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From the Fields® - January 22, 2014

By George Tibbitts, Colusa County rice farmer

There’s nothing much going on right now other than equipment maintanence. Since it’s so dry, we’re also doing some road maintenance. It’s very unusual to be able to do this in January.

In our water district, Reclamation District 108, we had what ended up being a one-shot opportunity to flood our fields in October for rice straw decomposition purposes. I usually wait until November to do that, since the price for water is less expensive. But I’m glad I didn’t wait, since there were no water diversions allowed for such purposes in November.

Most of the water has soaked in or evaporated now, but it pretty much did the job of breaking down the straw. Unfortunately, with drier fields for this time of year—since we haven’t had any rain—we aren’t seeing the presence of much waterfowl.

Looking ahead to spring, there’s very much uncertainty. While there’s still plenty of time for rain and snow, the forecasts aren’t too enouraging.

There could end up being much less rice produced in California in 2014, and already that’s being reflected in the prices we’re receiving for the 2013 crop, which have been creeping up. If that situation holds, market prices for the 2014 crop should be even higher—but only for those growers who are fortunate enough to get any water to grow a crop.

By Joe Martinez, Solano County tree crop farmer

We’ve been planting trees and pruning, getting a major part of that work done. We’re ahead of schedule because of dry conditions and we’re very concerned about the drought. We have well water we can draw on, so we should have an adequate supply in Solano County, but I also grow in Yolo County and the water situation there is more uncertain.

Driving past my neighbor’s farm today, I saw a well drilling rig working. Getting groundwater is one thing, but there are a lot of other ways to get water and improve the efficiency in how it’s used. One thing we really need is more storage, and we need to look at desalination to supply coastal communities and ease the demand pressure on the rest of the state.

We’ll continue with our season, pre-irrigate and apply bloom sprays in the almonds. There are a lot of new orchards going in around us.

Labor is a constant concern. The supply of workers continues to be tight, but depending on how much land is fallowed in the valley, we find more workers are available. It’s hard to know.

It would be good if we got a federal guestworker program so we could count on a labor supply and plan for it.

By Richard Collins, Solano County diversified grower

We just finished field harvest of our chicory roots under glorious harvest conditions, unfortunately because it is so dry. The weather was great, so we are done digging chicory root. This is our 30th season here. Chicory root is the rootstock from which we produce our endive.

We just came out of a very robust holiday season demand and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough product to supply all the demand as we had short production of one of our lots. So it was very frustrating. I know why we are still the only grower in America after 30 years. It is very challenging.

We will now start planning for next year’s crop that will be planted in about four or five weeks. We start harvesting in late September and finish in January. Right now, everything is in cold storage, so we have enough roots to last us basically for the next nine months, and then we will start all over.

We have hops on our home ranch that will be expanded by about five acres by Ruhstaller Brewery, so there will be close to seven acres of hops right by the highway there on Interstate 80. They are hoping to build a farmstead brewery there.

We are busy with our other things. There are two young growers who are graduates of California Farm Academy and they will be producing about six to eight acres of intensive vegetable crops right next to the hop field and fruit stand.

The weather is such a great concern. We irrigated hops, orchards and berries throughout the winter. Luckily, it was all on drip; nonetheless, it is scary to see such dry conditions. I saw wheat being irrigated in Dixon. What is a farmer going to do?

By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County Brussels sprouts farmer

We just finished harvesting and now it’s time to clean up equipment and pay everybody. We had an average to above-average crop. The weather was good—it didn’t rain. Dry fields have benefits for our winter crop, but we want it to rain like crazy now.

In 2013, we got less than five inches on the Santa Cruz County coast and we’re starting to have some concern about how our well will hold up. So far water levels haven’t dropped too much, but we’re concerned about not getting normal rainfall amounts.

We haven’t had to deal with saltwater intrusion—knock on wood—but it’s happening all around us and it’s a possibility, if these dry conditions continue.

The market for sprouts has been good. Popularity of Brussels sprouts has increased tremendously and we’ve had good demand all year long. Although we don’t have expansion plans, more growers are planting the crop and acres have expanded considerably, mostly in Monterey County.

Some of the bigger vegetable shippers are planting their own fields, rather than sourcing from growers in counties to the north. That’s a concern for us.

Looking ahead to the first part of March, we’ll start working the ground up again and continue through the end of April. We have to plant a cover crop and then disk it back into the ground to replace nitrogen. We’re optimistic 2014 will be a good crop year.

By Norm Yenni, Sonoma County hay and grain farmer

Rain, or lack thereof, is the first topic on any farmer’s mind these days. As a dryland farmer, I’m totally dependent on it. Just like the millions of acres of pastureland, if we get no rain, there’s no crop. Irrigation is not an option for me. Those who can irrigate worry about falling water tables or diminished supply.

Hay supply in this area is going fast. Haulers that are normally looking for work this time of year are now busy moving what they can find, often from great distances and at increasing prices. Most often, this time of year, I’ll have 20 loads of hay in storage. This year, I have three, and they were reserved for regular customers months ago.

As a drought strategy, I’ve planted my crops much earlier than normal, to utilize what rain we may get. Since there is no moisture to sprout up seed left from last year, I’m not rotating any crops. I’m also using more vertical tillage, which disturbs the soil less and helps retain what moisture I have. There’s a lot of money invested in seed, diesel fuel and labor, all in faith that it will rain.

Vineyard owners are maybe a little better off. Wells and drip irrigation can produce a crop, but many reservoirs are at low levels, and if the water isn’t there for frost protection, there can be some real damage. With rivers at historic low flows, pumping water for frost can cause fish strandings, a huge no-no.

With municipal water supplies not at critical levels yet, I’m not sure the general public knows how serious this is. Agriculture has a lot at risk here, and little means to control it. A little prayer is in order.

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