From the Fields®
By Greg Wegis, Kern County diversified grower
This drought has cost us a lot of money in rehabbing and drilling new wells to make up for the 0 percent allocation from the State Water Project. I wish we didn't have to pay for our state water, because we aren't receiving any. Some well rehabs have gone well and others have been disappointing. We have been waiting to drill two more wells for three months and we are still hoping our well driller gets to us soon. I need to have these wells operational by May 1 or we will be stressing trees. Pump companies are backed up. A common response when calling the pump companies and asking when they can get to your issue, the answer is simply, "I don't know. Let me call you back in a week or so and I'll have a better idea." That isn't very comforting, but it is reality.
Our alfalfa is looking very good. We had to spray all fields for aphid already. We will be working on our first cuttings in a week or two. Our wheat is looking good as well. No issues to report. We also will be planting tomatoes in about 10 days.
The almonds are in full bloom and we had to apply fungicides just before this rain event this weekend (March 1-2). We've had good bloom weather until now, but I'll take the rain and snow over missing a few good days of pollination. We are applying our first shot of fertilizer now. The bloom looks to be surprisingly concentrated and maybe just a few days early. We were all worried about the warm January and thinking we would see a flash bloom, but that didn't materialize. Bee quality is a lot better than last year as well.
We expect our cherries to bloom in another seven to 10 days. We had close to 1,000 hours of chill hours this winter, which is good. Our pistachios are still dormant and we are pre-irrigating.
By Mark Watte, Tulare County diversified farmer
I'm standing here watching it rain. We are all aflutter around here. Our alfalfa is coming along fine; we treated it for aphids. We will be doing our first cutting in late March if we get a break from the weather. Everything else is doing well. We have put on our third irrigation of wheat already, which is way ahead of schedule. This is indicative of how dry it has been.
Everything else is pretty quiet. Our cows are milking well. That is one good thing with the dry weather; there isn't any stress on the cows.
Of course, it is all about water. Every morning I get a call from one of my irrigators, and I just cringe with fear that there will be a report of a well failure. But we have some contingency plans. It truly is a "game-time decision" regarding crop rotation. A very common crop rotation in this area is to chop the wheat for silage and come back with corn or blackeyes as a double crop. So we will evaluate that situation and, depending on what water we will have for the summer, may cut back on the number of acres of corn and/or possibly instead of corn we will plant some sorghum, which takes less water. It is much better to have 100 percent crop on 50 percent of the acres than a 50 percent crop on 100 percent of the acres.
My first priority this summer if we run short is to discontinue irrigating the alfalfa and let it go dormant. We will short any of our row crops to support our pistachios.
Another strategy concerns cotton. We typically plant acala cotton here in Tulare County, but the pima cottons are definitely more drought-tolerant and if we are late with an irrigation, the pima withstands it much better. So I am going to scatter pima around on some of the ranches, just to give me some flexibility if that happens.
By Larry Massa, Glenn County diversified farmer
We've been feeding cattle, which is not normal for this time of year, but our pastures haven't been producing an adequate amount of grass because of the drought. It's not normal, but we've been keeping our herd going. We usually keep our cows on winter range west of Willows, but we're bringing them in sooner than usual. We've already culled pretty heavily, but still have some yearling steers. Beef prices have been phenomenal. It's the one saving grace in this crisis.
We got through the drought of 1977 without our wells going dry, but we had them tested because it has been dry for several years. Right now, we have one well that's not very strong. Whether that well or the others make it through the summer depends on how dry it gets. We've never seen it this dry before. I know people in Elk Creek who are bringing in water. They're running water trucks seven day a week, 24 hours a day.
Between buying feed and water, maintaining a herd is becoming cost prohibitive. These conditions really force you to think about your operation.
By Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County winegrape grower
The grape industry as a whole is feeling healthy. Grape and wine sales both have been excellent. Even with all the good news, all we are talking about is the drought. We use the water for two main purposes: frost protection and irrigation. The local water district has just adopted a 50 percent mandatory cutback for its customers in an effort to make the water last until this November. In addition, unless base flows at the Hopland river gauge are over 100 cubic feet per second in the Russian River, the water district will not be able to make compensatory releases to mitigate for direct diversion for frost. Farmers lucky enough to have ponds have them topped off and will be able to frost-protect. The majority of farmers don't have ponds and as a result of the low flows will not be able to protect their fruit. This is devastating news for the pear and grape farmers in our region.
Much to my disappointment, the activist community has targeted ponds. They have vandalized two ponds resulting in the loss of significant water. This has been a blow to the ag community, which has put so much time and effort to protect both the fish and their crops. Ponds are the No. 1 way to alleviate the demands on our watersheds. Today it is raining. We are all hoping for a "miracle March."
By Ed Hale, Imperial County diversified farmer
Because of the drought here in California, there's been awful lot of trucks showing up here in Southern California and Imperial Valley from the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, where they just don't have any forage. There was a period when the alfalfa hay market went up about $50 in about eight days. This seemed to coincide with Jerry Brown's disclosure that we were having a drought. After he said that, all of these trucks showed up. They bought up most of the hay that had been stacked—the summer hay from last year—and some new hay. Now, we finished our first cutting on some hay and are working towards our second. Prices, while they are not records, have definitely gone up higher than they were at the start of last year.
We're planting our field corn right now. Because of the warm weather in the desert and the cold weather back east, the produce market generally speaking was pretty atrocious…really bad prices. Warm weather in the desert leads to large size, everybody gets a crop and there's a huge crop. Then, when you have all of the cold weather that we had back east, two things happen. One, nobody wants to eat salad when it is freezing outside and second, it is very hard to get trucks back there to deliver produce. It generally depresses the heck out of the market.
The weather is fine and we're looking forward to a good corn crop. The price of corn is down a third of what it was last year. Last year, it was very high because of the drought. We're optimistically looking forward to some decent prices on it, but we don't expect to see the prices that we had last year.
By Greg Phelan, San Luis Obispo County winegrape grower
Just like everyone else, our major issue is water. Our rainfall this year is well under a half-inch. We get a few sprinkles now and then, but the extended forecast does not look too promising. So that is our first and major concern.
Along those lines, above normal temperatures for 40 days throughout December and January, when the temperatures were in the 70s and low 80s, leads to possible early bud push. We had our first signs of an early bud push out here when some ornamental almond trees had already started to bloom.
That usually gives us a heads up. When the almond trees start blooming, we are usually only about two weeks from getting some grape bud push. That is pretty early for us. It is not unheard of, but it is very early. But all that does is make the water situation even worse because we will have a longer frost protection season and more demand on our already strained water sources.
As far as our cultural operations go, we are probably 85 percent done with our pruning and we will wrap up by the middle of February with all of our pruning. After that we will be in frost protection mode, trying to keep our vines happy.
By Joe Colace Jr., Imperial County diversified grower
Through the winter, temperatures were really good except for one cold front that came through in early December. This was the same cold front that impacted so much of the San Joaquin Valley citrus. Other than that we have been running above average on our temperatures and it has had a negative impact on the vegetable crop. That coupled with the exceptionally cold weather in the East and upper Midwest, impacted shipments.
In terms of our spring crops, they all look very promising and right now they are running ahead of schedule. That could change, but we are probably running five to seven days ahead of schedule on the spring crops. The ones that we have are melons, sweet corn and citrus.
At this point the Imperial Valley is in a satisfactory position on water and we don't see any cutbacks. But we are very hypersensitive to the water shortages around and we continue to implement the best management practices possible for water management.
There are some growers who are considering going a little bit later on some of our items, which would be the melons and the corn and trying to pick up another additional week by planting 10 days to two weeks later.
The corn begins in the early part of April, and the onions begin right after that and then the melons begin in early May and we continue on until the first of July on the melons. This is the prime growing period in the Imperial Valley. There is concern about the early San Joaquin Valley melons because of the water restrictions.
Labor is adequate because the demand for product has been down. This is a Catch 22 for us, that's for sure.
By Kathye Rietkerk, San Bernardino County greenhouse producer
We are in the midst of a robust indoor plant production program, preparing for what we hope is a good spring. While January sales were slow, we have high expectations for the rest of the season.
We are also gearing up our specialty outdoor garden and patio vegetable and herb production. We've been cultivating a wide array of ethnic favorites, including more than 30-plus types of regional hot peppers.
Like many other "water conscious" agricultural operations, Kallisto Greenhouses began investing in water saving technology during the drought in the early 1990s and we continue to do so today. While we're relieved that some rain and snow has fallen on California this past week, we hope the state will receive a lot more precipitation through March.
It just makes sense that adding water storage facilities will be vital in the future as we go through times of recurring drought, such as we are currently experiencing.
By Richard Mounts, Sonoma County winegrape grower
The main thing we're doing right now is finishing pruning and tying vines. Also, before the rain hit last week, we were doing weed control, but had to stop. I'm not complaining. We really needed the rain.
Thanks to the deluge last week, we got nine inches of rain on the ranch, 13 inches to 14 inches in some of the wetter spots in the county. We didn't see any erosion or flooding, even though rainfall amounts were pretty big—most of it soaked into the ground.
The rain has helped fill the water column on our ranch and there might be enough soil moisture now to carry us to bud break. I haven't been out to dig down and check, but that's what I'm hoping.
The rain wasn't enough to fill the reservoirs, which supply us with water for frost protection. So we worry about that. On the other hand, the heavy rain has opened up some of the creeks for the salmon, which can begin moving into the tributaries to spawn.
And, we're starting to make contact with wineries. Some of our existing contracts are up for renewal and I've even had a few calls from new wineries looking to discuss contracts. We've had some tough years recently, but 2012-13 was one of the best for sales I've seen in the 40 years I've been farming.
I think that was because inventories were down and wine sale were up. We didn't get that much resistance on our prices. Negotiating contracts and sales aren't the most pleasant part of farming, but it's important to sell what you grow.
By Pete Belluomini, Kern County potato grower
We're winding up the fall potato harvest and in the midst of spring planting for the summer potatoes. We grow fresh market potatoes and we're very pleased with the market. It has been nice and solid from the fall into the winter.
The reds and yellows are selling a little slower than they have been, but that's because there's a lot coming out of storage and into the market. The whites don't lend themselves to storage, so we've been OK there.
As far as timing, we're on schedule with planting and harvesting. Quality and crop size have been very good.
We're caught up on all our field chores. Usually at this time of year, we're hustling to get things done, but with no rain to stop us, we're ahead of the work.
Like everybody, we're worried about water. That seems to be the biggest concern. We'll be OK with water for the spring crop, but by late summer and fall, it's hard to say.
We get our water from the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, which has an aggressive water banking program. But, even with those supplies, we've adopted an approach of careful water use. Some rotational crops will have to be trimmed back in our planning.
The other impact we're seeing from lack of water is local rents for row-crop land going up. We're feeling the ripple effect. If there's not enough water to grow farther north, farmers are moving down here because the water supply seems more stable.
It's getting harder to hold onto leases for vegetable ground, because of the increased demand from buyers who want to plant permanent crops like almonds.
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