From the Fields®
By Garrett Patricio, Fresno County melon grower
The drought is real and burdensome environmental regulation is exacerbating the problem. Although the recent rains were a welcome relief, we are still praying for additional rain events through the central and south valley.
These past few months, we've been dusting off the cobwebs and cleaning and sanitizing equipment, as preventative maintenance and season planning is in full swing. As rains give way to longer, warmer days, Westside Produce will begin planting for the start of our late June cantaloupe and honeydew harvest.
We anticipate another strong year for melon production throughout the state. Melons are a desert crop and low water user, so production shortages are not expected in 2015. This summer, expect cantaloupe and honeydew varieties with high brix and sweet flavor profile.
Managing water supplies, labor shortages, food safety compliance and regulatory challenges will still pose problems for us and other ag producers in the state, but in typical farmer fashion we fully expect to preserve and prosper.
By Al Medvitz, Solano County sheep producer
The recent spate of rainstorms has been a great relief. We are now pretty certain we will have adequate pasture feed for our sheep and lambs. We can even talk of harvesting some of it as hay to provide additional security for later in the year.
The blessing, of course, comes with the associated curse of the rapid growth of our invasive thistle and pepper weed population. We are in the constant agony of trying to figure out the most cost-effective and sustainable way to maintain our pasture quality.
We are also pretty much assured of a decent grain crop as well, although we will need more rain later in March or April. An interesting turn on the evolution of our ranch is that even though our land produces several thousand tons of grain per year in a three-year rotation with our sheep, current price structures and technology costs don't justify our purchase of new (or even good used) harvesting equipment.
We've leased our grain to our neighbor and his friend who are expanding their operation and investing in state-of-the-art technologies.
Even though the recent rains will help our sheep and grain crops, they are not sufficient to ensure Sacramento River water quality, so that we can continue to irrigate our alfalfa crop. That's a conundrum for us. This past year we had to take emergency action to use irrigation well water to provide for our winegrapes when our riparian supply became unusable. We should be OK for this next year. But who knows?
On top of coping with changing farming and ranching conditions, we are spending a lot of time working to ensure our water rights and, if that isn't enough, needing to act to keep our H2A visa program viable so that we, and others in the sheep industry, will have adequate labor to husband our animals.
By Greg Wegis, Kern County diversified grower
Bloom started this past weekend and now all of the bees are moved into the almonds. It is just the first few branches popping out, so it is hard to tell right now if it is going to be a concentrated bloom or erratic. We are applying amendments in the almonds, like gypsum, and we're starting a little bit of irrigation. The weather looks clear. We hope that we don't have to put bloom sprays on at the beginning.
With pistachios, we are starting pre-irrigation and we just finished an experiment with some oil sprays to see if the oil in fact will help with overall pollination, specifically the timing of the male and female flowers in the Kerman variety. The oil is supposed to help introduce earliness by about two weeks of bloom and that the male and female will bloom at the same time in a low-chill hour year, which is this year. We probably have about 730 chill hours and around 50 tree chill portions. We are lower on chill hours, but better on chill portions than a year ago. Last year, we had close to 1,000 chill hours and about 40 chill portions.
We also grow 24 acres of cherries and we've always looked at chill portions. In cherries we applied Dormex with about 52 chill portions and that is late. In low-chill years, in cherries Dormex helps overall crop set and forces it into a fruiting mode. If you don't spray Dormex, you get a lighter crop.
With alfalfa, we are green chopping. It started raining in November and we couldn't get the machines in (to green chop), but now everything is kind of dry so we were able to get in and clean up some of the fields. There's abundant food for sheep in the foothills because of all of this rain, so it is hard to find enough sheep for our alfalfa fields.
Wheat looks good. We have a little bit of frost damage in some of the earlier-planted wheat fields. We see a little bit of disease in the wheat crop that we've never seen before. They've seen it in several fields throughout Kern County. There are lesions on the lower canopy, but University of California Cooperative Extension and our PCAs are not sure what it is yet. We are waiting for lab results. It is a small percentage of the overall acreage, but what is concerning is we don't know what it is right now. We should know more in a couple of weeks.
By BJ Van Dam, San Bernardino County dairy farmer
After making serious cutbacks to our herd size in 2012 and 2013, the rise in milk prices in 2014 allowed us to replace cows in our herd and we have gotten our production and numbers back to levels that we can be happy with and proud of.
Unfortunately, we are already seeing the predicted drop in milk prices for 2015 and increases in feed costs. We are happy we made the improvements and changes that we did in 2014, when we could afford them. We don't know yet what the times ahead will bring financially, but milk prices are still dropping and feed prices are forecasted to continue to go up.
Our oldest son, now 2 years old, continues to be fascinated with the dairy and loves to go to the barn and help Daddy with the cows. We hope that our new son, just 2 weeks old, will love the dairy just as much.
We are now the last dairy on our street, and construction of new neighborhoods has begun all around us. It is hard to be optimistic about the future of passing this particular dairy on to our sons, but hopefully we will be able to pass a dairy on to our sons in the future.
By Dana Merrill , San Luis Obispo County winegrape grower
After a promising December with 6 inches of rain in some locations, January proved very dry. Now we have 1.25 inches to 2.5 inches of rain added this past weekend, which has helped growing grain crops and grass for grazing, and we still have hope for more rain to start to refill strained aquifers.
With almonds beginning to blossom, winegrapes could be only a couple of weeks away, which will cause concern for frost threats if the temperatures become cooler. Generally it is too early to expect only warm weather, so warm days and moderate nights are a mixed blessing at this point.
Pruning in the vineyards is well underway now. Crew labor appears ample; our crunch time is now mid-spring when there are other crops to compete with. Labor rates are up, partly due to farm labor contractors trying to recover costs for mandatory health coverage, which started this year.
After three larger crops, initial interest by buying wineries has been relatively strong. The Preliminary Crush Report has just been released and it is another yardstick by which wineries can judge pricing and growers can evaluate demand. Open market prices for the past year are easy to spot by experienced growers and wineries, and each year the report is eagerly awaited.
Water remains a major concern. Paso Robles has an urgency ordinance via San Luis Obispo County, which prohibits new development whether agricultural or rural housing without a 1:1 offset in use. While housing can comply relatively easily, ag projects such as vineyards find it challenging. Yet the temporary ordinance is slated to expire in August and if no permanent ordinance follows, well pumping could increase exponentially, adding more stress to a basin at or near overdraft. Elected officials try to balance property rights with concern for water as a resource, which has proven challenging. There are tough decisions to make and reactions range from denial to efforts to form a local Paso Robles Basin water district as enabled by the passage of Assembly Bill 2453 last year.
By Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County winegrape grower
For many of us in Mendocino County, January has ended on a down note. We have seen virtually no rain and letters have arrived from the State Water Resources Control Board notifying us of possible water diversion curtailments (see story). Ponds and very intense water management practices helped us limp through last year. It looks like we will have to continue to refine those tools to stay in business.
On the positive side, the beautiful weather has been great for getting work done. We are well ahead of our normal pruning schedule.
Marijuana grows continue to impact water, law enforcement effectiveness and our community. It is critical that our local, state and federal governments start working together on this issue.
For the last few years, we have been working with the Kaos Sheep Outfit to manage our under-vine weeds. Traditionally, we have used herbicides, mowing and disking to manage weeds. The owners of Kaos run the sheep through our vineyards. The sheep mow and fertilize as they walk through vineyards. They use portable electric fences to move the sheep from one block to another. The sheep are protected from predators with Great Pyrenees. We will have the sheep make two to three passes based on weed growth. The sheep have helped reduce pesticide usage, lowered our diesel cost and freed up labor.
By John Miller, Placer County beekeeper and mandarin grower
Beekeepers across California are moving hives into almond orchards. It's the largest paid pollination event on earth. Probably 2 million hives will be moved in; 15 percent will fail first inspection in mid-February, just before bloom. Beekeeping supply houses are selling record tonnage of honeybee protein supplements this year.
Beekeepers are more than ever trying to keep our hives alive. Sugar syrup prices are up; diesel is down: a push. Pollination prices seem stable at the $180-a-hive range. Brokers now have fewer hives in inventory than previous years and anything can happen over the next few weeks.
Rain is forecast. We hope to see big rain prior to bloom.
We bring all rolling stock to California. We bring all our labor from all branches, hire a lot of trucking, track a lot of data. For the first time, we are using thermal imaging to predict hive well-being before placing hives in orchards.
I spend time talking to fellow beekeepers, sharing information: help a guy out who is short, ask for help if we are short.
Bee health is always a challenge. The Bee Informed Project tech teams were on our property last week. We know hive health actions taken last August are now evident in February. It is still varroa, varroa, varroa—and everything else.
I think we can meet demand, but the arithmetic can change in a hurry. Our bees look excellent right now.
Honey production in America has gone off a cliff. Lack of forage equates to lousy honey crops. Lousy honey crops mean hives don't build up for winter rigors as they used to. USDA ag policy needs to re-establish meaningful forage acreage and it needs to happen soon.
The mandarins in Placer County are in winter mode. A number of growers watered trees this week and a light fertilizer application went on. Fields need a good rain. Our mandarin season is November-January. This season's crop was excellent. Lots of folks were introduced to hand-picked, tree-ripened fruit. The flavor was excellent.
Mandarin trees are fairly hardy and can withstand 26 degrees. Most of the fruit was off the trees by Christmas. Our crop was damaged when storm winds banged the fruit together, driving the protective oil from the rind.
By James Durst, Yolo County organic grower
December brought some welcoming rains to California and we were able to shut off pumps and enjoy the moisture. Cover crops and grain are all planted. We take all our soil samples in the fall and apply amendments where needed.
January was a little warm to my liking. Last year, we had some pest issues due to an unusually warm winter. I believe the cold and wet keeps insect populations at bay.
We will be ready to start harvesting asparagus by Feb. 15 if temperatures remain warm, and we may start irrigating if we don't get rain soon. We are planting our first snap peas for April harvest.
Since we have not had any rain for several weeks, we may start running our pumps periodically to keep surface water available in locations for wildlife.
By Zack Stuller, Tulare County diversified grower
We're right in the middle of citrus and mandarin harvest. Because of the warmer temperatures lately and no rain, we're going to start irrigation and fertilizer pretty soon on the citrus. Quality is fine. It was above average in terms of yield, but we're seeing smaller sizes everywhere.
We're anticipating bloom on cherries at the end of February, so we're getting ready to start Dormex applications to wake up the cherries. Because of the warmer winter, we don't have adequate chill hours, so we're anticipating an early bloom. The chill hours are much lower than in years past. We're applying Dormex two weeks later than normal this year because of how warm it's been. I think the cherry industry in general is anticipating another not-so-good crop because of lack of chill hours.
We're pruning grapes and kiwifruit. In normal years when it's raining, we'd be sitting around looking at each other because it'd be wet, but we're going hard on land preparations for planting because there's no rain and we're taking advantage of it. We've got tractors going full bore. We're deep ripping, leveling and getting the ground prepped for planting in the spring.
With the wheat we got planted, the early rains in December were great for germination. They got it growing strong, but we're irrigating like crazy now because there hasn't been any rain. But the wheat crop looks good. I'm hoping I can get by with one irrigation. I'm hoping when we get done with this round, that in February or March it'll rain and take us home and we won't have to give it another shot of water.
As of right now, going into the 2015 growing year, we are anticipating no surface water at all. We'll be farming 100 percent with wells, and that's scary. We're removing older plants in tight water areas. On ranches where we've decided to replant, we're concerned about the wells holding up and whether we're going to get district water to farm those. We've decided to do a lot more redevelopment right now where water is tight, because young trees don't take as much water. If a ranch has only one well and the well has dropped off quite a bit, we know we can't get a well drilled for at least another year, so we've decided to redevelop it and plant baby trees that can survive on one well until we can get another well drilled or we get more district water.
By Stacy Gore, Butte County diversified farmer
After the wet but welcome weather in December, the north valley is busily working away with orchard and field tasks. Pruning in the almonds is finished and it looks like the later-blooming tree crops are going great guns. Stumps are being dug and holes prepped for replants in the near future.
Since it has been dry, fertilizer is being applied in advance of the spring bloom. However, if dry conditions persist, we'll need to irrigate the fertilizer into the soil so that the tree roots will have easy access to the nutrients. Potassium is important to nut set, so having it available at the right time in the spring makes happy trees in March and happy farmers in September.
The lack of precipitation has also allowed some field-crop spraying, but winter forage is starting to stress in some areas. As we close in on the end of duck season, flooded fields that were bank full a few weeks ago are starting to show ground. There is still some great waterfowl viewing though, and there are a good number of bald eagles in the fields of the North State.
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