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In California, leafy greens farmers both suffered from floods and welcomed the water


Most of the country's lettuce and other leafy greens come from California's Salinas Valley, where 13 atmospheric rivers this winter have obliterated local drought conditions. Farmers have welcomed the water and also sometimes struggled with the deluge. Reporter Amy Mayer has this look at what it all means for spring salads.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Andrew Regalado and his father trudge through sticky mud on the edge of a field at World's Finest Farm in Hollister, Calif. They've owned the organic vegetable and herb farm for about 17 years. In a creek bed just beyond the field, cloudy brown water leaps at the banks, and that's days after floodwaters have mostly receded. Another storm is coming.

ANDREW REGALADO: If this water's still here, there's a good chance we might get flooded again. Yeah, so it'll be a tough year.

MAYER: Normally, World's Finest has different crops to harvest throughout the year, but Regalado says this winter, they weren't able to plant anything to pick in March, April or May - no lettuce, parsley or cilantro. The Salinas Valley stretches west and south from here. It's often dubbed the salad bowl of the country, supplying more than 60% of the country's lettuce, usually from early spring to late fall. Occasionally, vegetables from the valley, tainted by bacteria and then eaten raw, have caused foodborne illness. So leafy green growers here take extra precautions. University of California Extension water specialist Michael Cahn says after fields are flooded by breached levees, stopped up storm sewers or nearby creeks, farmers wait, not just for the ground to dry out but to be certain the soil isn't contaminated.

MICHAEL CAHN: The delay that we do for food safety of, you know, 45, 60 days potentially before they would start planting.

MAYER: That could mean hiccups in production of romaine, leaf or butter lettuce this spring.

CAHN: I would expect there's going to be some holes in the supply chain, and the consumer is going to see higher prices eventually.

MAYER: But Grower-Shipper Association President Christopher Valadez estimates about 10% of the region's 200,000 agricultural acres flooded. The rest just got a lot of rain.

CHRISTOPHER VALADEZ: So there are crops that have been planted that are growing, that are maturing, that will be harvested.

MAYER: For the farm owners, workers and communities affected by flooded fields, the impacts are far greater. Valadez says some places flooded in January and again in March.

VALADEZ: For them, it's really a double whammy.

MAYER: In places, he says, the swollen Salinas River clogged with debris. The water needed a place to go, but he's hopeful as it recedes, the community can come together to find better water management strategies.

VALADEZ: And we have to assess, you know, is there anything else we could have done, we could have done better?

MAYER: To balance the nutrients that flooding historically has contributed to the region's fertile soil with the reality of a dense population. A cold, wet winter could have at least one benefit. In recent dry years, an insect has brought a virus that decimated lettuce. Jennifer Clarke heads the Leafy Greens Research Board.

JENNIFER CLARKE: Flooding is a challenge, and all this rain is a challenge. And then on the flip side, it might really help us with insect pressure.

MAYER: She's watching to see whether the rains drowned out that virus-toting bug. Late on a clear day, Femilon Regalado and his employees pull black mesh over tiny squash plants to protect them from frost. When the rain finally stops, the soil will need to be tested before they can plant lettuce or spinach.

FEMILON REGALADO: (Speaking Spanish).

MAYER: Always stay positive, he says. Keep moving forward.

F REGALADO: (Speaking Spanish).

MAYER: For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Hollister, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.