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From the Fields® - March 7, 2012

By Stan Lester, Yolo County diversified grower

Unbelievable! Here we are at the end of February and we have sunny skies and afternoon temperatures in the mid-to-upper 70-degree range. The apricots and almonds are blooming, the bees and other insects are flying like crazy and everybody is wondering, "Where is the rain, snow and winter?"

Even the long-term weather forecasters are confused. First they forecast a wetter March and two days later they are backing off and predicting a normal to dry March. All we farmers can say is, "It is what it is," and will continue to do our best to grow a crop.

We are fortunate that we had a fairly cold November, December and January. Deciduous tree crops need a certain number of dormant hours or hours below 45 degrees. I recently did some checking and we have approximately 1,060 hours in the Winters area.

This is pretty good as it will help the trees come out with a strong, uniform bloom in most tree crops. The only thing we might be concerned about is the fact that we have had cold, dry temperatures, and it may have caused tree tip freeze damage on some young, susceptible walnut varieties. We will have to wait and see what happens.

It really is sad to see the cutbacks in water deliveries being announced because of the lack of snow and rain. Here, agriculture is perhaps the strongest and healthiest sector of the economy in the state and nation. Yet, without water we cannot reach our full economic potential.

By Larry Massa, Glenn County diversified grower

It's dry out here. We've had to feed more hay to our cattle than we budgeted for. We bought almond hulls and mixed in some protein. We grow our own hay and it usually lasts us through February, but not this year.

And some of our cattle are thinner than we'd like. We've had to sell cattle, reducing our herd nearly 10 percent.

We still have yearlings, but anything that wasn't pregnant went down the road. We're really fortunate that beef prices are up.

We could have a double whammy: low market prices and expensive feed. The market is a complicated thing, but feed prices for my operation are easily up 15 percent.

We're just completing the spring calving and the calves are on the ground and look really healthy, a bit smaller than we'd like. We're getting ready to move some cows to another pasture because we've got some additional water there.

We've had to lower pumps in our wells—50 feet. But, we're trying not to lift the water because of the energy costs.

My fuel jobber called me this morning and said the refineries are having some problems and fuel prices may spike; added to that are increased water costs from the water districts. With a low allocation from the state and federal water projects without a miracle March, that means there will be less feed available.

Add it up and it makes a difference for my business.

By John Eiskamp, Santa Cruz County berry grower

Raspberries and blackberries go through dormancy in the winter and cold weather is beneficial for accumulation of chill hours. This is especially important in blackberries, as they typically have a higher chill requirement than the raspberry varieties we grow in the Pajaro Valley.

This year, we are enjoying more chill hours than last year so bud break will be stronger and more uniform. January and early February is our pruning season for raspberries. This is followed up with a brief training of the canes to accommodate our upcoming spring crop. We also apply our dormant sprays during this time.

This year's lack of rainfall and cold temperatures appear to have potentially delayed the start of our crops later this spring. That can have mixed results, as there is often an opportunity for good pricing for raspberries during mid- to late April, but poor pricing in early May for blackberries due to excess volume out of Mexico during that period. More worrisome is the possibility of rain in April and May that can cause disease problems as well as interruption of harvests.

We are also working in the December-planted fields installing trellises. Overall, we are ahead of what we typically want to have done at this time but never seem to run out of work to be done.

By David Phippen, San Joaquin County almond grower

After another record almond crop and more than adequate chilling hours, our trees are in a magnificent blooming mode at this time. The early varieties are pretty well through to ragged petal stage, and the later ones are completely out. Although we have experienced pretty terrific bloom weather, it rained yesterday and is sprinkling slightly today.We expect clearing weather the rest of the week. All in all, the bee flight hours should be much better this year compared to last.

Most growers have fungicide sprays on by now and will most likely scramble after this rain to get more coverage on. The next challenge will be to provide adequate irrigation water through the growing season and keep frost at bay. Many orchards have already received an early irrigation prior to bloom. New orchards have been planted and irrigation systems are installed.

Not many lost work days this winter. Growers have reported that the nonpareil bloom looked light, which might be expected after the extremely large yield last year. Varieties that were less prolific last year seem to have a much better bud set and corresponding bloom. In general, our almond growers are ready for another year and looking forward to another clean almond crop. Our shipments this crop year show evidence that our world consumers are ready and willing to purchase more California almonds.

By Peter Bradford, Mendocino County diversified grower

The cold weather has passed, which is a relief. And at the same time, we've had a little rain, which helps. Everything is green here, the grass is growing.

But in some parts of our county and Lake County, the spring grass is nonexistent. The rain just hasn't been there for a lot of us.

We're looking forward to some of the highest livestock sale prices ever recorded. Everybody is hoping to cash in on that but, if it doesn't rain, it will be a problem for a lot of people.

If you have to buy feed, that could be a real problem because some people won't be able to hang onto their mother cows because feed is very expensive. The cheapest feed is provided by Mother Nature through rainfall on our rangelands.

Things are just opening up for the timber side of things. In the next couple of weeks, we'll have people out marking timber for sales coming up this year. The market's a little better, but not by much. Home sales are still depressed.

By David Schwabauer, Ventura County avocado/citrus grower

We're picking some of our large avocado fruit—8-9 ounce sizes—now. We don't have a very big crop this year because of the cold weather we had last spring that extended into May and June. Much of the fruit didn't set or, if it did, it was BB-sized and fell off.

This should have been a good crop because the prior year was light. Avocados are alternate bearing and this should have been an on year. But, it's not.

But it has been challenging to get the rest of the fruit to size this year because we haven't had any rain. Both lemons and avocados really like to grow when we have lots of rain. In a dry year, both types of fruit don't want to set.

Demand for the lemons is OK. It's creeping up slowly, along with the economy, because lemon sales are largely impacted by food service orders. People are starting to dine out more, but sales still aren't great.

Another problem this year is avocado thieves. It's a sign of a rough economy. We lost about 500 pounds to 1,000 pounds of avocados about a week ago.

The sheriff helped us set up a trap to try and catch them. They came back the following night, and we were waiting, but they escaped. Two men ran off into the brush and the driver of the pickup nearly ran down a deputy making his getaway. Shots were fired. We had two dog teams and two helicopters, but didn't catch them.

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