Farmers base ’17 planting plans on water, prices


Issue Date: February 22, 2017
By Ching Lee
Sunflowers may become a more popular crop for farmers in 2017, as they seek crops with better potential returns. But as more farmers seek contracts to grow the crop, seed companies could reduce the prices they offer on sunflower contracts.
Photo/Matt Salvo

Heavy rains this winter may have improved the water outlook for California farmers as they consider what to plant this spring, but weak commodity prices also dampen many of their crop prospects.

Thousands of acres of land were left unplanted during the state's multi-year drought, while some farmers also turned to growing crops that use less water in order to stretch what limited supplies they had. With more water available for farming this year, farmers say market prices will be a bigger determining factor in what they choose to grow.

"To me, it's, where can I make a little money or where can I lose the least amount of money?" Sutter County farmer David Richter said.

He and other farmers in his region will probably plant less rice and more corn this year, because they've been losing money on rice compared to corn, he said. With his contracted acreage for processing tomatoes reduced this year, Richter said he's looking for alternative crops to put on that ground.

Because he expects fields will stay wet for a longer period, he's planning to grow more dry beans, as he can plant them later in the season. He's already increased his garbanzo-bean acreage to replace wheat, which he didn't grow because of low prices.

"I think the crop that everybody is looking at is sunflowers, because there's demand for sunflowers right now for seed production," he said.

But with more farmers wanting contracts to grow sunflowers, he said, seed companies may drop their price. Increasing his contracted acreage for vine seed is another option, he noted, but those contracts are usually for small plots, and needing good isolation also limits acreage for seed production.

In Merced County, farmer Tom Roduner said the wetter winter has negated the need to irrigate his winter grains, which he had to do this time in the season during the last few years of drought. He's also looking forward to growing more rice this spring because of improved water availability. During the drought, he received no surface water one year and had to "cut way back on my acres and grew just enough to get by."

"I'm more optimistic this year," he said. "I'm looking forward to not having to fallow anything. The price of rice doesn't look terrific, but I'm going to grow more of it because I have more water."

Having turned down some contracts for processing tomatoes, San Joaquin County farmer Paul Sanguinetti will have fewer acres of one of his staple crops this year, but he said he plans to grow more corn silage "because it looks like it's going to be a better deal than the tomatoes." He typically grows some corn for grain, but with the softening trend in grain prices in recent years, he's been cutting it for silage.

"All the markets are down. That's the problem," he said.

During recent drier years, he planted more wheat and forage crops because of water shortages, but that is no longer a concern for him now, he said, adding that what wheat he planted this year was primarily for rotational purposes.

With all the recent rain, Sanguinetti said his concern now is being able to get in the field to do ground preparation and plant his crops on time.

Commodity prices may be down, but Tulare County farmer Steven Parsons said he also expects his water will be less expensive this year, which helps to offset depressed market prices.

"We've gotten good indications from the water district that we're going to have more water this year than we've had in a while, and it's going to be at a lower rate," he said. "That'll give us a little more flexibility on what we can grow because we're not spending so much on water."

Thanks to plentiful winter rains, he's already seeing a much better wheat crop on his dry land, though he noted some fields have started to yellow from oversaturation. But he said he's not too concerned, as ample time remains for the crop to develop.

This will be only the second time since 2011 that he will have a harvestable crop on the unirrigated land, even though he didn't plant as much this year. Having farmed those fields back to back and with wheat prices in a slump, he said it was a good time to fallow and let the ground rest. In the spring, he will plant beans and corn, his usual rotation after wheat. But he'll reduce his bean acreage, as prices also have dipped, and he'll fill in with cotton, prices of which have remained steady, he said.

Having more water supply will help farmers who grow summer grain crops such as corn and milo, said Tehama County farmer Frank Endres, but on the hill ground that he farms that has no access to irrigation, those crops can't be grown. Instead, he grows mostly winter grains such as wheat and barley. With wheat prices currently below his cost of production, his emphasis has been on growing more barley, because its straw has nutritional value for cattle and can be used for grazing after the crop is harvested.

Significant rainfall last autumn prevented some farmers from getting in their fields, which were left unplanted, Endres noted.

"A lot of preventive planting is going to be claimed this year on our insurance policies," he said. "That's not the same as planting a crop. That only pays you a portion of what your income normally is."

Endres also noted yellowing in some fields—as Parsons had observed—an indication of some root rot occurring and the plants suffering from too much water. He said he expects yields will be reduced considerably.

On the delta islands, Sacramento County farmer Steve Mello noted he's already lost the majority of the seed barley he planted this winter after the deluge wiped out part of the island.

"I don't think I'm a lone ranger," he said. "There are a lot of small grains that have been planted that look very bad. I believe they will be poor yielders."

This spring, he plans to grow more corn and less milo, after getting poor yields on his milo last year. Some of the milo will be for bird seed, which earns a premium "if you get the quality," he said. The advantage of growing milo, he noted, is the lower input cost compared to corn.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.