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From the Fields® - August 15, 2012

By Brian Fedora, Colusa County walnut grower

Summer 2012 has been great for growing walnuts. Temperatures here haven't been really high— compared to much of the United States. However, this coming week will test the trees with hot conditions.

The nuts are sizing now and high temperatures could burn the walnuts. We're busy watering in an attempt to help prevent sunburn. High temperatures also bring on the pests, which to date have been under control.

Input costs are always a concern for agriculture. That concern has been elevated with the recent fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond. We use a lot of petroleum-based products and those costs can really affect the bottom line. I hope they are able to make repairs in a timely manner.

As the days grow shorter, my thoughts have turned to harvest and preparations are under way. Peach and almond growers are already harvesting and the prune crop is not far off.

The No. 1 job right now is servicing equipment and No. 2 is orchard preparation. With an average to above-average crop, I am hopeful that Mother Nature will provide a dry harvest season so all growers can get their crops in the barn before wet weather hits the state.

Overall, commodity prices are good and walnuts look to be strong for another year. Exports continue to rise and people continue to enjoy the health benefits of all nut crops, especially walnuts.

By Dave Phippen, San Joaquin County almond grower

What we are seeing right now is almond hull split progressing more rapidly than we anticipated and more evenly than we anticipated, both of which are good things. We expect to have nuts on the ground in the Ripon-Manteca area toward the latter part of the second week of August and the beginning of the third week, which is two weeks ahead of last year.

The hot weather is speeding the harvest up. We started blooming probably a week late and it looks like we are going to harvest normal or early, so the heat has brought things right along.

The crop set to me doesn't look quite as good as last year's numbers, but it is close, which is a very good crop. Last year was a record for California, the first time we ever produced 2 billion pounds, and the CASS (California Agricultural Statistics Service) estimate is for the crop to be just slightly larger than last year. We aren't seeing that in our area, but we suspect that it is probably down south.

We had a little bit of miticide breakdown and had to reapply ag chemicals to a few fields. The worm pressure looks normal to good.

We have an adequate opportunity to employ workers at our facility, so we haven't felt any of the tight labor supply.

By Marvin Meyers, Fresno County diversified farmer

The heat has rapidly brought on all our crops. Olives for oil are running a little ahead of the usual harvest time. We're shaking almonds and will be picking some up next week. We've got quite a few on the ground.

Everything's going well, as long as we have water. We're still irrigating some of our later nut varieties. We have to stay ahead of it. But with water, everything is fine.

We're all mechanical, so labor isn't a problem. But I understand how difficult the labor market is. I know some fellows who are having real problems.

We're adding some new crops—pistachios that are three or four years old and it will be another year or two before it's economical to harvest. And we've got cherries, but they're young. That will be about two more years before we can harvest and that will require hand labor.

Prices for our almonds are excellent, fantastic. There's a big demand for quality and we do a lot of in-shell almonds, with China and India being our biggest customers for in-shell nuts.

Demand for almonds is there. I never dreamed that we'd sell out 2 billion pounds, but today that barely takes care of the export trade demand. As long as our foreign trading partners have the money to pay for the crop, we'll do all right. Overall, the demand is there.

We're running a little ahead this year, but we'll be harvesting through October. Then it's back to pruning and chipping. We'll put the trees to sleep with a little water and nitrogen. Then we'll start all over again.

The price for cotton is terrible right now and it looks like a bumper crop. I know farmers who say this is the last year they'll grow cotton. The cost of production on the west side of the valley is so much higher than it is on the east. I talked to a buddy and he said pima cotton is about worthless right now.

By Dennis Atkinson, Kern County diversified grower

It has been hot, over 110 degrees, but we're a little higher up and get more breeze. Our pistachio crop looks good and the heat doesn't affect them much.

We've started harvesting grapes—pinot gris and white zinfandel, mostly the fruitier grapes. But our grapes don't seem to be quite as juicy as crops in the past and that will make loads a little lighter, which will affect overall yields.

Almonds are being shaken and we've got about 20 percent of nonpareils on the ground. The crop size isn't overwhelming, but it's really good quality—plump nuts and no insect damage.

We should have a big chunk of the crop on the ground by the end of next week and this hot weather is good for drying. Our people start work at 3 a.m. and go home at noon.

Labor is tight and the heat regulations can complicate things. I can't help but wonder if there is a time when it was not hot during the summer in the San Joaquin Valley. People here who work outside—roofers, concrete workers and farmworkers—know about these conditions.

There's legislation pending right now in Sacramento that could add more heat-related regulations. It's discouraging.

We're plugging along through harvest. Some vineyards are being replaced that will incorporate new technology. We'll be moving to more mechanized vineyard management. That's exciting.

But our biggest problem is still the water. If we had a more reliable supply, we could produce more. Long-range planning and establishing permanent crops are impossible if you don't know how much water you're going to get from year to year.

By Ronnie Leimgruber, Imperial County hay producer

We're in the middle of alfalfa seed harvest and getting into the first cutting of Sudan grass after wheat harvest. But we had two powerful storms and about 50 percent of the crops throughout the valley were down during the rain.

In the valley, there's about 100,000 acres of wheat and we follow that harvest with cutting Sudan grass. The first cutting was just coming off when the storms hit back-to-back. It's difficult to harvest when the crops have been laid down by the water.

The storm damage was worst on the west and I farm in the southeast corner of the county, on the Arizona-Mexico borders. We still got hit here. I'm going to see a reduction in yields and a tremendous reduction in quality due to the rain, especially alfalfa and Sudan hay.

I had about 200 acres of Sudan grass down and another 130 acres of Sudan and alfalfa seed down. I'm looking at about $50,000 to $75,000 worth of crop damage and that doesn't include damage to canals that will have to be repaired or replaced.

All our operating costs remain the same, but we may be looking at a 50 percent drop in the value of our crop. Instead of getting $250 a ton for exported Sudan hay, we'll be lucky to get $60 to $80 a ton for domestic use. The stands have taken a big loss. And, we may not get a second cutting.

We're getting ready for the fall planting season—alfalfa, lettuce, vegetables. Before we can do that, there are at least 10,000 acres that will have to be releveled and, throughout the valley, millions of dollars in ditch repairs to complete.

One good thing is commodity prices are up. Our yields may be down, but market prices will help us cover some of these losses.

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