From the Fields®
By Frost Pauli, Mendocino County winegrape grower
Bud break came early in Mendocino County and we have been playing catch-up ever since.
The pear crop looks average, with an extended bloom having just finished up. We have been busy spraying for blight and scab because of the mild and humid weather.
Winegrapes are about two weeks ahead of normal, but the great news is we have had very little frost, so our reservoirs are still full. Grapes in the North Coast are still a few weeks away from bloom depending on variety, but initial cluster counts look promising.
The market for both grapes and bulk wine has been strong since the end of February, with most growers being fully contracted with a few exceptions for certain varieties.
On the down side, it looks like labor costs are about 10 percent higher this year than last due to a number of factors.
By Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County diversified farmer
I have good news and bad news. The good is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is giving North State agriculture 100 percent of their contracts of water supply. The 100 percent allocation means the cost of water has gone down significantly, making it cheaper than groundwater pumping in most cases.
Being able to keep the wells turned off will help the declining groundwater levels recover some. The bad news: We had to drill two wells last year, plus purchase expensive transferred water supplies. We are still drilling one more well this year.
The almond crop and prune crop do not look as good as the bloom suggested.
The almond bloom had one of the best overlaps between varieties that we have ever seen. The bloom was strong and fast, but I think it was so fast that the bees didn't have enough time to do a good pollination. As a result the crop is lighter than expected, especially on the nonpareils. Hopefully, the lower crop will reverse the falling almond prices we have seen since last harvest.
The prune crop is very light this year, and talking to other growers and industry people, it looks like the state crop is going to be very light.
We got to about 25 percent bloom, and then the heavy rains started and continued until the bloom, was done. Most years, prunes will set a good crop with wet weather, but usually there are breaks in the weather so the bees can do their job. But this year, the rains never stopped during bloom, thus the bees did not get a chance to work.
The prices for the 2015 prune crop have fallen by more than $800 per ton compared to the 2014 crop. Hopefully, with the light crop being predicted, there is still enough time for marketing the remaining 2015 crop supplies at an elevated price due to the upcoming shortage, and improve the average price.
Every grower I talk to is disgusted with the direction the state is going in the cost of doing business. The new $15 per hour minimum wage, payroll taxes going up 50 percent and the proposed 40-hour workweek will not work in an agricultural environment, plus all the other regulations. It is going to force farmers to continue to look to more mechanization and technology to reduce labor costs.
Agriculture has a history of developing labor-saving equipment that is now commonly used and increased labor costs are going to fuel the next round of intensive development of equipment and technology to reduce labor costs.
Oh, did I say there was some good news? We have water this year!
By Jamie Johansson, Butte County olive and citrus farmer
It's been a couple of years, but the return of a spring where pastures and orchards actually turned green is a welcome one. Even more stunning is the return of wildflowers. Last year at this time we had already gone through one full irrigation cycle in the olive orchards, but with nearly 10 inches of March rain on the farm, compared to 1 inch in 2015, it looks like we will return to a traditional irrigation schedule starting the last week of April.
On the citrus side, the Meyer lemon trees are halfway through a heavy spring bloom and thankfully mild winter temperatures meant a lot less hand labor pruning out deadwood later in the year. The new blood orange orchard has really taken off with the heavy March rainfall and 70-degree days, but probably more so because of their first fertilizer application in late February. They actually look like trees now, but what labor savings we have with the lemons will be spent on pruning in the blood oranges.
The higher water level of Lake Oroville and return of wildflowers on Table Mountain has brought in more visitors from outside of Butte County to our farm. Without a doubt, the No. 1 conversation we have with visitors to our tasting room concerns the lake. While Lake Oroville has made a recovery, the recent opening of the spillway has created a lot of skepticism with those outside of agriculture concerning how we manage water in California. It is a welcomed conversation and one that will only grow throughout the summer as continued drought restrictions remain in place.
The weeks ahead will keep us busy with suckering trees, mowing, seasonal irrigation maintenance and gearing up for the start of our seasonal farmers markets.
By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower
What a contrast to see the foothills and grain and hay fields verdant and waving in the north breeze: another amazing example of how quickly things can (and do) change weather-wise here in arid and unpredictable Northern California. I don't know if there is an appropriate label for this turnaround, such as "March Miracle," but Shasta and Oroville were at 31.4 percent and 28 percent of capacity on the 31st of December and today are at 91 percent and 92 percent, respectively.
With the much improved water situation, it appears that the majority of the water districts, at least north of the delta, will have a 100 percent supply for 2016. For those of us in the Colusa Basin who operate chiefly from water rights issued by the state of California, it will likely mean that we will not receive notices curtailing our rights in May, as has been the case for the last two years.
That situation left many of us in the Colusa Basin with no choice but to fallow large amounts of rice land. In some instances, we were able to cobble together enough groundwater and some purchased water to get at least a small amount of acreage planted to rice. While there are no guarantees that return flows in the Colusa Basin Drain and tributaries will be adequate, at least our water rights will be valid and we can pump what is available.
Historically in California, the returns for rice have generally moved inverse to supply, and coasting into these last two years with sharply reduced acreage, it was thought that would continue to be the case. Unfortunately, with the sharp reduction in the production of California medium grain, coupled with the fact that California rice is priced at a premium over Southern medium grain, Southern medium-grain acreage has more than doubled, to the extent that overall medium-grain production in the U.S. has actually increased.
Despite the fact that returns for California medium grain are disappointing, rice plantings in the state will likely increase, as few cropping alternatives exist. In addition, while there is apparently need of additional water supplies south of the delta, transfer water is a lower priority with respect to movement through the delta pumping systems. As such, any transfer water from the Sacramento River settlement contractors as a result of fallowing of rice lands would not be available to south-of-delta interests in a timely manner.
We have all our equipment in the fields, many of which have not been planted for two seasons. From the standpoint of soil husbandry and stewardship, it will be most interesting to see how the fallowing will affect the overall rice culture, weed control and most importantly, production.
By Jake Samuel, San Joaquin County diversified farmer
We are cherry and walnut growers in the Linden area and we have been busy with spring activities being well underway.
Cherries have finished blooming and we are now finishing our small fruit nutrient and mildew spray on all varieties, from about March 21 on. The bloom was staggered between the rain for late and early varieties as well. Warmer February temperatures brought on an earlier bloom, about seven to10 days. This helped orchards split the heavy rainfall we had in a span of 10 days in early March.
Reports of crop set are coming in from the area and we are hearing that due to factors of rain and early bloom set, orchards are either set well or spotty throughout. We will know how well the crop looks once there is some color showing.
As for the walnuts, we are wrapping up pruning, again delayed by rain. Most varieties like Vinas, Serrs, Howards and Tulares are well underway with blight sprays. Chandlers and Hartleys are in the beginning to middle stages of catkin expansion and "prayer" stages, so we will be addressing blight sprays in early April.
Weeds will be addressed as well this month, as long as we are mindful of walnut suckering and cherry preharvest intervals.
By Joe Colace, Imperial County diversified farmer
We are enjoying beautiful weather. A few days ago, there was a significant wind that brought the temperatures down a little bit, but for the most part the lower desert has enjoyed exceptional growing weather. Since the middle of February until now, with the exception of two fronts, the weather has been ideal.
We did start our sweet corn on March 28, which is tied for the earliest that we have started in the last 26 years. The quality is very nice, so that is full steam ahead. Most of our sweet corn is sold west of the Rockies. We are involved in the packaged corn that also goes into the Midwest.
The melon crop looks to be on schedule to start on April 29 or 30, which is three to five days ahead of where we typically start. We currently are receiving watermelons out of Mexico and cantaloupes from Mexico will start at the end of this week. Here in the Imperial Valley, we have all of the melons, cantaloupes, watermelons, honeydew and all of the variety melons. We have everything that the consumer will enjoy.
We are currently picking grapefruit. We have completed all of the lemons and mandarins and those trees have good sets for the next crop. We can see starting the lemons at the end of August or first of September, and then all of the mandarin types will start in November.
Labor right now is good. We don’t have an issue. Right now we have all local labor, either the day-pass workers coming out of Mexico or the local people.
By Ron Macedo, Stanislaus County diversified farmer
We are getting a lot of the winter forage crops off right now. They are a mixture of oats, wheat and barley, so chopping is in full swing. The almonds in this area have all leafed out and they are looking very good. It is too early to tell what the crop will be.
The water situation looks much better than last year. We aren’t completely out of the woods yet, but we are looking a lot better. We are looking forward to a good growing season. Commodity prices are down for a lot of the feed crops, and almonds as well. So there is a lot of concern about ground prices and rents and those type of expenses.
We are still a few months away from planting pumpkins. We are still thinking of ideas and corn maze ideas. We plant more than 50 varieties of pumpkins. The pumpkins and corn maze have done very well. We have a great location. We actually got about 11,000 people at the corn maze last year.
By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower
Out in the vineyard, things are early again this year. It is about the same as last year, which was a very early year. The crews are just finishing pruning, which is a little bit late because of the tight labor supply. The problem with being late is that now we have to catch up with everything else once these vines start growing—tying, suckering and all those things. But the labor supply is really tight.
We did get some significant amounts of rain in early March—five to six inches in the Lodi area, which is really good. That helps our groundwater situation.
It has been warm and then cool, so we haven't had any problems with powdery mildew. We started spraying last week to protect the vines from mildew. We will continue to do that to protect the vines. We haven't had any problems with insects and pests.
We could have an earlier harvest since we had an early spring. We did last year, but you don't really know what the summer will bring. If we get a cool summer, maybe not.
The majority of our vines are machine harvested. We only hand pick our old vine zinfandel and last year we actually did take out some of those vines because of the low production and the labor situation, which makes it harder and harder to keep them in the ground because of the economics. A lot of these old vines are going to be disappearing because of mechanization that needs to be on the forefront.
By Jenny Holtermann, Kern County almond grower
In the southern end of the valley, we have had very little rain this month and this winter.
Our region was expecting more rain, but most of the rain fell in the northern part of the state with very little coming down south. While we were hoping for more rain, at least some of the reservoirs that hold our district water are starting to reach normal levels.
With little rain this winter, we have had to start irrigating our almond orchards already. We are also fertilizing right now and since we started irrigating, we are able to add the fertilizer through our drip system.
Back in February, we had good pollination weather and now the almonds are starting to grow in size. The trees are full, green and we are starting to keep an eye out for rust and any potential naval orangeworm issues that could pop up.
The crop is growing rapidly and just another sign that harvest will be here before you know it.
By Daniel Bays, Stanislaus County diversified farmer
After a dry February, the moisture at the beginning of March was a welcome sight in our area, especially for those growing dryland wheat this winter. With the wind and sunshine we have had recently, the fields have dried out again and things are getting busy.
Most people have been irrigating their permanent crops for the past few weeks now and getting their springtime fertilizer applied. The weeds have taken off growing as well, so weed sprayers and flail mowers are a common sight.
The almond crop looks about average for most fields. We had a quick bloom with warm weather that allowed the bees good conditions to work in, but not a lot of time. The apricots look like they have a much better crop than at this point last year, and we assume this is due to better chilling hours this past winter.
Pruning in walnut orchards is finishing up and most walnut orchards are beginning to leaf out and wake back up. Tomato transplanting started in the area last week and most row crop farmers are beginning to do bed prep in their tomato, bean and melon fields.
It looks to be another tight year for water in this area. Most districts are anticipating a meager water allocation from the CVP, which will mean fallowed fields and an increased dependence on groundwater.
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