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From the Fields® - January 23, 2013

By Jim Spinetta, Amador County winegrape grower

In the zinfandel wine country of the Sierra foothills, our dormant vines have welcomed the unseasonably cold temperatures in January. The sub-freezing nights will stop, or severely limit, harmful overwintering insects and other damaging organisms when buds start popping in early spring.

As a result, less crop-care materials will be needed during the growing season. This equates to savings for the farmer, which will extend eventually to the consumer and the environment.

Most winegrape growers in our region have started pruning their vines. Some owners have their crews use the traditional hand pruners or loppers to prune the overwintering canes. With the unavailability of workers and financial savings, some growers have purchased automated hand pruners to trim the vines.

After the crew finishes pruning a block of grapes in my vineyard, I’ll go through soon after with my seven-foot flail mower and shred up all the cuttings, which will eventually decompose and recycle into the soil.

As farming is annually cyclical, on inclement weather days we maintain farm equipment, lubricate, oil and sharpen tools, as well as fix items from last year’s busy harvest.

By Ken Doty, Santa Barbara County citrus/avocado grower

"Acute brain freeze," which shouldn't be confused with any real medical condition, is the mental state I'm in now. I got into this condition last week after six consecutive nights of frost patrol—checking temps, starting wind machines, changing batteries at midnight, trying to find an obsolete starter after 5 p.m. on a Friday, and listening to meteorologists try to explain cold fronts, cutoff lows, thermalclinal oscillation, gradual warming trends and global warming.

The condition was worsened by trying to maintain normal work hours for the rest of the crew. Then it turned acute while replacing a solenoid that works fine in daylight at 55 degrees, but whimpers and dies at 32 degrees, after dark, 30 feet up a tower.

However, my "condition" is getting better, with symptoms relieved by a good night's sleep and the realization we took no damage to our lemons or avocados from the recent cold spell.

All joking aside, this winter period is about the usual, with lots of time spent on equipment repair and maintenance, various minor tree-care chores, keeping drain lines open and the like. Both the lemon and avocado crops look good.

Rainfall has been above normal to date, so we'll be starting on weed control soon. Last year's avocado returns were a bit disappointing; the lemon returns were good. So, it looks like there's enough in the bank to keep trying to get it right for another year, although right now I'm still feeling pretty sleepy.

By Steve Arnold, San Luis Obispo County diversified grower

We grow oat hay and that’s getting planted now, which is a couple of weeks late for planting. We usually try to go in around New Year’s Day, but we had to wait for things to dry and the ground to warm up enough to plant. Now, we’re good to go.

We dryland farm and in this county it used to be that all the grain and forage crops were farmed that way. Now with all the conservation programs, farming has moved closer to the coast and the eastern part of the county is used more and more for mitigation ground.

Out in our area, there are probably still 1,500 acres that are dryland farmed. We sit in a little hole where we get enough water naturally.

The market for hay crops has been high for the past couple of years. We expect we’ll harvest in the middle of June. We sell by the bale and values depend on the dairy market.

We run cattle and it’s branding season. After the cold snap, we had to start feeding hay again. With the rains in December, the grasses were doing well, but the cold stopped that. Our good oat hay is going into cow feed right now, but that’s OK.

We’ve also got winegrapes and we haven’t pruned the vines yet. We’ll start that in the next couple of weeks.

The cycle for the new crop year is starting anew. The market outlook for all of the commodities looks promising. The grape market looks good and we expect good prices until supply catches up with demand again.

In all, we’re looking forward to the coming crop year. We’ve got a lot of issues that need attention—estate tax, trade, immigration—and we’ll work the policy issues in with the ranch work.

By Will Terry, Ventura County berry and vegetable grower

It appears we are in for an eventful 2013 in Ventura County. Mother Nature got the ball rolling with a weeklong cold snap felt across Southern California. This meant around-the-clock frost control work.

So far, it seems to have paid off. Damage appears to be minimal. I, for one, am happy to get back to a somewhat normal sleep schedule.

However, more sleep will certainly be lost in 2013 due to the ongoing labor crunch. An inelastic labor pool and the addition of more labor-intensive crops have had a compounding effect on Ventura County farmers.

We are projecting a price increase of 15 percent in all of our labor categories for 2013. Ventura County alone has seen an increase of 1,425 acres of strawberries—up more than 16 percent from last year—and also large increases in cane-berry acreage.

These changes are not only affecting available labor, but also rent structures throughout the county. Ground is tight, and anything halfway decent that becomes available on the Oxnard Plain calls for a minimum of $4,000 per acre rent.

Strawberry prices are currently in the dumps and we don’t expect that to change for the next six weeks, due to large volumes currently being shipped out of Florida and Mexico. Florida’s strawberry acreage has been increasing in size and Mexico’s deal has grown significantly with a 4,286-acre increase from last year.

On a more positive note, celery prices are great and our yields have been good, as well. We are cautiously optimistic about vegetable prices as we begin to finalize our plans for the spring and summer.

By Stan Lester, Yolo County nut and fruit grower

Lately, I’ve had some of my urban friends ask if the cold weather is harming our operation or our trees. I’ve explained that, with the exception of making it difficult for our men to work outside, it is helping our trees.

They are surprised with my answer, but I go on to say our fruit and nut trees need a certain number of hours below 45 degrees, for what is called winter dormancy. The deciduous tree crop that needs the least amount of winter dormancy is almonds, which need 350 to 500 hours.

The other extreme are crops like cherries, peaches, apples and pears. They need from 1,000 hours to as many as 1,200 hours. In between are crops like walnuts that need about 800 hours and apricots that need between 700 and 1,000 hours.

I checked our local CIMIS weather station and on Jan 15 we had 690 hours, so we are in pretty good shape for the walnuts, apricots, cherries and peaches we raise. When we have adequate winter dormancy, it generally means the fruit buds will flower more evenly and more compactly, which makes for more evenly sized fruit or nuts.

The winter dormancy, along with the good rainfall, should bode well for some good fruit and nut crops, but we shall see what Mother Nature has in store for us growers for this year.

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