From the Fields® - September 4, 2019

By Steve McShane, Monterey County nursery operator

We have enjoyed a good season for vegetables here in the Salinas Valley. Due to tough markets in 2018, folks underplanted this year, making for some good markets. Celery rallied for a while, along with broccoli and cauliflower.

The month of July posted good pricing for both head lettuce and romaine. Strawberries continue to be a nut to crack, given three or more years of overplanting.

The heavy, late rains were really devastating and could have wiped out profit for the year for some growers.

Ag tech continues to thrive in our region as machines replace more and more labor from thinning to harvest. It's a dynamic time to be engaged in Salinas Valley agriculture.

By Joe Zanger, San Benito County diversified grower

I found myself in a neighbor's apricot orchard in July with a contract crew of vegetable crop laborers. We make Blenheim apricot wine, but the grower was not able to find a crew to pick his crop for us. So lettuce pickers became 'cot pickers for the day. It had been many years since I was the working foreman out in the orchard with the pickers. Fun enough for a day, but that was all the reminiscing I needed.

Our winegrapes are coloring up nicely and just today I'll be putting out the propane cannons for bird control. Our neighbor has been flying a squawking drone (live falcons have lost their job to technology) for the last three weeks in an early ripening pinot noir vineyard. We have benefited from their bird abatement activities up until now. The malbec clusters have quite a bit of shatter, which is typical for this variety.

Labor availability has been extremely tight this year, resulting in us being late with our shoot thinning, leaf pulling and fruit dropping. But we got it done and overall, all of our red grapes should be quite good in quality and yield.

The walnut crop is a bit lighter this year, the wet, late spring likely the reason. Husk flies did not show up until a week ago. An organic bait squirted into each tree takes care of them.

Water supply in San Benito County has been fine thanks to groundwater recharge from an excellent winter. Markets are always up and down. Finding labor is definitely the greatest challenge for us here.

By Joe Valente, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

We have been harvesting grapes beginning on Aug. 15, which is pretty normal for the varieties with lighter sugars. We've done chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, pretty much the early varieties. As far as yields go, they are also about average. They go up or down depending on the age of the vineyard. The quality always looks very good. We harvest a lot at night, so we haven't had much congestion on the highways.

We are pretty much all machine harvested now, which means we have an adequate number of people. If we were hand-harvested, we wouldn't have nearly enough people to get the crop harvested. Over the years, we transitioned over to mechanical. Some of the older vineyards that people have are hand-harvested.

We also have some almonds and we started harvesting the nonpareil a few days ago. So, things are moving forward.

With the cherries, the crop took a huge hit with reports of 60% to 70% damage from the rains. It was a very promising crop, one of the largest that we've ever seen. But that didn't happen. There are so many variables that can happen that we've learned not to count on anything until the crop is in.

By Joe Turkovich, Yolo County prune grower

Prune harvest is underway, about 10 days later than normal. Expected low prices for small fruit pushed growers to target large sizes this season, so all best management practices have been employed, from pruning to shaker thinning and finally size grading at the harvester. I've never seen so many growers focused on getting it right as this year.

So far, the fruit quality appears to be quite good. Spring and summer temps were fairly benign, so we saw relatively little June drop and summer fruit scorch.

We're all dealing with increased wages and scarcity of quality labor. It's getting difficult to squeeze out additional productivity in our current management systems, so something has to give. Hopefully, increased market pricing will eventually compensate as time goes by.

Global trade issues continue to weigh on California's prune export business. So the focus is being placed on stable bellwether markets like Japan. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has indicated the new pending trade agreement between the U.S. and Japan negotiated by U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer will increase our ag sales by lowering existing barriers.

With that in mind, the California Prune Board plans to significantly increase investment in marketing activities in Japan. The Japanese market tends to be very responsive to ads and promotional activities. In addition, it's hoped all the recent positive research findings linking prune consumption to bone health will begin to move the demand needle here in the United States and beyond.

By Christina Smith, San Diego County vineyard manager

Summed up in a word, San Diego has been mild—mild weather, mild prices, mild pace of crop growth and harvest. After a rainy and damp spring, many winegrape varietals have variable berry development, what's referred to as hens and chicks, as well as lingering issues with disease, which began with Botrytis at flowering and a long period of downy mildew pressure, especially on grenache.

Our welcomed rainfall (aka water paycheck) resulted in a tight labor market this spring, as many growers scrambled to find labor to manage canopies, weeds and fungicide sprays all at the same time. Undermanaged canopies make for less than effective spray scenarios, so most of the season was spent in a cat-and-mouse game of disease and canopy management.

Our white winegrapes began harvesting the last week of August, about 16-18 days later than in prior years. The quality of the whites such as viognier, fiano and muscat has been excellent so far with good balance and acid, which should make nice, bright white wines. Our chardonnay was hard hit by powdery mildew, but what is left should harvest in early September, about the same time as the sauvignon blanc. The red winegrapes are having more of an issue with our mild 80-degree days: decent color, but flavor profiles are languishing a bit.

Our San Diego nursery producers have had another very good year so far, but have also had crops develop slowly with our mild weather. As the nation's leading producer of nursery crops, we are seeing improved demand in all facets of the industry: starts, vegetables, indoor foliage, landscape and bedding plants, ornamental and fruit tree producers, as well as our hillsides of locally grown proteas and foliage. Quality has been very good, just slow to move product through the system, which means more labor and inputs.

Avocados have benefited from the winter and spring rains and set a crop which is very well-balanced with tree size—and the trees look healthy, thanks to all the salt-flushing rains. In speaking with our mango growers in Pauma Valley, their crop was flowering during our rainiest days and they lost many flowers to rot; the remaining crop is sizing well and should bring a solid price for an ever-expanding local market.