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From the Fields® - September 5, 2012

By Janet Kister, San Diego County nursery grower

At this time of year, we're busy putting finishing touches on our fall and winter plants—spacing cyclamen and sunflowers, giving the rosemary holiday trees their final prune and coordinating the weekly blooming schedule for Christmas cactus.

At the same time, we're working on the critical task of programming and ordering the spring plants and propagative material, based on plans finalized last month. Meanwhile, the sales team is working twice as hard to sell half as many plants during the late summer doldrums.

Fortunately, we're starting to see sales pick up a bit as we head into September, an important element for cash flow, as well as for successive crops needing to occupy the same space.

The hot, humid weather we experienced throughout August has resulted in a pest explosion. The pressure of high numbers of thrips and caterpillars on neighboring properties moving onto the nursery has created a challenge to keep up. With cooler evening temperatures, we're now able to treat safely on a regular basis.

To remain competitive, we need to continuously evaluate our product mix and facilities. However, pending state legislative bills on agriculture overtime and heat stress for agricultural workers have put all future strategic plans on hold. The outcome of these bills will determine the changes we will be forced to make and if they can realistically work.

By Brad Goehring, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

The white winegrape harvest got off to a bit of a late start this year, but is currently in full swing. Yields appear to be about normal and it should be a great year for quality.

Mother Nature was very kind to us this year in that we had no adverse weather to deal with. Temperatures for the past few weeks have been in the mid-90s, which creates ideal weather going into and during harvest.

Driving around the countryside you can see some vineyards that appear to be very stressed, most likely due to a lack of adequate water. Keep in mind we only had half of our normal rainfall this past winter. Many growers irrigated during the dry spell of January and February and for those who didn’t, some vineyards may have some reduced yields and a hard time in the final stretch ripening the fruit.

The red winegrape harvest should be starting any time, again with yields around normal and with good quality.

Finding adequate and available labor has been the biggest struggle this year in our family’s four generations of growing wine grapes in Lodi. We are fortunate in one sense that right now during harvest, the bulk of our fruit is able to be machine harvested.

By Stan Lester, Yolo County walnut grower

Staying up with the water needs of the trees is keeping us busy. With all the hot weather, it has been a battle. We monitor with soil sensors and it takes time to get water through the orchards.

At the same time, we monitor for insects. Right now we’re checking for walnut husk fly. We’re pretty much past codling moth issues.

Between irrigations, we have to stay on top of weed pest control. Getting in and out when things are dry is a balancing act.

We try to stay ahead of the curve with the water so, if needed, the trees can withstand a four- or five-day hot spell. When it has been hot, we can’t let up—it’s seven days a week. We opt to irrigate nights and weekends because running pumps at peak times is expensive.

With the long heat spell, we may have some sunburn, but it’s hard to tell right now. Unless we get up on top of the trees, you really can’t see the damage. There’s bound to be some damage. We’ll have to wait and see.

It looks like we’ll begin harvest at about a normal time—late September. It depends on the packing tissue of the walnuts. When that’s mature, they’ll be ready.

By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County vegetable farmer

We're hand-picking Brussels sprouts right now. The crop looks good with more early sprouts this year, but the price isn't as good as in past years. But the quality is really nice.

Growing conditions have been typical for a coastal summer—foggy mornings and sunny afternoons, then the fog comes back in—ideal for Brussels sprouts. But, not ideal for beachgoers. We usually get our best weather in late September and early October and all the tourists are gone, which makes the roads easier for shipping.

Labor is tight. We're not able to get the number of people we'd like, probably 30 percent less than we need. Our need for labor is going to increase as harvest progresses. We're hoping the labor supply will increase when the strawberry harvest decreases.

I've participated in the labor survey California Farm Bureau Federation sent out and I've encouraged the other growers to fill it out, too (see Comment). We need to know what other farmers are seeing in terms of labor availability.

We're seeing signs on the street advertising farm jobs, which we never used to see. We can't even get labor contractors to come out with crews. Everybody's feeling it.

When we start machine harvesting at the end of September, we're going to need a lot more people to help with the packing and shipping. I hope they'll be there.

We're going into our holiday push in coming weeks. Canadian Thanksgiving is Oct. 8, and Brussels sprouts are a traditional part of the holiday meal.

We always hope the rain will hold off until January and then start to come down. We didn't get a lot of rain until March last year. Late rains delayed planting, which is making harvest a bit late this year.

By Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County diversified farmer

After a year of work, we’ve started our harvest with both almonds and prunes coming off right now. The crops are looking very good, overall.

We started shaking almonds about two weeks ago, but the prunes are a bit slower this year. Usually, we’re about a week apart with harvesting these crops. This year, however, the gap is about two weeks apart. People are blaming a mild summer for the slower maturity for prunes.

Our prune sugars aren’t at the level we’d like to see. We’ve been having a hard time getting the levels up, but that seems to be the situation across the growing area.

Once the fruit is in the bins and the crop runs through the dehydrator, however, the dried fruit looks excellent: no brown rot on the fruit and virtually no side cracking from being water-stressed earlier in the year.

The almond yield looks a little better than last year. Quality-wise, concerns before harvest that reject levels might be up haven’t turned out to be a problem. Field samples look like we’re going to be OK. In fact, the crop looks as good as any other year.

Water hasn’t been an issue, especially for farmers with district water. Those who pump, however, are finding groundwater levels are dropping, particularly on the west side of the county. With a 100 percent allocation of district water, we’re doing fine.

Temperatures have been really nice to work in this harvest, which makes it easier for employees. The drawback is the almonds have been slow to dry down. The wildfires in the surrounding mountains have created a lot of smoky days in the valley and farmers are saying that has slowed the almond drying because of the lack of direct sunlight.

But the skies are starting to clear up and we’re looking forward to moving right along.

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