From the Fields® - February 20, 2013

By Ron Macedo, Stanislaus County diversified grower

The weather is changing fast and things are dry. All the guys are clamoring to see when we are going to put water in the canal and start the irrigation season. It looks like we will start irrigating on the first of March.

All of the oats fields are dry and the almonds are getting ready to bloom and growers will begin their irrigations right off the bat. I took my almond orchard out, so I am out of the business for a couple years. I leased my ground out to sweet potato guys for rotation for a couple years and then I will come back in. All of the other almond growers have their bees in place. We are very close to significant bloom.

I’ve got oats, corn and alfalfa and I am getting things ready for my pumpkin patch, dealing with all of the use permits and expanding that operation a little bit. I really found my niche with the pumpkin patch, I love working with people. I just have to get ready. We are still four months away from planting, but there is a lot of preparation work, and all of the planning and permitting for the maze is a pretty involved process.

The weather has been a real disappointment from the good strong December and early January, to the latter part of January and February that is completely dry. We lose so much to evaporation now on these sunny spring days that we don’t realize all the runoff. But we are still optimistic that March will bring some normal rainfall and help out a lot.

By Pete Belluomini, Kern County potato farmer

Today, I've got dirt under my fingernails and dirt on my boots. The sun's out and there's a lot going on. I haven't been to the office all day and I'm enjoying it.

Of course, I'm focused on potatoes because that's what we do. We're finishing up our spring planting, which is going in about on time, but our winter crop is about two weeks behind.

The cold snap in January slowed the plants down and then we got some rains, which rearranged our schedule. What would be our spring/summer potato crop in the Arvin-Edison area is behind normal.

Some of our earlier varieties are growing well, and with predictions of temperatures in the 70s, we'll be turning the water on for irrigating. It's normal farming—nothing goes right and then it's all or nothing.

We get Friant-Kern federal irrigation water through our local water district. We have a water banking program and make it through the dry times pretty well, but there's always great concern about the reliability of water coming from the delta and storage levels in the San Luis Reservoir.

There is trading of water supplies that goes on as we face issues of timing to finish crops. It's important to us, too, even though the delta isn't a direct supply source. Right now, I think we'll be fine for water.

I expect to start harvesting the winter/spring crop about May 10. Our company will be bringing in whites, reds and yellows, all sold fresh. If it's a fresh potato, we grow it.

By Joe Zanger, San Benito County diversified farmer

I thought for this report I would provide an example of what we farmers routinely go through. Many of the readers will nod their heads and say, "Yep, so what else is new?" But others may now better appreciate how little we control.

We have a dry-farmed pasture we plant with forage seed each late fall. It’s always nice to wait for an early November rain to start some of the weed seed. Once the weeds are up and the ground is dry enough, a quick disking takes place and we drill in the forage mix seed. Then we let the rain and sunshine grow that crop.

We got a nice November rain, but storm after storm followed into January. So those weeds kept growing and our seed stayed in the barn. When it finally got dry enough in mid-January, we quickly got it disked and seeded. Now, not a drop of rain for four weeks. You think we will get enough timely rains over the next eight to 12 weeks to make a crop?

That little pasture’s success may not seem like a big deal, but tell that to the livestock that depend on it.

By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

It hasn’t rained for six weeks and the ground is starting to dry out on the top part. People are continuing to do field work in their vineyards, finishing their pruning, tying vines, starting to mow and disk where they can, and getting ready for frost control. People are also doing some weed spraying.

There are still some vineyards out there to prune for another few weeks before everyone is done.

We definitely need some more rain. We would rather have it now than in April, May or June. That is a real concern. We did have good deep moisture from the earlier rains, so there is water farther down. The surface is drying out, so it would be good to get some more rain.

By Philip Bowles, Merced County diversified farmer

I have been in Washington, D.C., the past week, but since this is the dead part of our year, little is going on. The early rains were a big help with grains, new alfalfa and salt management, but it is getting ominously dry again. A few good frosts have probably helped with any overwintering insects. There are no unusual weed, insect or disease issues.

Based on prices last fall, we were going to move considerable cotton acres to corn. Now, we'll grow the corn we sold forward, but probably switch some acres to cotton.

By David Schwabauer, Ventura County citrus farmer

It has been chilly and I have not had a decent night's sleep in a week. Temperatures have been in the low 30s night after night.

We especially worry about the loss of avocados—the stems of the fruit being damaged, loss of the flower buds—also damage to the lemon wood. It hasn't been cold enough to do significant damage, but it has been right on the cusp.

Every night, the frost alarm has been going off and we are out in the orchards and groves at 2 a.m. firing up the wind machines. There haven't been any breaks. It has been a process of checking thermometers all night long.

The other thing we're trying to do is manage our fuel supply. The wind machines use propane and gasoline, and turning them on when not actually needed burns thousands of dollars in fuel.

The avocado crop is very large, which is challenging because the current price structure isn't very good. I was looking at price quotes this morning and the prices are in the 60 cents to low 70 cents a pound range. That's disconcerting because when prices are in the 60-cent range, that's tough. There's not a lot of profit left in that range because of the input costs for water, labor, weed killer and everything else.

It's tough for farmers who have to rely on water supplies from Metropolitan (Water District of Southern California) because their water costs are even higher than ours. We have the benefit of using well water and the quality is pretty good.

The problem with the current price for avocados is that fruit from Mexico and Chile is flooding into the market. We live in a world marketplace.

But, even with the low price, we're already picking to lighten the load on the avocado trees to try and get fruit out of areas of our groves that are prone to freezing. It's strategic—about how you pick and when.

With a really large crop like this, if we don't start managing the fruit and the trees we'll never get done with the picking. I know that if picking lasts into August, we'll have fruit on the ground because of heat stress. It's a balancing act and we have to start at some point. This is it.