From the Fields®
By Wayne Vineyard, Placer County rice and cattle producer
Recent rains have the pasture growing and the ponds full of water for the livestock. The only challenge is finding dry spots to feed hay to the cattle. Cattle prices are down from a year ago, but still very good.
Our cattle calved out quickly this fall and a dry spell near Christmas gave us two different days to process the calves, with the help of family members.
The outlook for summer water looks promising, with good snowpack so far. We received 100 percent of our water last year and it should be the same for this year.
The rice harvest went well—no delays—and we were able to bale the straw and flood the fields. Rainfall has kept them flooded, which helps rot the stubble. We'll start to drain the fields near the end of February.
The dam where we get the water for the rice crop started spilling this week, so that water should be ample for this year's crop.
Activities this time of year are the usual for most farmers—taking care of the cows and working on equipment to be ready for planting time. There also have been several growers' meetings for the rice industry to attend. It is important to keep informed.
By Joe Martinez, Solano County tree crop farmer
We're doing winter sanitation in our almonds—knocking mummies off the trees.It's too wet in the orchards to get in with shakers so we're hand pulling. In the nonpareil, the buds are showing white tips,º which means it might be 10 days to two weeks to bloom. That's early.
We've had plenty of winter chill. The bees are in and ready to work. We are fortunate to have enough hives. But it's impossible to tell this early what the crop might be like, because so much can happen between bloom and nut set. We'll have some idea based on the strength of bloom.
In the rest of the crops—walnuts, prunes, pistachios—we've been pruning between the storms. We didn't want to prune during the rainy season, but with labor availability, that's the only choice we have to get it done.
We're also doing weed control and repairing equipment. We've got an entire list of equipment to go through in the shop to get it ready for next year.
We're not sure how good the summer water supply will be. We're checking well levels to see if the levels have come up. Lake Berryessa is now about half full, but it will take 70 inches of rain this season to refill the lake completely. I don't think that's going to happen.
In our area, we've gotten 8.8 inches of rain so far; average is about 12 inches, so we're still behind.
By Valeri Strachan-Severson, Yuba County beekeeper
It's almost spring and beekeepers are going through their hives in preparation for almond bloom and checking their condition. Across the country there are again reports of high bee losses. Why? Researchers are now blaming viruses and pathogens, as well as the varroa mites.
We contracted with a beekeeper to bring in hives for us and he's down 70 percent. Now, I'm scrambling to find bees for our contracts. That's not fun at this time of year.
Our efforts to build bees and strengthen colonies by requeening, treating and feeding an enormous amount of protein supplements and tanker loads of liquid sugar seem at times to be a waste of labor and money, when a hive that was 14 frames ends up being four frames come Feb. 1.
I don't speak only for myself in this situation. It's all apiarists, whether commercial beekeepers, sideliners or hobbyists.
With demand for bees in almonds up, we see an increase in theft and pollination price fluctuation.
The bright side of 2016 is that it looks like we'll have the moisture we desperately need in California. We'll look forward to better forage and perhaps a bit of honey in the hives.
Beekeepers are resourceful. We'll do our best to replenish and restore. But a few will decide it's too difficult and sell out.
My advice to farmers who rely on honeybees or those who enjoy eating honey or pollinated food like apples, almonds, cherries, squash, melons and cucumbers, is to make an effort to plant bee-friendly hedgerows and maybe give a beekeeper room on your property to store some hives.
By April Mackie , Monterey County agricultural consultant
Despite the benefits of El Niño this season, the Salinas Valley hasn't been quite as fortunate in receiving the big storms that have been so prolific in Northern California. It seems as though the rains are just missing us this year.
However, the small amount of rain we've received has been helpful and we've seen a few streams and rivers flowing once again. We're hoping storms move in our direction into the spring.
Growers who were in Yuma for the winter are slowly starting to make their way back to the Salinas Valley. They're implementing planting schedules for the spring harvest—putting in transplants of broccoli, cauliflower and many other crops.
Strawberries were planted back in December, and as I drive around the Salinas and Pajaro growing areas I can see the transplants peeking their heads out of the plastic.
Despite the constant rotation of crops in the valley, growers here are also dealing with the constant headaches of overregulation.
There are huge battles going on in our area right now related to formation of groundwater management agencies, access to more water resources, cleaning out the overgrowth in the Salinas River and, once again, it's the time of year to readdress the Central Coast ag discharge waiver.
It's also time to start updating food safety plans in preparation for third-party audits—Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and private party.
So, unlike farmers and ranchers in other parts of the state experiencing an El Niño winter and now having time to work on equipment in preparation for the coming year, growers in the Salinas Valley are in the fields and offices, busier than ever.
It's sad that this is what it has come to—there is no "offseason" due to the demands of regulatory compliance. But, with an ever increasing population and demand for safe fruits and vegetables, we'll continue to find ways to deal with the burdens and continue to be proud to claim that "My Job Depends on Ag!"
By Dan Errotabere, Fresno County diversified farmer
We are working as much as we can between rainfalls, which has been nice to see for a change. The garlic looks very good, as do the garbanzo beans that were planted early. The wheat is looking pretty good too. It is about four inches high right now. It is always nice to see rainfall rather than irrigation to bring the wheat up. Rainfall doesn't have much salt, and the wheat really responds to rainfall.
There is a lot going on around here right now. Bees will be coming into almonds throughout the region in the next week or so. We are pruning pistachios as well as some of our winegrapes. Tomato seeds are being delivered to the transplant folks, and later on we will be planting those.
We did fallow some of our fields in 2015 and we will be doing it again this year. The primary reason for fallowing is because of the inability of getting water deliveries. This will be a year when we will probably have above-normal rainfall, but with the reservoirs being so empty, it is going to take a while for them to fill up before there is any overage.
Unless we stay pretty wet, water deliveries will be a big challenge.
By Ed Hale, Imperial County diversified farmer
We've had a real winter this year, with rain and cold temperatures. But the valley produce season started with high temperatures and problems with stands—getting seed germination and the plants to come up.
Because of the drought and reduced crop water in other growing areas, farmers in those areas have been finishing earlier for the past few years. We've been trying to fill the gap and start earlier in the Imperial Valley with winter-grown vegetables, sometimes planting as early as September.
But that pushes the weather limits. It's often quite hot here in September. This year, one of the field managers for a big grower used a laser thermometer to measure temperature at bed level: It was 160 F. That's smokin' hot and explains why we were having problems with stands.
From that weather, we went to colder than normal. The supply gaps widened and resulted in wonderful market prices for farmers and wholesalers. People in the East still wanted to eat salad right through Christmas. A lot of vegetable growers ended up smiling.
But prices for field crop growers—corn, wheat, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa—are in the tank. Very few, even with good yields, see much of a chance for a return. That's mostly due to international commodity markets, which are beyond our control.
A strong dollar and China's economic problems are hurting us now. The world markets are in turmoil. For example, Imperial Valley durum wheat was $19.50 a hundredweight last year. Right now, it's $11. Alfalfa was $280 a ton; now, it's more like $160 a ton.
I've got market onions and new-crop alfalfa planted. I made the decision to plant alfalfa about a year and a half ago. Now, I'm regretting it. There's an awful lot of new hay out there.
But we're relieved there's growing attention on the Salton Sea and see that with improved conservation, we'll be able to end our land fallowing program and increase our production. There's a lot less furrow irrigation going on and we're seeing more overhead sprinkling of crops.
The water savings have been helping pay for investment in more pipe and conservation equipment in the field. And we're looking at redesigning our underground tiling system, placing tiles closer to the soil surface, which may save additional water.
I'm putting in shallower tile on a project I'm working on today. We'll see if that approach provides the kind of added conservation benefits we need.
By Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County diversified grower
These rainstorms are a step in the right direction, but reservoir storage is way below normal. We're encouraged by the snowpack, but we have a long way to go.
Looking at forecasts, February could be when El Niño really hits. But that's the time when we start almond bloom around here. That could be a problem, so it's not time to celebrate yet.
We get supplies through the Central Valley Project and with reservoirs at half of historical average, I'm not optimistic about irrigation water supplies for our district. I'm on the list with a well driller, but it's not clear when they'll be able to get here.
When we look at the water supply picture as a whole, it will take a lot more water in storage before we breathe a little easier. And when we do get some water, we'll need to rethink operations because we can't rely on how precipitation used to be decades ago.
By Sam Dolcini, Marin County cattle rancher
Over here on the coast just above San Francisco, we are enjoying a great winter. So far, we could not ask for better rains. No big storms yet and the ground seems to be taking almost all the moisture it can get.
Some runoff has started and smaller stock ponds are full. Bigger dams are gaining storage. Full stock ponds and filling dams is a wonderful sight.
I'm also hearing lots of reports from mushroom foragers about it being a great year, based on the rains and the timing. We're not out of the drought by a long shot, but things are looking better for this year.
The rains will also help the grass. It is dormant now, but the longer days are the first sign of the coming of warming weather and the grass will start growing.
Most beef producers have branded this year's calf crop and will be starting to give them their booster shots in the next 45 days or so. The beef market has come off some from its all-time highs, and many ranchers are wondering just where the market is going to be in June when most calves are shipped from this area.
All of the dairy producers have their silage crops planted and the crops look like they're off to a good start. These crops are just waiting for some warmer weather as well.
The organic milk market is still healthy, but the few traditional milk producers are seeing their milk check shrink. Thank goodness producers in this area have the option to ship organic milk.
By Grant Chaffin, Riverside County diversified grower
We had an early week of freezing temperatures in the low desert of Southern California in late November. This, combined with four days of freezing temperatures in early December, virtually put a stop to alfalfa production and significantly limited growth of our baby potato crop.
Potatoes are being harvested now. I expect the frost damage to decrease yields by 35 percent.
Garlic and onions were planted in late September and the crops show good germination and growth so far. Overall, I expect all commodities to continue to decline in price for 2016. Since the last quarter of 2015, commodity demand has been weak as the prices continue to slip. I expect 2016 to be a difficult year with prices already falling 20 percent to 35 percent.
We will continue to fallow 35 percent of all irrigated farm ground; that water will be diverted to the Los Angeles metropolitan area to help alleviate the drought situation. 2016 is shaping up to be a challenging year.
By Toine Overgaag , Santa Barbara County orchid grower
Even with environmentally controlled greenhouses, weather has played a role in orchid production over the last several months. Relatively hot and humid weather through October accelerated inventory.
Our sales team needed to work with customers in order to manage these levels. During this period, we were able to conduct a Breast Cancer Awareness tie-in promotion with our "Pink Diamond" orchids. Profits of over $28,000 were donated to a local organization, the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Resource Center.
When cooler temperatures arrived in November, our inventory levels dropped below forecast and are now just climbing back to expected levels. This reversed the challenge, as the sales team successfully balanced regular and seasonal orders.
In production, we continue to be challenged by some fungal issues in the early growth phases. Improved hygiene protocols for our team and a round of treatment is starting to make progress. We are setting targets for 2016 to improve this aspect of our business.
From an operations standpoint, we see that continued efforts to create an engaged workforce are paying off. An improved benefits package, better training and companywide events have helped with recruiting and turnover, lowered claims and improved engagement.
Industrywide, the last two years saw both flat overall supply and demand (as at least one direct competitor cut production). For 2016, we are expecting an increase in supply as some healthy new competition enters the market.
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