From the Fields®

Issue Date: August 20, 2014
By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County Brussels sprouts farmer

We had a nice and typically foggy summer—good sprout-growing weather. It's good for the crop, but not for the tourists. We started handpicking a few weeks ago and will continue with that until the middle of September.

In years past, there wasn't much demand for early market sprouts, but that has changed and we've seen a lot of early season consumer interest in the past few years. After hand harvest is completed during the next eight weeks, we'll start harvesting with machines and then things will really ramp up.

The crop is pretty much on time and we anticipate that will continue. We started "topping" last week on the sprouts that will be machine harvested. That's usually done about 55 days before harvest.

Topping of the terminal point on the plant is done by hand to stop it from growing. Then the energy can be redirected to developing the sprouts, for nice and even maturity. Topping involves a single worker removing the terminal growth on about 13,000 plants a day, which is usually the number of plants in a one-acre field.

Labor Day is when we see demand really increase. The holidays are our big times—Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, to tell the truth, demand in the past few years has been strong all year. Our Mexican deal was great this year from January to when we quit in June.

We've seen acreage planted to Brussels sprouts go way up during the past couple of years. And water hasn't been a big problem for us yet. But there are issues now that stream flows are considerably down. Some growers have had to switch to using city water, which is much more expensive. And some acres that would have been planted to sprouts have been curtailed.

We're looking for good coastal weather in coming months, and fewer tourists on the road, as we begin the big part of our harvest.

Issue Date: August 20, 2014
By Guy Rutter, Sacramento County beekeeper

Right now we are into some hot weather, and due to the drought we have reached the point that most of the honey sources aren't there anymore. We feel that feeding bees and taking care of our bees is going to be a critical part of the rest of the season. There is a little bit of crop pollination in some areas and there may be a little bit of surplus honey that can be extracted.

Ongoing treatments for colony diseases is something we do year-round. This is part of our inspection and treatment program, as well as the feeding of the bees. Something that we have been talking about for a long time now is colony collapse and right now, if the hives are in a good area where they have some food and sources for good pollen and nectar, they are doing fine. In other areas where they are marginal, they aren't doing as well.

This year we aren't sending any hives out of state. We traveled a little bit out of the state to see what is going on and can see that there are some better floral sources due to the difference in weather there. It is kind of food for thought for the future, because if we have an extended drought into next year we won't be able to sustain much.

Our choice this year was that we would see how the weather was and now that we are into the drought, we decided to not develop more hives because it would be enough of a challenge to maintain the hives that we have. As much as we would like to do it, it just isn't in the cards.

We are hoping that we do have a few colonies that will produce honey so we can fill our orders for the rest of the year. We hope the weather cools off a little bit because we will be doing quite a bit of feeding going into the fall.

Issue Date: August 20, 2014
By Stan Lester, Yolo County diversified grower

We're almost two-thirds through our summer and a lot of crops are in harvest mode or close to it. The cherries, apricots and now peaches are all harvested.

The cherry crop was a complete wipe-out due to lack of proper chill hours for the trees. I think there were a few cherries for the birds! There was a nice apricot and peach crop: nice size, good color and very sweet. We sold a lot of this fresh and in fruit pies at our bakery. We cut and dried whatever we didn't sell fresh or in baked goods.

By the time you read this, we should be harvesting prunes or dried plums. The crop really varies this year. Some orchards have a light to normal crop; other orchards have a very light crop. Some orchards will not even be picked. Fortunately, the crop value has increased, so some growers will still harvest their small crops. This year's crop will result in very large and very sweet dried plums.

The water situation has been very difficult this year. So far we have had three wells break suction, but have been fortunate enough to only need to lower the pump bowls. We were also fortunate to have had three new wells drilled in the last two years to replace old wells that were failing. We have two other wells that are showing signs of breaking suction. We are hoping for cooler weather for the rest of the summer and fall so that there will be less need to irrigate.

We use soil moisture sensors in most of our orchards to determine the water needs of the trees. We have been doing this for the last five to six years or more. This tool has been especially helpful this year.

Most of the row crop growers have stopped irrigating the crops now, so that should help ease the pressure on the groundwater. Most of the growers in our area have never seen the groundwater level drop this low before. We have not seen groundwater levels this low even during our last severe drought of 1976-1977. I hope and pray that we have at least normal rain and snow this year; otherwise, we all will be in a very serious situation next year.

We're looking forward to a good walnut harvest starting in about five weeks. The crop looks good both in size and quality. As is happening in other tree crops, we are anticipating the crop ripening about a week earlier than normal.

In the meantime, we're wishing everyone a successful harvest season and conclusion to this difficult year.

Issue Date: August 20, 2014
By Pete Belluomini, Kern County diversified grower

Our main spring and summer potato crop is harvested and complete. The prices got pretty sloppy over the summer because big growers in the Northwestern states had more potatoes in storage than was originally reported. That hurt our prices.

Now we've started planting the fall crops, and we're working to get them going. The water situation means we have to pick and choose our planting spots. The drought has narrowed our field choices, and we have to calculate which properties have enough water to host a crop.

We can't afford to take a chance on fields where water is iffy. On some properties, the surface water source is not dependable, and we don't want to stretch wells too thin. We look at the mix of water sources and adjust our management decisions accordingly.

We've fallowed some ground, but mainly the lack of water means we're unable to double crop, and we don't have the water for rotational crops to maintain soil health and tilth. Those crops are not being done. As we get into the fall, the rotational grain crops—sudan hay, wheat, for example—aren't being planted.

In our situation, we haven't stopped farming and we're trying to be water smart. We're working with six-month, prorated water allotments, which can be used up in a week or stretched out over six months, but basically that's all we got.

There are a lot of permanent crops in our water district—citrus and grapes—so growers have had to protect those crops for the long term. Some row crops just didn't get planted.

Overall, we budgeted and we were conservative with our water use. When it's all said and done, we'll come out of the season just fine. But nobody has a crystal ball; the drought is still a long way from being over.

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Jim Durst, Yolo County diversified farmer

HOT! HOT! HOT!

This is a short description of the summer of 2014.

We went into this year knowing water would be tight and we have set aside some acres without planting.

We ordered a new well to be drilled last October and after repeated delays by drillers, we finally had it online and running on July 18 (original commitment was May). With this delay, we were forced to deficit-irrigate some of our crops.

We are in the middle of our fresh tomato harvest, beginning early again this year.

Watermelon harvest began in early July and is proceeding on schedule with smaller sizes on our first plantings.

Warm weather is bunching up some plantings, with second and third plantings of cherry tomatoes all showing color at the same time. Spotted wilt virus has struck many varieties in our first planting of cherry tomatoes and we are making efforts to keep it out of our later plantings. We feel causation was a result of disease presence, deficit irrigation, humidity and hot weather creating stressful conditions.

We are on our fourth cutting of alfalfa, with good yields and pricing this year.

We are all hopeful of normal or above normal rainfall this year to recharge our aquifers and lakes, not only for agriculture, but also for all the critters that are having a hard time with exceptionally dry habitat this year.

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By George Tibbitts, Colusa County rice farmer

It's common knowledge that the California drought has had a significant impact on the state rice acreage in 2014. Some rice ground has been left idle for the year, or when possible planted to other crops that use less water.

The first official USDA estimate (from its June 30 report) was that our planted rice acres are down 13 percent (71,000 acres) from 2013. But many people in the industry here (growers, millers, etc.) feel that the decline is much greater than that, along the lines of 20 to 30 percent. The reduction in the amount of planting seed that was sold for this season—if the anecdotal reports I hear are true—backs that contention up. The general consensus is that USDA, as it obtains more data over the next several months, will be sharply revising downwards its estimate of California's rice acreage for 2014.

However many acres there really are, in general they look pretty good. And the crop has grown fast too. Butte County farm advisor Cass Mutters reports that in the 2014 Statewide Variety Trials, panicle initiation was ahead of the expected plant development schedule by about seven days. I think this is a sign that the rice plants are thriving. But I remember another year when the rice grew fast, and we ended up having a lot of lodging. I hope that is not the case this year, as it would greatly slow down the harvest.

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Ken Doty, Santa Barbara County citrus/avocado grower

Our rain total was 7.7 inches, about 40 percent of normal. We also had some unusually warm days in late May.

The older I get, the more sense my dad's comments make. He often remarked there was no such thing as an average year—this one is no exception.

Like a lot of other people around the state, we're struggling with water supplies for irrigation and have taken steps to conserve. Our well levels are declining, along with water quality. We've probably got 10 weeks of irrigation left and worry we won't get through without significant shortage.

On the avocado side, we're down to our last week of harvest. It is a good crop, with good quality, but down nearly two full sizes. That represents a 30 percent loss of volume compared to a more normal size curve.

Harvest timing was a bit tough. In general, California's avocado crop was small and early maturing, so getting it off through the summer months should have been at great prices. Turned out, large-scale imports from Peru wreaked havoc in the market, knocking 20 cents off the price.

But you've got to love lemons. We escaped any freeze damage this year, and with tight supplies, prices have been fantastic. We had good crop quality, but down on the usual size curve.

The drought has prompted us to take several steps. We have abandoned four small areas of avocados that are badly infected with root rot. They needed to be removed anyway.

We've also spent a great deal of time and effort applying organic mulch in our lemon blocks. It seems to be extending our irrigation interval from two weeks up to three weeks, which is a huge help. If our water supply situation gets worse, we'll short the lemons before the avocados.

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Mike Vukelich, Contra Costa County nursery grower

We got a late start on the planting season because of rains in March, which slowed down retail business. April and May were pretty good for nursery sales, but then they started talking about the drought and everything went downhill.

People aren't buying garden plants like they used to, but that was even before the drought. Surveys for the past 10 years have been showing us people are spending more and more time indoors with email and video games. They're not outside gardening.

So when the current drought is added to sales declines, nurseries are sweating it out this summer. The first week of July was OK, but then it really took a drop. I don't know what's going to happen in August.

Growers have so many plants; they may have to throw some of them out.

We've got big crops coming—chrysanthemums—that we hope people are going to buy starting in September. In October and November, we have cyclamen coming, followed by poinsettias. These crops are coming along nicely. We just don't know where the market is going to be.

We hope the poinsettia business will continue strong, because they aren't a plant used outdoors that needs to be watered. We're hoping that crop won't be affected by the lack of water.

But I am worried about sales of the chrysantheumum crop because of the drought.

Issue Date: August 6, 2014
By Mark Watte, Tulare County diversified farmer

Water is No. 1 on everybody's minds. Our crops look good across the board. We have been a couple days late getting around here and there, but generally speaking, we have not had any widespread water-stress issues that will have any yield impacts. Our earliest pistachios are beginning to split, which means we are probably looking at starting to shake in mid-August, which is at least two weeks ahead of normal. But so far it doesn't look like we will have too many blanks. We were concerned because of the uneven bloom that we had this spring, but it looks like it is coming along fine and it looks like the yields could be pretty good.

The cotton crop looks exceptionally good, especially our pima cotton. We have had higher than normal temperatures, which has served the pima very well. We are actually very excited about that because the price of pima is high and the prospects are very good.

The price of milk is good and the only down side is that the cost of forage is through the roof. All of the costs are up, but dairying is still profitable, so that is a bright spot for us.

We are looking for the finish line, the light at the end of the tunnel. We just hope it's not a train. All in all, things are going to be OK for this year. Next year is the big question mark. We have pulled all of our tricks and used up all of our mulligans. If we don't get some significant snow this winter to create some surface supplies, I don't know what is going to happen next year, I really don't.

Issue Date: July 23, 2014
By Keith Watkins, Tulare County citrus grower

We have wrapped up the navels, lemons and mandarins for the year. We are finishing up on the red grapefruit right now and we are still picking valencias. We are trying to find enough water to keep everything alive. We are doing a lot of pump repair because a lot of our wells are having problems. We also are doing a little bit of applying agricultural chemicals for red scale, as well as fertilization and whitewash for sun protection.

Our citrus crops varied across the board. Production was down and packouts were down considerably because of freeze damage, but we were able to get a lot of fruit packed because of the equipment they have for sorting with electronics in the packinghouses. Overall, citrus yields were down, but revenue was up as prices were very good on citrus.

We are applying chemicals before harvest in a lot of our areas because of the Asian citrus psyllid quarantine. It is an added expense, but I think it is very important. It will be interesting to see the numbers this fall and what kind of movement there has been. The next flush of growth on the trees is when you really find it.

We are depending on groundwater in a majority of our areas. We did buy some of the high-priced surface water through the Friant system in some areas where we don't have groundwater supplies. We are now seeing some problems with our shallow wells in some of the areas that have had historically good water supplies. So the groundwater level is dropping. We need a wet winter and some regulatory issues need to be resolved.

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