From the Fields® - March 6, 2013

By Tim Miramontes, Yolo County diversified grower

This year is off to a tough start with very little rain so far and little to nothing showing up in the long-term forecast. Wheat, hay, trees and even seeded tomato fields are being irrigated now when rain would usually do the job for us.

With the little rain we have received, it has allowed for some leveling in the rice fields to get done which has been hard to do over the past few years.

The wheat crop in the area looks average, but with irrigations happening this early it makes it look like we may have a few more irrigations to go to finish the crop out in June. Safflower is getting a good start with the warm early weather and dry conditions, but like the rest, it too will need an extra irrigation if the spring rains don't show up.

By Nicholas Miller, Santa Barbara County winegrape grower

With the publication of the Crush Report, we now know that 2012 was the largest California winegrape harvest on record. We got quantity and quality delivered in 2012.

However, even with that one record harvest, I think California will still be short on supply for the next few years. Even as the industry aggressively plants, we are still behind the curve and have a lot of catching up to do.

This winter was a cold one. We've had some rain, but would have liked more. It is still too early to tell what the 2013 harvest will look like, but I don't think anyone believes we will have another large crop after such a monstrous 2012.

By Steve Nash, Fresno County dairy producer

Our farm is located in an area of almond production like many, and this time of the year is always beautiful with spring bloom. Our crops are progressing very well. Conditions are right for wheat production. Our fertilization rate appears to be very balanced this year for the conditions we have been given. I look forward to silage harvest in April.

Alfalfa is coming out of dormancy and looks lush. We are just finishing irrigating. The soils were very dry and it took extra time to cover the fields. This is related to lower rainfall in our area than some years. One of the best crops I have ever grown is Roundup Ready alfalfa. Again this year, I am not disappointed. A new planting last fall looks ready to compete with established fields. We applied Roundup twice since planting and the first crop will be clean and near established field production.

Dairy is our challenging "child." Production and herd health has been good. Normally this time of year with seasons changing we are observing cattle closely for health and production changes. It seems spring can be challenging with warm days and cold nights causing runny noses and sometimes pneumonia in our calves, so nutrition and feed intakes become the order of the day.

Dairy margins are lean and more of my colleagues are exiting the business. A bill before the California State Assembly—AB31—could help the industry if passed. It would bring our state cheese milk pricing closer to the federal milk order pricing. Currently, milk used for cheese production is priced well below other uses of milk in California. This bill would bring balance to our industry and eliminate some of the politics currently being implemented in our business. It can return supply and demand as the correct pricing meter instead of reliance on the government via the hearing process.

By Craig Pedersen, Kings County diversified grower

As the 2013 year hits March 1, things are progressing nicely. Almond bloom is in full swing and most new plantings of all nut crops are coming to an end. Wheat fields for the most part look good, unfortunately not from Mother Nature's bounty of rainfall, which will be the major issue this year if nothing changes soon.

Water allocation announcements are low from all local water agencies, and fuel and electrical rates are moving higher, which will have a large impact on Central Valley agriculture's bottom line.

By Joe Valente, San Joaquin County winegrape and cherry grower

In San Joaquin County, because of the lack of rain, we have been able to get in and start disking and mowing and getting things ready for frost protection. We had a wet fall, but January and February were dry and March looks like it will be dry as well.

As far as the cherries, we are waiting for bloom. And from what I'm hearing the almonds are a little bit later in blooming this year. So hopefully the bloom on the cherries and almonds don't coincide. Usually there is a little bit of a gap in between. The beekeepers prefer to go to the almonds first, and then to the cherries, so hopefully there won't be a problem getting bees. But I talked with our bee guy the other day and he said he didn't think there would be a problem.

As far as chill hours, we are fine. Grapes don't really require it and the cherries do to some degree. But we are starting to think about irrigating again. Here we had a wet fall, and it has been so dry since then. Driving around I see some guys irrigating walnuts which is not very common at this time of year. Because the cherries come on so soon and the crop is so early, if we don't get rain in the next couple weeks I will probably start irrigating them too.

It seems like the last couple years have been very odd with the weather. I'm on the water district and we only get water in the wet years and not the dry years. We were anticipating that we were going to have water this year, and now we are not sure whether we will get it or not.

By Tyler Nelson, Lake County winegrape and pear grower

The grape business is looking good. It came after last year's record-setting size. We are just starting to prune our cabernet and we're finishing tying up the grapes to prepare for this year. We're doing general field maintenance. It's early to predict the size of the crop, but odds are against back-to-back bumper crops. Hopefully we'll get some rain to make this season a good one.

There's lots of buzz about planting contracts. Last year was the first year we've seen significant plantings in the last 10 years. The demand from wineries is still very strong. It's really nice that wineries are interested in planting contracts. There are a lot of tired, old vineyards out there that need to be replaced.

For the past 10 years, things have been very rough. About 2001, we had major plantings. We just had way too many grapes in the ground, so the grape economy went into recession. Everybody has been holding their breath, tightening their belts, and contract prices have been very low, if you were able to sell your grapes at all. Pretty much there has been almost zero plantings, and everybody struggled.

Last year was the first year we were actually able to sell grapes and make a little bit of money, and it was looking like the industry as a whole was moving in a positive direction—both for the wineries and for the growers, which is nice. It's kind of a nice balance right now.

The consumer demand is there. The balance of tonnage produced is good, even though one thing that was kind of exceptional is last year we had the largest crop ever, but it hasn't thrown the market out of whack.