the potential for mold to form on the infant grapes. But unlike past years where he might’ve grumbled about the possible issue, McGrail let it roll off him like the rain on his ball cap.
“Never complain about the rain ever again in my life,” McGrail said. “Let it rain.”
But McGrail was far from sounding an ‘all-clear’ for the wine-making operation his family has run the last two decades. The dreaded “D” word remained firmly entrenched in his vocabulary.
“We are still in a drought,” McGrail allowed, his gaze drifting across his vines. “We’re not in harm’s way but we have to conserve — we have to be intelligent.”
Not far from McGrail’s vineyards, farmer Chris Ising walked through his pistachio orchard examining the juvenile nuts clustering on the branches.
“Last year we started watering in February,” Ising said referring to his irrigation system, “this year we just started watering two weeks ago.”
The rainy winter not only meant a lower water bill for Ising, it also meant his pistachios got a steady diet of water throughout most of the winter.
“It should mean we have some good sized nuts, and get some good weights,” Ising said, “ and get a nice sized check at the end of the year.”
On the cattle side of Ising’s operation, the rain nurtured fields of tall, healthy grass for his cattle to graze. The scene stood in sharp contrast to previous years where the drought left Ising’s fields brown and dead. Last year with a natural feed source badly diminished, Ising did what many ranchers did — he sold off many of his cattle.
“This last year it was basically we cut back 50 percent on the cattle,” Ising said, standing amid newly regrown fields invigorated by the season’s rains. “Now it looks like we’re have a really good year on the grass side so we’ll probably go find some more cattle.”
Winemakers said this year’s crop of newly budding grapes was so-far looking healthy. Winemaker Mark Clarin said in addition to hydration, the rains helped flush salts out of the ground that accumulated in the reservoirs.
Clarin was encouraged by this winter’s rainy season but amplified the need for successive rainy seasons in order for things to become more stable — a word that is doggedly rare when it comes to describing farming.
“As a farmer we want a perfect world that we never get,” laughed Clarin. “There’s always something to complain about I suppose.”