From the Fields®

Issue Date: September 7, 2016
By Joe Colace, Imperial County diversified grower

For the lower desert, there is not a lot that is taking place over the last couple months because we are in the hottest time of the year. But we have begun the lemon harvest, which is one of the early harvests for the new fall season. That is progressing nicely. It is a crop that looks very similar to a year ago.

We are in the beginning stages of growing the fall melons. Also, broccoli and cauliflower transplants are just starting to go in. Most of the activity taking place right now is ground preparation and early planting. We have had very little summer rain. Most of the monsoons have stayed in eastern and central Arizona, so everyone seems to be ahead of schedule for the upcoming season.

Issue Date: September 7, 2016
By John Vevoda, Humboldt County dairy farmer

We're trying to get ready for winter. The pasture is starting to get shorter. In organic, we have to pasture our cows.

The field corn is looking good for silage. Looks like it's going to be a good crop this year. It's organic, so you can't spray, but it looks like there's no real pests in them this year. Harvest is probably another three or four weeks out.

We're also getting ready to do our last cuttings of grass silage. Most of us have wrapped up the grass clover silage for the year. Some guys might get one more cutting.

Irrigation is coming to a close here soon, because temperatures have been down in the 50s in the morning. The grass is going to stop growing here shortly. The pastures are good this year. They dried up a little bit early because we didn't get any late rains. Prior to that, we had plenty of rain during the winter, and in the springtime we had good growth. It was a much more positive grass year this year, compared to last year.

Milk production was slow in the beginning of the year, but I think most guys had pretty good production from their pastures this year. Right now, it's starting to slow down because it's fall.

In this area, we depend a lot on our grass rather than hay, silage and grain. I think for the most part, the majority of us had a good year.

On the organic side, we're all bracing to get price cuts. There's too much milk out there now. There was a shortage and now there's an oversupply. Demand has flattened out, but some of it has to do with conventional milk prices being so low.

Because of that, we're starting to pull our horns in. Nobody is buying any new equipment. Nobody is making any huge investments in their operation. We're all just bracing to see what's going to take place.

Issue Date: September 7, 2016
By Henry Giacomini, Shasta County beef producer

We had a great spring in terms of moisture. It kicked things off and pushed us into summer, especially in the rangeland, to where we had a pretty good year. The cows look to be in good condition; the calves look a little heavier. We won't know for sure until we bring them home and wean them, but all in all, on rangelands it was a good summer for us.

On irrigated pastures, it was a better year because of water availability. We had more surface water, so it kept those costs lower, and production is good. The haying is done and things are slow right now. We will pick it up again at the end of summer and it will get very busy for us.

The downside is that cattle prices are down. I would say that calves are bringing as much as a thousand dollars less than they were two years ago. That is going to make a big difference when it is all said and done.

Everyone is going to have to deal with, how are we going to move forward in this kind of a price cycle? We know it isn't going to be short-lived. It is likely to be this way, and could even get worse.

The hay market is also way down. We are anticipating being able to acquire hay for the winter at pretty reasonable prices. On the other hand, if you are a hay grower trying to make a profit, I don't think that is working out very well. And there is a lot of hay produced up here.

Issue Date: September 7, 2016
By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

We have finished harvest of four varieties so far and we are now starting on our red varieties. Timewise, it is about the same as last year. The chardonnay grapes are off about 10 to 15 percent from last year, and some of the other varieties are normal or a little bit above normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. Quality looks good; they are clean and uniform.

Labor is always a problem and it gets worse every year. We have a lot of old-vine zinfandel and we are taking out some of those blocks this year due to labor demands. We will switch over to vines on trellises that can be machine harvested. We are transitioning to maintain the economic viability of that ground. These old-vine grapes are hand harvested and they produce very low tonnage. We can grow red zin on wire and get a lot more tons per acre. The economics really come into play.

Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower , It has been a generally favorable growing season for rice this year, at least in my opinion.

On balance, our rice crop looks pretty good this year, both on the better soils around Delevan and the tough, heavy clay soils out in the Colusa Basin.

With the annual uncertainty with respect to the status of our water rights and supplies along the Colusa Basin Drain, we rarely get much planting done before about the 5th of May, this year being no exception, with our last fields having been sown May 23.

With the announcements of full supplies for the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, several of those districts draining into the Colusa Basin above us, we were much more confident that there would be return flows available to pump under our appropriative rights, which have not been curtailed this season. As such, we planted all the available rice lands, many hundreds of which acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015.

While I had hoped that several years of fallowing might reduce the weed pest pressure, we experienced what seemed to me to be an inordinate amount of sprangletop and barnyardgrass pressure in a number of the fields. Again, the crop protection materials available to control these pests didn't seem to be up to the task, due I presume to continuing biotype resistance, particularly with respect to the sprangletop.

With all our applications complete for the year, with the possible exception of some treatment for blast or aggregate sheath spot and stem rot, it's pretty much keep the water on the rice, think positive with respect to upcoming yields and, of paramount importance, successfully market the very large 2016 California rice crop. That is, by most accounts, going to be challenging.

Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Norm Yenni, Sonoma County hay and grain grower

Farm markets are cyclical. What goes up will come down. A few years back, hay was very profitable. This year, it's not fun being a hay farmer. Hay prices are down, and it's definitely a buyer's market. Compound that with there being few buyers, and it's hard to say what is your best strategy. Lowering the price won't stimulate sales if nobody wants the product, but holding out for a profitable price may not get any sales either.

I sell to a large number of small buyers, and thus far they have been showing up as usual, but the large-volume dealers I need have been lagging in sales. I'm hoping for a spike in interest with the coming rainy season.

My grain markets have been slightly better. At least I can sell that product, and there is some amount of profit.

The good market right now is in straw, which is left over once the crop's grain has been removed. What was long considered a by-product, sometimes not worth the bother, is now an important part of my cash flow. Most of my straw goes for erosion control, but the traditional bedding use is still in demand. And, with the unreasonably high hay prices four years ago, some cattle producers started feeding straw mixed with grains to make a balanced ration. In today's market, you can buy some hay cheaper than straw.

Sonoma County is also gearing up for grape harvest. Some champagne grapes have been picked, and still wines will follow soon.

Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Nicholas Miller, Santa Barbara County diversified grower

We are finally finishing up with our avocado harvest this year and it proved to be a fruitful one. Both avocados and lemons proved to be strong crops for us this year, and I continue to be impressed with how our packinghouses—Index Fresh and Saticoy Lemon—are able to market these crops.

The timing of picking on the avocado side seems to have run right into our winegrape harvest, which was early again this year by historical dates, but seems to be the new norm for the last few years.

This year, we started picking winegrapes for sparkling wine programs in July and for still wines in August. Most winemakers I've been talking to have been lamenting that they used to bottle their previous vintage wines toward the end of summer, then had two weeks "off" before moving into harvest. But with these earlier harvests, there is no longer any break in between.

As far as crop load: After the disastrous almost crop failure of 2015, we were all hoping for a more substantial crop in 2016, but that does not seem to be in the cards.

Everything we are seeing from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles seems to be coming in at lighter yields than our historical averages. This means that many varieties from the Central Coast will be very short this year, because in addition to the light coastal yields, there is fear about "smoke taint" getting into the grapes/wines in Monterey County due to the ongoing Soberanes fire that has been burning up there.

Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Al Medvitz, Solano County farmer and sheep producer

This spring, a building contractor recruited away one of our five key employees by providing higher wages, shorter hours and better benefits than we. By coincidence, we have permanently leased out our grain and safflower production and scaled back alfalfa production for the year. We can cope shorthanded until next year, but we face the daunting task of finding a qualified replacement.

Our equipment for raising dryland grain and safflower has gotten old, and the scale of our operation in today's markets doesn't justify expenditure on new harvesters or tractors. So, for the first time after nearly 150 years, the ranch has leased the entirety of its grain production to neighbors who are expanding their scale.

The yield on roughly 1,200 acres of wheat and barley was OK, and 140 acres or so of safflower is getting ready to harvest. They are also grooming 1,200 acres of summer fallow for next year's grain crop.

After eight years of 120 acres of alfalfa production, we are rotating that land through a barley crop. Some of that crop was grazed off by our early lambs, some was baled as hay for our fall and winter feed needs, and some was harvested as grain for finishing our lambs for market. We will replant alfalfa next year.

Our breeding ewes and bucks are being set loose on the recently harvested lands, after being confined to uncultivated pastures that will be prepared next year for the 2017-18 crop.

Maintaining weed-free and nutritious forage on our grazing land is a never-ending struggle. We are planning a 40-acre test plot for several varieties of pasture grasses and dryland alfalfa, to improve our forage base.

Over the past several years, we have culled and improved our flock of sheep. We are rebuilding it using high tech ID tracking that gives detailed information on the health management and breeding of each individual ewe. This allows for better selection of ewe lambs for replacement breeding stock.

This year's lamb production has gone well. We continue monthly lamb shipments to Niman Ranch and weekly shipments to our restaurant customers in the Bay Area. Prices have remained relatively stable.

Our 50 acres of winegrapes look good after reduced yields last year. Within weeks, we will be harvesting.

Because of encroaching salinity in the Sacramento River and damage to the irrigation intake pipe, we are relying on groundwater when the river is not available. This is costly because of the necessity to treat the groundwater for high pH, boron and sodium levels and the necessity of running an additional groundwater pump to feed our drip pumping system.

Issue Date: August 3, 2016
By Dana Merrill, San Luis Obispo County winegrape grower

Here on the Central Coast, our vines are just moving into veraison. Some areas are more advanced than others, of course. It appears that harvest will begin in August again, as in the past few years. Vines grew well to start the year, with more normal rainfall, but the heat spikes have put some stress on them in Paso Robles.

While rains helped with salts, they were not the heavy El Niño that had been forecast, so there was not much help for the aquifers, it seems.

Beyond that, labor is becoming an increasing concern in terms of supply. Wage hikes as the minimum wage increases are another concern, and the ruling that changed how nonproductive time is to be paid has sent shockwaves through our labor supply and labor contractors.

Marketing-wise, there is decent demand for variety-specific needs of wineries. Cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir seem to be leading the way in their respective ideal regions from Paso Robles to Monterey and Santa Barbara. Yields look to be average overall, based upon cluster counts.

Issue Date: August 3, 2016
By John Eiskamp, Santa Cruz County berry grower

This is the height of berry season. Strawberries, which are the largest crop in our valley, are at peak production. Growers in some cases have been struggling with availability of harvest crews. I have seen some fields that have been abandoned or mowed down because of lack of labor.

As far as the caneberries and raspberries, the early pricing was challenged, and we were in a situation where the market couldn't handle the volume. As a result, we had to divert fruit to processing in order to release some of the pressure on the fresh market. Unfortunately, the returns from processing are about half of what it costs to pick the fruit, so it is a losing proposition. But the goal is to protect the fresh market and keep it sustainable. That situation has eased up now, as production is way down and we are now in the summer when things slow down.

Blackberries are in the peak of the season and volumes are high. Pricing is somewhat low, but not as bad as it was in the raspberries earlier in the year. We had a cold winter with good chill, so that has helped the development of the blackberries. Hopefully, the prices will strengthen as the season goes on.

Harvest started about normal this year. Raspberry yields, because some was diverted to processing, are going to be on the low side. Blackberry yields look pretty decent this year.

We have a very high labor requirement. We are doing better than some. We have had to do some overtime this year, more than I like. You can't get behind, especially in raspberries, because of the time it takes to get caught up. We haven't had to walk away from any blocks this year.

After several years of increased acreage, it has kind of dropped off the last couple years, especially in raspberries, because the market isn't as strong as it was five years ago. After this year, we may see even more raspberry acres being taken out.

My berries are sold through Driscoll and shipped across the United States, Canada, Mexico and some overseas exports.

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