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Central Valley tomato farmer strategizes to fight climate change impacts

WINTERS, Yolo County – For farmers like Nick Petkov, it's hard to forget the winter of 2023, which was characterized by the series of drenching atmospheric rivers and dramatic snowfall.

"You know it's both a blessing and a curse when you have too much. The blessing is because there have a big drought and we had that, and the curse is you're waiting for your soil to dry out so you can put your plants in," noted Petkov.

Petkov runs SunBlaze Ranch: Seven acres of fertile soil, located in the northern part of the Central Valley in Winters, which sits in rural Yolo County.

The farm is known for its tasty heirloom tomatoes.

"The whole cluster right here you're going to see the tomatoes but also the blossom," explained Petkov, as he pointed out the delicate yellow blossoms.

Petkov agreed to have CBS News Bay Area follow him though the 2023 tomato season. The goal: to get a firsthand look at what's it takes to grow these heirlooms as the climate continues to warm.

For starters, on a warming planet, there is a higher likelihood of extreme weather events. And in 2023, during the winter, the rains were so intense, the soils were too wet that tomato plants throughout California got into the ground later than usual.

"I'd rather have it earlier but it's just a rainy year," chuckled Petkov when we saw him in May.

During that visit, the farmer showed us how 7,000 tomato plants were finally in the ground and the variety would make your mouth water: Brandywines, Beefsteaks, Zebras and the beautiful pineapple tomatoes.

He was full of hope.

"They're pretty much going to give you every color, every single shape that exists out there. So your table is going to look beautiful," exclaimed the farmer with a twinkle in his eye.

Outside, as the plants were beginning to form fruit, Petkov showed off his tomato nursery. He brought us inside one of his greenhouses, where rows and rows of tomato seeds just beginning to sprout.   

Petkov planted his tomato crops in three phases. When he staggers the plantings, and there are no adverse weather events later in the year, it should extend his season.

"These tomatoes should last until the first frost," noted the farmer, which he told us would be right before Thanksgiving.

But a changing climate can throw a few curveballs. In 2022, a heat wave ruined many of Petkov's prized heirloom tomatoes. Some of the fruit cooked on the vine.

To reduce the risk of that happening again, Petkov had a strategy to keep his tomatoes cooler.  A few months earlier, he had planted a row of sunflowers.

When we saw them in May, they were a few feet tall. Two months later, they had soared to over 10 feet high, while a few were as high as 13 feet.

The team at SunBlaze Ranch planted them to shade his growing tomatoes from the intense afternoon sun. The strategy seemed to work.

"So far, I have not seen a single tomato burned. So we have a natural protection with these big broad leaves," exclaimed Petkov.

The ranch is also experimenting with shielding other crops from the hot sun, using special fabrics. Petkov told us he believes the fabrics provides 30% more shade.

While the ranch battled a few cold nights and worrisome frosts, the team here emerged with a huge crop of healthy plump tomatoes.

And the word quickly spread: these heirlooms drew a bumper crop of customers at the Farmer's Market in San Rafael.

CBS News Bay Area witnessed how chefs and visitors hauled away boxes and boxes packed with SunBlaze Ranch's tomatoes.

"Fantastic! Just delicious. Grown beautifully, " remarked chef Kendra Kolling, as she purchased two huge boxes packed with tomatoes.

Kolling runs "The Farmer's Wife" which has locations in both Sebastopol and in Point Reyes. She makes award-winning, melty, crunchy, intricately layered sandwiches.

One favorite: her take on the classic BLT.  We caught up with her in October at her store in Point Reyes.  She told us the bacon is not the centerpiece. It's the seasonal tomatoes.

"We are in October and we're getting some of the best 'tomates' still. There is nothing like a late season tomato," exclaimed Kolling.

The chef depends on locally sourced ingredients and told us how she is concerned about the continued warming of the planet.

"Nothing's really predictable anymore these days: the weather, our crops, our livelihood," she explained.

As for Petkov, he too is concerned. But he said that he is determined to face any adversity head on.

"We would hope for the best but we're going to have to go with the weather. What's that's going to look like? I don't know," concluded the farmer.

That said, Petkov, like many farmers, remains optimistic. If all goes well, he told CBS News Bay Area that he expects to plant his first seedlings during the first weeks of April.

For all the lovers of tomato sauces, canned tomatoes, salsas and other tomato products, there is good news. Because of the improved water situation in California, with all the reservoirs at higher-than-average levels, tomato farmers and processors told us that consumers are likely to expect slightly lower prices for their favorite tomato products at the market.

For more information on processed tomatoes in California, visit the Tomato News website.

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