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Rain Brings Challenges In The Winter Season

Rain is often a welcome sight on California farms since it helps to restore the water table and stave off drought, but too much accumulation can be challenging. Last week, Santa Barbara County got soaked. Sunrise Organic Farms co-founder Andrew Gibson discussed the impact on their fields.

“It’s harder when you can’t control how much water your plants are getting,” Gibson says. “Everything takes about three times as long in the rain.” That’s true for picking, washing muddy produce and every step in the process. Yes, even walking in mud is a drag. 

“When your plants get wet, mildew and all types of things start to occur,” he says. “That’s why we use a lot of drip tape and other things to keep the moisture off of the leaves.” 

One protective measure is to build hoop houses, but that’s not possible on a large scale since Sunrise has hundreds of acres to manage. Hoop houses are open-air, metal-framed structures that Sunrise dresses with plastic on top and curtains on the sides to create tunnels. They currently grow tomatoes, eggplant and peppers this way in Goleta. Gibson says, “Those are the things that people want year-round, so we try to extend the growing season on either end with hoop houses that keep the plants warmer.”

New farm box additions this week include red dandelion, a hearty green that’s known to help improve liver function.A lot of people don’t like the bitterness,” Gibson says,” but you can get rid of the bitterness by adding lemon or some kind of tart, acidic flavor.” Sautéing dandelion greens with olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon is a popular preparation, but Gibson prefers his greens raw in simple salads dressed with vinaigrette.

The versatile cilantro variety Sunrise grows has strong flavor. “I love it on fish,” Gibson says. “It’s also great in salsas and fantastic in any type of wraps, tacos or spring rolls.”

Growing Mountain Magic tomatoes in cold weather requires some adjustments. It’s an on-the-vine tomato, normally,” Gibson says. “The way it ripens in winter, it’s slower. It’s hard to get the big clusters, so we’re pulling it off the vine.” This is a Campari tomato, a smaller tomato that still packs strong flavor. Gibson enjoys Mountain Magic tomatoes raw, but it’s great in salads and Caprese with mozzarella and basil. 

This week’s farm box also includes romaine lettuce, yellow onion, shallots, baby nut squash, Nantes carrots, and Romanesco.

Sunrise planted strawberries, kales, and lettuces before the rain hit, but Gibson says, “Planting is suspended unfortunately until further notice because of the rain. You can’t plant in the rain.” More rain forecast for next week means they’ll have a three-week gap. “It’s fine now because it takes 3-4 months to grow at this time of the year,” he says, “but 3 or 4 months from now, we might be a little bit short on lettuce and not have as many herbs.”

As always, farms are beholden to nature. “Unfortunately, we’re kind of just limited,” Gibson says. “There are just environmental obstacles that we can’t control.” They have to reduce orders and volume to do what they can to keep up with demand, though effort certainly doesn’t decrease. “We work every day in the rain to pull out as much as we can because our customers need it so badly,” he says. “Our guys are really troopers.”