From the Fields®
By Domenic Carinalli, Sonoma County dairy farmer and winegrape grower
Things in the vineyard are moving along well. The grapes are early. We are probably two weeks ahead of normal and we're probably a week to 10 days ahead of last year. So we're probably a good three weeks ahead of normal as far as the position that the grapes are in. They're now in full bloom. We're hoping for good weather so we get a good crop set.
We've suckered everything and we're just finishing up now. We're pulling the wires up on the trellis system, moving the grapes up and in another 10 days or so, we'll start hedging them.
The grape market seems to be very good. My grapes are all contracted, so I don't have any issues as far as the market; they're all set.
Water is an issue up here. We're probably better off than the Central Valley because I use tertiary-treated water on the grapes, and there's a fair amount of that water. We're a little short, but I think we'll be able to get through the year with our water supply, if we're careful managing it.
The dairy business right now is pretty tough. Our prices are substantially lower than they were a year ago. The milk supply is ample, so our prices are probably not going to come back for a while. Cost of production is up. We're doing the best we can to survive. It's the toughest we've had since 2009, the last time we had real low milk prices. Last year was a good year.
Beef prices for dairy cows are higher than they've been in the past, so that helps out when you do sell a cow. Calf prices are very good, which helps.
Hay prices are a little bit lower. Grain prices are substantially lower than a year ago. But the lower feed prices are not enough to make up the difference on what the milk prices have dropped. Our milk prices are $8 or $9 a hundredweight lower than last year.
We use some pasture here. It's a pretty decent pasture year. We could have used a little more rain here in the late spring, but right now it's almost too late to do us any good for this year. We're still on pasture, but it's drying up pretty rapidly now. By the end of May, we'll be pretty well done with the natural pasture. If you irrigate, then you have irrigated pasture. I irrigate some, but not enough for the entire herd.
I do grow my own silage, and that's all in the pit. That crop was average or a little above average, and it was good-quality silage.
By Joe Colace, Imperial County diversified grower
It has been a very early start for us on all of our melons. We are approximately five days to a week ahead on our start dates for what we typically do. The sweet corn looks the same way. Actually now, with these cooler temperatures, the fields in front of us are starting to allow us a little breathing room, because our temperatures over the last 10 days have been slightly below average and we are going into a very cool three- to five-day period. So the last 20 percent of our deal may wrap up very close to what we had projected.
Like the entire state, as far as the Asian citrus psyllid, we took to the battle early. We formed a pest control district here two years ago and we have been very aggressive as a growing district on citrus, with mandated spray applications specifically targeted for the ACP. So that has been very high on the radar.
Our crop looks good. Normally, what we do with lemons would be to start at the very end of August or first of September and we are very optimistic with the crop.
We started our sweet corn on the 28th of March, the earliest we have ever started. We have had a wonderful year because the winter was very open on temperatures. We never had any of the dramatic cold temperatures, and the uniformity of the blocks was very strong and allowed us to get some of the best yields we have ever had, with exceptional quality. We grow all three colors; very heavy on white and bicolor, and we do have yellow also.
The Imperial Valley growers have really initiated on-farm water conservation practices. We are using a lot of drip now on certain soil types when it is beneficial. We have worked very hard to manage our water with the best practices possible.
By Luke Wenger, Stanislaus County orchardist
Currently, water is clearly the biggest problem we are facing. This year, we are facing a 60 percent cut in our surface water, which is forcing us to try to get wells put in so that we can use groundwater to help us get through the year. We also pulled out 10 percent of our walnuts this spring, so that we can apply the water from those fields to some of our younger and more productive orchards.
The walnut crop on the early varieties is looking pretty good, but the later varieties are putting on multiple sets that have us concerned that they will be ripening at the wrong time and will not be able to be harvested.
In the almonds, we are seeing a lot of bud failure, especially in older orchards, that is most likely caused from the stress they have gone through from lack of water. Most of these trees with bud failure will need to be pulled out and replanted.
We are also getting the silage corn planted, and we are planting shorter-season, 110-day corn to try to conserve a little water.
The main job we have now is to keep up with the pesticide and herbicide application. In the almonds, we are spraying miticide and are finishing up the blight spray in the walnuts. Weeds are the most consistent problem we have this time of year, and we are spraying weeds instead of mowing them so that they will not be pulling as much moisture out of the ground. In these drought years, every bit of moisture we can save helps.
By Loren Scoto, Merced County tomato farmer
I'm planting tomatoes and irrigating tomatoes. In between, we're getting the equipment ready. We're cultivating and spraying for weeds in the fields. We are on schedule right now. For fresh-market tomatoes, we always plant in acreage intervals so we don't swamp the market when it comes time to pick. So right now, we're at 30-acre intervals. We finished one last week and we're going to start again now, and that will probably take us about two and a half days for that planting interval.
In the Merced area, we have zero allocation from Merced Irrigation District, so we're using 100 percent groundwater. We are very concerned about how quickly the water table is dropping. We already have pumps that are pumping out amazing amounts of sand. It's really just watch and wait and hope for the best at this point.
We fallowed a third of our acreage, which is about a thousand acres. If we don't have a well in a field, then we go to a well on an adjacent field and pipe water to the other field. But the water table is dropping and some of the wells are starting to pump sand. If it pumps nothing but sand, then that well is completely tapped out and we'll probably have to quit using it and redrill it, if we can get on a waiting list. But I think right now, the waiting list is two years.
At the beginning of the year before we plant, we go through what we can and can't plant, based on how much water the crop uses. The stuff that we fallowed uses district water. The stuff that we planted, we've got wells. Last year we got 12 inches from the district, so we really had to take into account how much water a crop uses, and we moved crops around, like we planted cotton in places that we were going to plant corn. We planted corn in places that we previously planted tomatoes. And that was when we had district water on those fields. However, since we have zero district water this year, we just left it 100 percent fallow in those fields and moved over to where we had pumps and wells.
We grow mainly fresh-market tomatoes, so all the tomatoes we have grown in past years, we were able to grow this year, because that's our bread and butter, so we're not going to not grow that. We just planted less cotton and less corn, both silage and grain.
I'm concerned just like everyone else, since we're only on well water out here. In the 1970s, everyone put a pump in just in case but didn't have to use it, because they still had enough district water. And now we have zero district water and we're only using pumps.
If next year is another drought year and we have zero allocation again, then we won't grow anything.
By Leonard Souza, Kings County walnut and corn grower , Sacramento County diversified grower
We're spraying herbicide on the corn and getting ready to irrigate. I go either way on the corn—grain or silage. I use this one variety for grain and for silage, and it's done very well. Most likely I'll harvest it for silage because the grain prices are so low, and dairymen really need the silage.
On the walnuts, we're mowing weeds and watching for codling moth. We've also got some problems with fungus coming in—botryosphaeria—that everybody is concerned about. It seems like the orchard is getting hit with that. It's kind of like a form of blight, but it's more of a fungus. We've got to monitor that, try to determine when to spray for it. That's something fairly new that we've been having to keep an eye on.
With infected orchards, the fruit would first die and then you get a lot of dead wood in your trees. When you harvest, you'll have a lot of problems with twigs and branches that fall off when you shake, so you've got more problems when you're harvesting. Then what do you do with this wood? How do we get rid of the wood that's infected? Do you burn it or do you mow it? Do you shred it, chip it and leave it in the field? That wood is infected with the fungus. Or do you haul it off and burn it? You're not legally supposed to be able to burn, so you're caught in the middle.
The University of California has been doing a lot of studies on it to find out what's the best material to use to control it and the timing of the spray. I've been attending all these meetings to learn something about it. I've been reading articles in Ag Alert® and wherever else to learn about it. The PCA has informed me on different things. We're trying to decide on the timing of the spray and different materials to use, in terms of which one works better than others, has longer residual.
They've had this problem in almonds and pistachios too, but it's kind of different for walnuts. Water and rain is very critical because moisture and temperature make it thrive. It seems the fungus strikes open wounds, so if you shake a walnut tree, then you've got the wound where the walnut fell. Or if a leaf falls off and you have rain during that period, it's susceptible. So timing of the spray is critical.
We've also been looking at the walnut set to determine what kind of crop we've got. The bloom has been really extended this year. I don't know if it's because the chilling hours weren't good during the winter or what the problem is.
By Bob Steinacher, Tehama County diversified farmer
We are about a full month ahead of our "normal" activities. Our fig trees are already pushing the second crop, with the first crop sizing extremely fast.
We would normally see the second crop starting to form at the end of May, but this year they were pushing at the end of April. Our temperatures are running 10 to 15 degrees above normal, which the figs love.
Our walnut trees are pushing out erratically, but this has been the norm for the last few years. Hopefully, they will set a normal crop. We have had to irrigate frequently this spring and are looking at a summer irrigation schedule already.
We are worried that our water table will continue to decline with all the orchards going in around us. I felt comfortable that we put in 500-foot wells when we did, but now our neighbors are going to 600 to 900 feet.
The hay crop matured early like everything else and some folks got a decent crop in without any rain damage. Others weren’t so lucky.
The olive growers are seeing a mixed bag of mediocre to good bloom, but a lot of them are considering pulling out their labor-intensive crop for nuts.
Let’s hope for a huge snowpack next winter, or I’m not sure how some farmers will survive.
By Jim Spinetta, Amador County winegrape grower
The good thing is that the Sierra foothills have most likely made it through the frost season, although several growers in our zinfandel and barbera wine region did notice roughly 10 percent of crop damage due to the repeated advective and conventional frosts. Crop set on the winegrapes looks average, and some growers note the clusters on their vines are in bloom.
Our viticulturalists are seasonally busy mowing the grass, disking fields, tying up young plants, applying crop care materials, budding and grafting.
The last precipitation from the recent storm was an acute blessing for our region, yet groundwater and creeks are running seasonally low. I am still anxious for more rain.
By Pat Borrelli , Merced County diversified grower
On our alfalfa, we’re just getting ready for the second cutting. Our cotton has been planted and it’s out of the ground, doing very well because the weather has been good. The processing tomatoes just got planted. They seem to be looking good. We’re getting ready to put a second water on our tomatoes.
The water is the biggest concern. Our allocation from the Central California Irrigation District has been cut, so we’re trying to deal with that right now. We’re probably going to have to leave some ground fallow, just like everybody, and try to manage the alfalfa. We’ll probably end up getting maybe one or two fewer cuttings than we normally do. We’re just not going to be able to irrigate the hay as much as we normally do.
It’ll probably be dry beans that we fallow. We can use that water to stretch it out. If we leave ground out, then we can move that water to the stuff that we have planted. We’ll plant something, but not all of it; we’ll leave some ground out. We’ll still have some dry beans.
The weather has been pretty favorable as far as curing the hay. We’ve got good, warm days. We did not receive any rain here with this last little storm that came through. I know in the north, they had some. For curing the hay, the weather has been really good. We planted cotton in the middle of April, so it’s all up and looks really good right now because of the warmer weather.
By Michael McDowell, Sacramento County diversified grower
With pears, they have bloomed and are setting. We started our first irrigation for the year. The crop looks good. Harvest is probably going to be earlier than usual. Bloom came early, but it kind of stretched out longer than normal. We didn't have enough cold hours, so we had about a month worth of bloom versus one or two weeks. Pears have longer requirements for dormancy and cold hours. We'll probably have different maturity throughout the tree because of the longer bloom.
We're about halfway through our first cutting of alfalfa. We started earlier this year than last year. It kind of all depends on the rain. Last year we had some April rains, so we didn't get started early. So I think we're a little ahead of schedule this year. The first field we did was during the last week of March. We've never started that early before.
I take about five weeks to cut all of our stuff rather than cutting it all at once, so I can keep up with our irrigation. We do six cuttings usually, but I space my acreage out and only do about 50 to 100 acres a week for about five weeks. Instead of doing all 400 acres at one time, I spread the equipment out and our irrigation requirements.
We've got some winter wheat. It all looks like it is going good. And we've got some triticale for hay that looks pretty good so far. We haven't irrigated, but I know other people in our area have. We planted our lower fields that have more moisture typically. We're out here in the delta, so we've got a high water table. That's helping us quite a bit. If we didn't have that going in our favor, I think we'd be really hurting.
December helped out a lot. It filled up the fields for us. We were able to plant about 125 acres prior to the December rains, and we had to wait until January to plant the triticale. I was getting worried because we weren't getting rain after we planted that. It was growing slowly until that first week in February, when we had that big storm. I have stuff that got planted in the same field that took off OK and other seeds that were growing, but not at the same rate, but they're finally catching up to each other.
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.
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