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From the Fields® - June 18, 2014

By Joe Colace Jr., Imperial County diversified grower

We continue to be very warm here; for the past 12 days we have been running four to 10 degrees above average. We did hit 112 degrees one day and 107-plus on several others. This continues to move up everything ahead of schedule. If you look at our planting schedules, whether it is melons, sweet corn or citrus, everything is running ahead of projected schedule. We actually started picking lemons here on June 9, which is the earliest we have ever started in the 18 years that we have been involved in citrus.

The warm winter really had quite an effect. The Imperial Valley dealt with mosaics in the melon crop and that affected the overall yield by a minimum of 40 percent. It was a tough melon crop.

Our mild winter was beneficial to the sweet corn. There were some strong wind during April and early May that was a little harsh on pollination of the corn.

By and large, this has been a very interesting year. I think farmers frequently make the comment that it is a unique year; in my opinion, this is truly a unique year.

We felt very comfortable in terms of our labor needs. Part of that is because the yields were off with the melons so it didn’t require the same amount of labor to harvest and pack. The onion crop and corn crop were all early, but there were enough people looking for work, so we were fine.

We are fortunate in the Imperial Valley that the Colorado River is our primary source of water. We as a farm community are becoming more and more efficient in the way we manage our water because we know there is a lot of pressure throughout the western United States. We are trying to become conservative to the point where it is costing us more money, but we are doing our part to try to conserve the water and still maintain the amount of growing commodities that this valley has always done over the years.

By Dana Merrill, San Luis Obispo County winegrape grower

Labor was a big issue again this year in the spring, similar to last year. It was worse in some cases, as planting has been busy and much in-field suckering and shoot positioning goes on at the same time. Also, there are more crops to compete with the labor pool, such as hoop houses and cane berries. In Paso Robles, labor travels from the Salinas Valley or the San Joaquin Valley and if they can find work closer, they take it. Even with the water shortage in the San Joaquin Valley, it has not seemed to help in Paso Robles in terms of finding labor.

Regarding water, the well levels in the most affected areas are clearly dropping faster this year than last. Well drillers now are prioritizing where they drill new wells, trying to favor rural residential folks who have lost their only source of water. Most vineyards are a bit better off. There is a six- to nine-month delay to get a well drilled now. We have some westside Paso Robles ranches now in the state of supply it would be normal to find on a dry year, but in October, not June. And the west side is not even under urgency ordinance restrictions. It will be a long summer with July-September still upcoming.

The grape market seems a bit less firm this year for varieties other than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in certain locations. Relatively larger crops the past couple of years have meant an ample bulk wine supply, so there is a bit less early demand. Still, the wine market is strong compared to many years and we have sold a good percentage of our fruit. Merlot and zinfandel seem to have the softest demand right now.

By Brian Fedora, Colusa County walnut grower

This will be a challenging year for most of us in California. Water is the topic we continue to talk about. Unless you are on wells, more than likely you are facing some sort of water cuts. It has made all of us with walnuts rethink how we are going to water this summer. Although we are still watering the crop, we could see further cuts, and if that happens we will alter our plan and only be watering to save the trees. There are many fallow fields I am not used to seeing. I have been reading that this will be a wet fall and winter and I am hoping they are right.

To date, the walnut crop looks above average. Early varieties are very heavy with many double and triple nut clusters. The later varieties also look very good. A sign that there is a good crop is broken limbs, and we are starting to see quite a few in the orchards. Insects to date have not been much of a problem; however, with this last week giving us our first 100-degree hot spell, I am sure the insect population is going to trend upward.

Walnuts continue to be highly desired in the marketplace. With so many studies showing various health benefits, consumption has been going up the last few years and that has also been bringing up the price. This year also looks to be a good year for walnuts. I believe the weather conditions have been really good for a high quality crop. I am hopeful the summer will not be too hot and burn them.

I am hopeful that all growers are able to survive our difficult water situation and very much desire new talks and action on future water storage.

By Tonetta Gladwin, Merced County fig grower

The crop is very early this year because of a combination of heat and lack of water, lack of rain. Figs come in two seasons—the first crop and the second crop. The first crop is primarily irrigated by rainwater, and because of the lack of rainwater for the last two years, it’s brought both seasons on earlier than normal last year and this year.

We’re harvesting now and will be done with the first crop the end of this week. We started on the 5th of June, which is one of the earliest start dates in the 23 years I’ve been doing this.

Even though we irrigate in May and we did have an irrigation before harvest, stress brings on the fruit, which came early. This is probably going to occur for the second crop, which we normally start around the 5th of August here in Merced. We probably will be starting the 25th of July, which is two weeks early.

We will probably finish the season early, because with figs, our season predicates on how much irrigation water we put on. We normally go until it rains, which is at the end of October, but because we’ve had such a dry year, we probably will run out of fruit before then.

The quality is very good. The size is very good and typical. With the second crop, we will probably see smaller sizes and a shorter season.

Fig trees are a desert tree, so they don’t need the water allocations that some other crops and permanent crops need. So we’re a little bit insulated from the problems of drought because of the nature of our trees. It is a tree that’s lived in the Middle East in very hot climates. You can treat a fig tree pretty poorly and it’s still going to keep going.

So the propagation will be OK, but it’ll be diminished by how many days we have of harvest. Rather than having about two months of harvest, we’re probably going to have six weeks of harvest with normal production every day.

We service not only wholesale and retail markets, but we also are one of the only shippers that do mail order, so we’re able to provide a box shipped to North Carolina, Chicago and all the places where they’re looking for figs but can’t find them. We talk to people every day from around the country who are looking for figs, which are just not common in most markets. It’s nice that we’re able to provide that one unit to next-day air shipment all over the 48 states. We’ve done mail order for the last four or five years. Every year, we get return customers and a few more.

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