From the Fields®
By Chris Lange, Tulare County diversified grower
We are still harvesting navel oranges, Minneola tangelos and lemons. Our estimates for the year's crop were low; we are harvesting more than we anticipated. The fruit quality is good, but there are indications that it is on a quick decline and that could be attributed to the early maturity, the mild weather from the winter and a few hot days. There is concern in the industry that some of this fruit is going south pretty fast.
On livestock, due to the drought I was forced to sell off 75 percent of my herd. Also because of the lack of availability of organic hay, we were forced to surrender our organic certification, so we are now back in the traditional cow-calf operation where we are not feeding organic materials necessarily. Unfortunately, it is a consequence of the drought. You have to make do with what you've got and nonorganic hay was what we had. We successfully harvested winter oats and much surprisingly, we ended up with a pretty decent crop. I'm probably going to have surplus hay because my livestock numbers are down, so that's a bright spot.
We've got an enormous olive bloom. It is way too early to judge how much is going to set and produce olives, but it is one of the biggest blooms we've had in years, so this coming year's olive crop looks very promising. The canners and growers really need a strong crop to compensate for those crops that have been short.
Our huge concern is water. I go to about two water meetings a week. We are on waiting lists for water and we don't know if it will become available and we don't know the price, but it is not going to be cheap. The key factor is our wells held up last year. We were pleased with their performance. Will they do the same this summer? We're keeping our fingers crossed.
By John Duarte, Stanislaus County nursery operator
What we're seeing with the drought is a lot of growers with alfalfa and cotton ground are finding that it is a good time to plant new orchards—particularly almond orchards—because for the first couple of years they take less than an acre-foot of water. While water is constrained, it is a good time to transfer over to permanent crops. It's a gamble either way. You idle the ground and grow nothing, or you plant a new orchard and hope that the drought alleviates and that there is water as the orchard gets more mature.
Tree sales are still very good. We've seen a lot of demand for nut trees, particularly almonds and walnuts. There's also a lot of pistachio plantings going in. Citrus is doing well in the easy-peel market, especially if there is water. If they have water, they are making money in citrus. But, generally, there is a slow-down in traditional citrus plantings because of the drought. We are not seeing a lot of interest in cherries, cling peaches, prunes or olives. There's almost no return that would compete with growing other crops. All of the nut crops are returning well on the investment.
The grapevine side of things in the Central Valley is mainly for raisin and table grapes. We don't see a lot of south San Joaquin winegrapes going in, but there are some, mainly pinot gris. With the coastal wineries—a little bit more premium end of the wine market—we're seeing a lot of interest in new plantings. The higher end of the market is making money.
We've been selling a lot more of our larger-format grapevines. We do a 24-inch MagnumVine and a 36-inch UberVine, which are much bigger grapevines than are normally planted. They've been growing in popularity. They bring the growers into production faster and they minimize field labor. We've been doing them for about five years and growers are seeing results and starting to do more. I think other nurseries are picking up on it as well, so that is a trend that we are seeing.
Right now in grapevines, growers are very concerned about virus in the nursery stock, so we've increased testing tremendously in our quality assurance. There's more discussion about certified grapevines and making sure grafting material is virus-free. Raisins are doing well. Table grapes are doing very well. We don't do a lot of table grapes at our nursery, but I understand there is acreage going in.
In the last decade, nurseries have developed and expanded peach-almond hybrids on rootstocks, so salt tolerance with the peach-almond hybrids is showing very good performance. We can do better almond growing on some of the groundwater basins than we used to be able to do. They are tolerating more salt and lower-quality water, but of course, there is always a limit.
By Jonnalee Henderson, Colusa County nut grower
With most fungicides sprayed before last week's rainstorm, first rounds of nitrogen applied and strips sprayed, spring activities are definitely underway in the almonds. If we can keep water on them this summer, it seems that yields across the county are up from last year.
We are using every tool in the toolbox to monitor moisture and make the most of every inch of water we might get. Depending on the ranch, these tools include a mix of: Sentek moisture probes, Watermark Irrometers and old-fashioned hand probing and pressure bombing.
One of the more fun things to report is that seven of the eight owl boxes located at one of our orchards have owls sitting on eggs. My cousin and I recently attached his iPhone to a painter's pole, put it at the box opening and videotaped them. This is at least the third year in a row that our owls have made the boxes their homes, and gopher damage has decreased tremendously since installing them.
In the walnuts, the catkins are falling rapidly and pistillate flowers are emerging. Pollination weather has been favorable, but with only 630 chilling hours reported in Colusa County by the first signs of bloom, time will tell what effect that will have on yields. Most research indicates walnuts need at least 800 hours for a good set, but with many factors to consider (fog, exact temperature, variety), this might be the year the research is put to the test.
By Richard Mounts, Sonoma County winegrape grower
We are not quite as bad off as so much of the state as far as rain and water goes. It comes in buckets or nothing, but we had big rainstorms during the winter that filled most of the reservoirs. We just got about 2 inches of rain in this last storm that came through, so that set us up pretty well. Water-wise, we’re better than most; we are very lucky.
We grow 14 different varieties on the property. Our primary varieties are zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and grenache. We are two to three weeks early in the season. Where we would normally be just considering the start of shoot removal and those jobs, we are halfway through it. Right now we are in the middle of shoot removal or suckering, which takes off the unwanted shoots just leaving the shoots that you want to bear fruit for the year. Labor is tight, but personally, we’ve been all right. I’ve hired a few extra people who have worked for me in years past, so we’re getting by. Things go a little slower than maybe you’d want, but maybe because of the earliness of the year, we’ll have a little more time to get it done with a smaller crew. We are keeping our fingers crossed. One of the guys that I hired usually does construction, but it hasn’t started yet, so he is willing to work for a month or two and help get us through.
Everyone is complaining that we have a fair amount of vines that aren’t coming out right. Nobody really has an answer for it. Then there are others saying the lingering effects of the drought are affecting some vines that maybe don’t have as strong of a root system that are slow to come out, but nobody really knows. It is really disheartening if you spend enough time in the vineyard and you see vines that were healthy last year not growing very well this year.
It is a little too early to tell crop size, although most people are saying they are seeing immature bunches and it seems to be a pretty average, good crop. Most have two bunches on them, which would be really amazing if we have a third or a fourth good crop without a miss. We shall see. We still haven’t finished the frost season yet. We still have another two or three weeks to worry about frost.
Wine sales continue to be good and grape sales follow along with that. I’ve had numerous calls from the wineries that I deal with that want to be reassured that they will get at least the same amount of fruit that they got last year, if not more. That is the biggest bright spot. The market seems to be good. As long as people keep drinking wine, we will keep producing grapes.
By Adam Boles, Glenn County rice and row crop grower
Water is at a premium at this time of year. We are still waiting to assess the outcome of the decisions regarding water deliveries. Rice farmers in our area are anxious to get started, but everyone is unsure of water deliveries and quantities at this point.
Last year, we had to fallow some rice fields because they weren't able to have water delivered to them, and some of our wells were starting to get pretty short of water towards the end of the year. There were some shrinking water levels. This will be a big concern again this year and as we near that midsummer peak need, we will find out what our wells can do.
The almond trees have completed their bloom and bees are moving on to their next location. General orchard maintenance and spraying is going on.
We are all optimistic about a good 2015, even with the short water.
By Pete Belluomini, Kern County potato, carrot and citrus farmer
We haven't begun harvesting potatoes in Kern County yet; it will be about a month before it begins. Right now, we're harvesting in the Imperial Valley. It looks like it will be about four more weeks on the deal.
By the end of April, we should be back here. Then it will be full-speed ahead harvesting here. All our potatoes are grown for the fresh markets and all the varieties are the same in Kern County and Imperial Valley. The difference is in timing the crop and harvest.
But we're diversified potato growers from top to bottom—from seeds to growing, packaging, marketing. We wear tennis shoes and field boots. We're producing as close to year-round as we can make it.
Besides fresh potatoes, we also grow carrots, onions, citrus, grapes and almonds. Added to that mix is a certified organic growing operation. We've been growing organic crops since 1997 and production has grown to be almost as big or bigger than the conventional side.
We're rockin' and rollin'. Besides fresh-market potatoes, we've got early onions and carrots that we'll harvest in the summer. Our rotational crops—wheat and forage hay—are coming up for harvest.
I'm excited about the organic side of the company. I've got some garlic that looks excellent and some canning tomatoes and fresh, whole heirloom tomatoes, which we've gotten into growing in the last few years.
Those crops have been transplanted in the past few weeks and they're taking off. Also in the organics, we have a bell pepper program and those are going in too. Basically, we're harvesting potatoes and rotation crops, but the other crops are off and running.
Of course, we're worried about water. It's the No. 1 thing on everyone's mind. It's scary. We had some rainfall day-to-day during the winter—a quarter inch here, a half inch there. It makes farming so much better and it's nice to re-educate ourselves about how to work in the wet fields.
As far as our surface irrigation water, we're looking at a much tighter contract prorate for deliveries than we had about a year ago in our area. Hopefully, most of us are going to make it.
We're in it for the long haul. But if we have to cut back and be smart so we can secure the long haul, we will.
But droughts are cyclical and we want to be one of the growers left standing, so we'll slow down production if we have to.
By Grant Chaffin, Riverside County diversified farmer
It has been an unseasonably warm winter. The first two weeks of January provided reasonable winter weather. We started our alfalfa harvest in early February, about two to three weeks early.
Because of the warm winter, our aphid pressure has been uncharacteristically high. Where our typical insecticide aphid application would last 30 to 45 days, we are only getting mild/moderate suppression for seven to 14 days. Once again, we find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage with our competing alfalfa growers across the Colorado River in Arizona that have the ability to use Sivanto, a very effective material for aphid control.
With the warm winter temperatures, we were able to plant cotton the first part of March and it is off to a good start. Again, our Arizona cotton growers will probably get to use Transform for aphid and whitefly control, while we California cotton growers will probably not. Having the ability to use these latest chemistries makes a huge impact on the bottom line.
Our garlic has entered the cloving stage and progresses nicely. We anticipate harvest in early July.
By Kenny Watkins, San Joaquin County walnut grower and beef producer
We keep hoping for rain. The light soils in the pastures are starting to dry up and the hay that should get another 30 days of growing will have to be cut very soon. We grow a dryland forage mix that we feed to our cattle. We just never got those last few rains that we were hoping would come through. This has just speeded up everything that we have to do.
The cows are fat and happy at the moment, but it is not going to last long. We are mostly fall calvers, but I carry the cows all year round on the ranch, and there isn't much available for them to eat to carry them over to next year.
We've always had walnuts. I am gearing up to start spraying. Right now, we are waiting to see what kind of crop is set, based on the winter that we had. The bloom was good, but who knows how this strange winter we had will affect the crop.
But farmers are resourceful. We will figure out a way to get by. We are lucky in our area that we will be able to come up with enough groundwater and a little bit of surface water to be able to irrigate our crops. We are a lot better off than growers in other parts of the state.
By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County Brussels sprouts farmer
We're plowing right now and getting ready for fumigating so we can start planting in about a month. Because we plant the same ground in Brussels sprouts every year, the nematodes would get out of control if we didn't properly prepare the soil.
We finished harvesting the last crop in mid-January. Harvest went smoothly because it was dry. But we need some rain, because the ground is drying out too quickly.
We hope we'll get some rain here pretty soon or we'll have to irrigate before we can fumigate, which is a hassle. I hate to irrigate that much ground before you even plant it. Normally, there's some moisture in the soil, but not this year.
But we're coming off of a good year, better than normal. The market was good, especially with the added acreage in Monterey County. But people are planting in Gilroy and Oxnard. People are jumping in because we've been having good prices.
When you look at all the new acres that have been added, it gives you an idea how strong consumer demand is. It used to be that 65 percent of the crop went to processing, but now it's probably 30 percent and the rest goes to fresh.
The public prefers fresh sprouts and we're sourcing from all over because people want to eat fresh. For us, Canada is a big export market. Once it gets cold there, they look to us for 100 percent of their fresh market supply.
We're hoping the strong market continues and expect to plant about the same number of acres. We think we can get through with the water we have this year, but if it doesn't rain, I'm not sure about next year. There are some growers experiencing water issues and they may cut back this year.
Wells are going dry and those who depend on surface water are going to be in trouble, unless it rains. The streams in our area are flowing at levels we normally see in June. It's scary when you're growing on the coast and look out and see all the water in the ocean.
By Henry Giacomini, Shasta County beef producer
Normally, this would be a quiet time. The cows are turned out on winter range and they're starting to calve. Grass is pretty good and we hope it rains to support spring grass.
But actually, we're very busy. We had a huge storm come through the Hat Creek Valley and it just about wiped us out. It was a serious windstorm that did a lot of damage. We lost tons of big trees and most buildings on the ranch had some degree of damage. Small outbuildings were crushed or blew away. Every fence on the ranch has been impacted.
We're totally preoccupied right now with cleanup—getting timber and slash piled up, rebuilding fences, reshaping ditches. Everything was impacted and we're swamped with work.
The livestock has had to take care of itself. Normally this is a time for gradual preparation for spring and summer, but right now we're looking at a hell of a mess. I know this wasn't a big news event, but it sure had an impact on us.
It remains to be seen how the drought will affect us. We don't rely on water from the government water projects. We rely on Hat Creek and our supplies depend on flow and how well it holds up.
But nobody anticipates our water supply will be good. Last year, our flows got pretty low and we had to drop some irrigated acres because we didn't have the water. We figure it will be the same and hope it won't be worse.
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