From the Fields® - January 24, 2018

By Ray Henriques, Stanislaus County almond grower

Right now, there's a lot of winter sanitation going on for navel orangeworm. We're starting to place bees out in the field for the upcoming pollination timing. There's some weed spraying going on, but right now it's mostly winter sanitation. Some dormant spraying is going on right now as well.

Navel orangeworm is an ongoing problem. Winter sanitation is the primary way of controlling it, by destroying the almonds that are left out in the orchard during the wintertime.

We should start to see bloom here the middle of February. We're hoping for a good bloom time. If we have to do any bloom-time sprays for fungus, that's what we'll be doing. For the next four to six weeks, it'll be our pollination season.

I don't know that there's been an allotment committed to by the federal water districts at this point. We still are on our 2017 (allotment). Our water year ends March 1.

It was a very dry December. We've got a little over 2 inches of rain here so far in January, and we're hoping for more here in the next couple of weeks. It'll probably be coinciding with our bloom period, but that's where we're at right now, as far as weather. That's not great, but we do need some precipitation, and we need snow in the hills for the reservoir to fill.

By Brandon Fawaz, Siskiyou County hay farmer

Right now in Northern California—especially Scott Valley, where I farm—we're waiting on winter to show up. It hasn't done that yet. We haven't had any rain to speak of in the last couple months. I know that some guys were trying to put some fenceposts in about a week ago, and they were actually getting dry dirt between 10 inches and a foot down.

And we have virtually zero snowpack in our hills. So, trying not to be too pessimistic, but it's not looking good. Our valley rivers are all supplied by snowmelt, and right now they don't have any snow. Ski parks aren't open yet. The little bit of downtime I get being a farmer, one of the things that we can enjoy is to go snow skiing. They're closed. No snow. So that's looking kind of grim.

As a hay farmer, the price of hay's moved up a little bit, and people are optimistic about this year. We're working on fertilizer and chemical orders and such right now, because unless winter shows up extremely late by the normal calendar—by the first week of February—we're spraying herbicide and spreading fertilizer on our permanent crops, primarily alfalfa and orchardgrass. Weeds are getting pretty big because we've been pretty warm. We haven't had a lot of cold temperatures this year, unlike some areas not far from us. So, we're just moving forward.

Even if we have a drought, our valley does recharge its groundwater pretty easily and quickly compared to some areas, so we've been told. We were able to get through a year of drought. We hope not to see numerous in a row. There'll definitely be some of the pastures and such that are fed off of the surface water irrigation districts that are going to be in a poorer state. That is for sure.

People are starting to make cropping choices based on what winter we've had. Some guys are maybe going to do a second year of grain, an annual crop that won't have to be irrigated past June 10 or 15 versus the permanent crops that require water year round. Guys are starting to think about their fields that were on the fence for rotating or not, how they're going to adjust for that. We still have a month to find out what happens with winter.

By Tom Chandler, Fresno County diversified grower and agricultural appraiser

Harvest of our Tango mandarins is likely just around the corner. Our crop size is down by a lot due to a poor fruit set. The entire California and Florida citrus crop size this year is also down. So, we are praying for the current strong pricing trend for all citrus to continue.

We have just wrapped up pruning our fresh-market tree fruit and are going to apply dormant oil next week. Our pruning crews are now in our raisin vineyards. The leaves have finally fallen off the vines because of the recent rains.

Going into this year, raisin growers are optimistic on the market again because of the very short crop last year. However, the older vineyards that produce less than 2 tons per acre are still going to struggle, due to the higher labor costs. So, more raisin vineyards on older trellis systems around us were pulled out this winter.

We are just finishing pruning our younger almond orchards. The dry winter has been great for pruning but not so good for getting the mummies off the almond trees. We are applying pre-emergent herbicides in our almonds now and will start applying fertilizer by the end of the month.

Last week, we had a new ag well drilled because it was old and the casing had too many holes. It was a welcome change to have the well drillers able to come out in a matter of days versus a matter of months back during the drought.

By Kyle Brown, San Joaquin County vineyard manager

The 2017 season is finally over and for us here at LangeTwins in Lodi, it was one for the books—from record rainfall that nearly drowned some of our vineyards to record heat spells that made us wish it would rain again. Despite these challenges, we were still able to produce average tonnage. Some varieties such as merlot and cabernet seemed to do better than average, while chardonnays and zinfandels were all over the board.

Pruning started a tad later than normal this year (mid-December) as we waited impatiently for Mother Nature to do her job removing the remaining leaves from the vines. Once we did get started, we quickly realized that the trend of skilled labor continues to diminish, further driving us to convert to mechanical pruning systems as we develop new vineyards. Crews seem to be getting smaller and less skilled as prices for piece rate and hourly work seem to keep increasing. Twelve dollars per hour seems to be the going rate for a decent hourly crew in our region, pushing our per-acre costs well into the $400 range. Piece rate is still slightly cheaper per acre and the employees can earn more on an hourly basis, but recent regulations in the past couple of years have made it more of a headache for payroll and again, the quality of work is not as good.

Amidst the doom and gloom, opportunities to adapt are rapidly emerging. More farmers are looking to push the mechanical envelope as we look to fully mechanize pruning, suckering, shoot thinning, leaf pulling and "material other than grapes" removal on our harvesters. This is something that must happen in our region to survive in an increasingly challenging grape market. We are also very determined to tackle the seemingly increasing virus problem that has plagued much of California.

The Lodi Winegrape Commission has recently developed a talented virus focus group that is determined to push nurseries for the cleanest vines possible, and teach farmers in our area the best practices for dealing with virus issues to increase the profitability and quality of our vineyards.

Winter rainfall has so far been OK, with most areas around Lodi receiving 5-7 inches as of Jan. 19. Another 10-15 inches over the next three months or so would be great to push us up to average or better, helping to recharge our vineyards and aquifers, as they have been suffering in the recent years of drought.

Before we know it, March will be here and the 2018 growing season will kick into full gear. I know the farmers here in Lodi will be ready to tackle the challenges that 2018 will surely provide, and we are optimistic that it will be another successful year in which we will be able to deliver some of the best grapes not only from California, but from the world. Raise a glass if you agree—and if you don't, that's more for me!