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From the Fields® - March 5, 2014

By Greg Wegis, Kern County diversified grower

This drought has cost us a lot of money in rehabbing and drilling new wells to make up for the 0 percent allocation from the State Water Project. I wish we didn't have to pay for our state water, because we aren't receiving any. Some well rehabs have gone well and others have been disappointing. We have been waiting to drill two more wells for three months and we are still hoping our well driller gets to us soon. I need to have these wells operational by May 1 or we will be stressing trees. Pump companies are backed up. A common response when calling the pump companies and asking when they can get to your issue, the answer is simply, "I don't know. Let me call you back in a week or so and I'll have a better idea." That isn't very comforting, but it is reality.

Our alfalfa is looking very good. We had to spray all fields for aphid already. We will be working on our first cuttings in a week or two. Our wheat is looking good as well. No issues to report. We also will be planting tomatoes in about 10 days.

The almonds are in full bloom and we had to apply fungicides just before this rain event this weekend (March 1-2). We've had good bloom weather until now, but I'll take the rain and snow over missing a few good days of pollination. We are applying our first shot of fertilizer now. The bloom looks to be surprisingly concentrated and maybe just a few days early. We were all worried about the warm January and thinking we would see a flash bloom, but that didn't materialize. Bee quality is a lot better than last year as well.

We expect our cherries to bloom in another seven to 10 days. We had close to 1,000 hours of chill hours this winter, which is good. Our pistachios are still dormant and we are pre-irrigating.

By Mark Watte, Tulare County diversified farmer

I'm standing here watching it rain. We are all aflutter around here. Our alfalfa is coming along fine; we treated it for aphids. We will be doing our first cutting in late March if we get a break from the weather. Everything else is doing well. We have put on our third irrigation of wheat already, which is way ahead of schedule. This is indicative of how dry it has been.

Everything else is pretty quiet. Our cows are milking well. That is one good thing with the dry weather; there isn't any stress on the cows.

Of course, it is all about water. Every morning I get a call from one of my irrigators, and I just cringe with fear that there will be a report of a well failure. But we have some contingency plans. It truly is a "game-time decision" regarding crop rotation. A very common crop rotation in this area is to chop the wheat for silage and come back with corn or blackeyes as a double crop. So we will evaluate that situation and, depending on what water we will have for the summer, may cut back on the number of acres of corn and/or possibly instead of corn we will plant some sorghum, which takes less water. It is much better to have 100 percent crop on 50 percent of the acres than a 50 percent crop on 100 percent of the acres.

My first priority this summer if we run short is to discontinue irrigating the alfalfa and let it go dormant. We will short any of our row crops to support our pistachios.

Another strategy concerns cotton. We typically plant acala cotton here in Tulare County, but the pima cottons are definitely more drought-tolerant and if we are late with an irrigation, the pima withstands it much better. So I am going to scatter pima around on some of the ranches, just to give me some flexibility if that happens.

By Larry Massa, Glenn County diversified farmer

We've been feeding cattle, which is not normal for this time of year, but our pastures haven't been producing an adequate amount of grass because of the drought. It's not normal, but we've been keeping our herd going. We usually keep our cows on winter range west of Willows, but we're bringing them in sooner than usual. We've already culled pretty heavily, but still have some yearling steers. Beef prices have been phenomenal. It's the one saving grace in this crisis.

We got through the drought of 1977 without our wells going dry, but we had them tested because it has been dry for several years. Right now, we have one well that's not very strong. Whether that well or the others make it through the summer depends on how dry it gets. We've never seen it this dry before. I know people in Elk Creek who are bringing in water. They're running water trucks seven day a week, 24 hours a day.

Between buying feed and water, maintaining a herd is becoming cost prohibitive. These conditions really force you to think about your operation.

By Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County winegrape grower

The grape industry as a whole is feeling healthy. Grape and wine sales both have been excellent. Even with all the good news, all we are talking about is the drought. We use the water for two main purposes: frost protection and irrigation. The local water district has just adopted a 50 percent mandatory cutback for its customers in an effort to make the water last until this November. In addition, unless base flows at the Hopland river gauge are over 100 cubic feet per second in the Russian River, the water district will not be able to make compensatory releases to mitigate for direct diversion for frost. Farmers lucky enough to have ponds have them topped off and will be able to frost-protect. The majority of farmers don't have ponds and as a result of the low flows will not be able to protect their fruit. This is devastating news for the pear and grape farmers in our region.

Much to my disappointment, the activist community has targeted ponds. They have vandalized two ponds resulting in the loss of significant water. This has been a blow to the ag community, which has put so much time and effort to protect both the fish and their crops. Ponds are the No. 1 way to alleviate the demands on our watersheds. Today it is raining. We are all hoping for a "miracle March."

By Ed Hale, Imperial County diversified farmer

Because of the drought here in California, there's been awful lot of trucks showing up here in Southern California and Imperial Valley from the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, where they just don't have any forage. There was a period when the alfalfa hay market went up about $50 in about eight days. This seemed to coincide with Jerry Brown's disclosure that we were having a drought. After he said that, all of these trucks showed up. They bought up most of the hay that had been stacked—the summer hay from last year—and some new hay. Now, we finished our first cutting on some hay and are working towards our second. Prices, while they are not records, have definitely gone up higher than they were at the start of last year.

We're planting our field corn right now. Because of the warm weather in the desert and the cold weather back east, the produce market generally speaking was pretty atrocious…really bad prices. Warm weather in the desert leads to large size, everybody gets a crop and there's a huge crop. Then, when you have all of the cold weather that we had back east, two things happen. One, nobody wants to eat salad when it is freezing outside and second, it is very hard to get trucks back there to deliver produce. It generally depresses the heck out of the market.

The weather is fine and we're looking forward to a good corn crop. The price of corn is down a third of what it was last year. Last year, it was very high because of the drought. We're optimistically looking forward to some decent prices on it, but we don't expect to see the prices that we had last year.

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