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From the Fields® - August 20, 2014

By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County Brussels sprouts farmer

We had a nice and typically foggy summer—good sprout-growing weather. It's good for the crop, but not for the tourists. We started handpicking a few weeks ago and will continue with that until the middle of September.

In years past, there wasn't much demand for early market sprouts, but that has changed and we've seen a lot of early season consumer interest in the past few years. After hand harvest is completed during the next eight weeks, we'll start harvesting with machines and then things will really ramp up.

The crop is pretty much on time and we anticipate that will continue. We started "topping" last week on the sprouts that will be machine harvested. That's usually done about 55 days before harvest.

Topping of the terminal point on the plant is done by hand to stop it from growing. Then the energy can be redirected to developing the sprouts, for nice and even maturity. Topping involves a single worker removing the terminal growth on about 13,000 plants a day, which is usually the number of plants in a one-acre field.

Labor Day is when we see demand really increase. The holidays are our big times—Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, to tell the truth, demand in the past few years has been strong all year. Our Mexican deal was great this year from January to when we quit in June.

We've seen acreage planted to Brussels sprouts go way up during the past couple of years. And water hasn't been a big problem for us yet. But there are issues now that stream flows are considerably down. Some growers have had to switch to using city water, which is much more expensive. And some acres that would have been planted to sprouts have been curtailed.

We're looking for good coastal weather in coming months, and fewer tourists on the road, as we begin the big part of our harvest.

By Guy Rutter, Sacramento County beekeeper

Right now we are into some hot weather, and due to the drought we have reached the point that most of the honey sources aren't there anymore. We feel that feeding bees and taking care of our bees is going to be a critical part of the rest of the season. There is a little bit of crop pollination in some areas and there may be a little bit of surplus honey that can be extracted.

Ongoing treatments for colony diseases is something we do year-round. This is part of our inspection and treatment program, as well as the feeding of the bees. Something that we have been talking about for a long time now is colony collapse and right now, if the hives are in a good area where they have some food and sources for good pollen and nectar, they are doing fine. In other areas where they are marginal, they aren't doing as well.

This year we aren't sending any hives out of state. We traveled a little bit out of the state to see what is going on and can see that there are some better floral sources due to the difference in weather there. It is kind of food for thought for the future, because if we have an extended drought into next year we won't be able to sustain much.

Our choice this year was that we would see how the weather was and now that we are into the drought, we decided to not develop more hives because it would be enough of a challenge to maintain the hives that we have. As much as we would like to do it, it just isn't in the cards.

We are hoping that we do have a few colonies that will produce honey so we can fill our orders for the rest of the year. We hope the weather cools off a little bit because we will be doing quite a bit of feeding going into the fall.

By Stan Lester, Yolo County diversified grower

We're almost two-thirds through our summer and a lot of crops are in harvest mode or close to it. The cherries, apricots and now peaches are all harvested.

The cherry crop was a complete wipe-out due to lack of proper chill hours for the trees. I think there were a few cherries for the birds! There was a nice apricot and peach crop: nice size, good color and very sweet. We sold a lot of this fresh and in fruit pies at our bakery. We cut and dried whatever we didn't sell fresh or in baked goods.

By the time you read this, we should be harvesting prunes or dried plums. The crop really varies this year. Some orchards have a light to normal crop; other orchards have a very light crop. Some orchards will not even be picked. Fortunately, the crop value has increased, so some growers will still harvest their small crops. This year's crop will result in very large and very sweet dried plums.

The water situation has been very difficult this year. So far we have had three wells break suction, but have been fortunate enough to only need to lower the pump bowls. We were also fortunate to have had three new wells drilled in the last two years to replace old wells that were failing. We have two other wells that are showing signs of breaking suction. We are hoping for cooler weather for the rest of the summer and fall so that there will be less need to irrigate.

We use soil moisture sensors in most of our orchards to determine the water needs of the trees. We have been doing this for the last five to six years or more. This tool has been especially helpful this year.

Most of the row crop growers have stopped irrigating the crops now, so that should help ease the pressure on the groundwater. Most of the growers in our area have never seen the groundwater level drop this low before. We have not seen groundwater levels this low even during our last severe drought of 1976-1977. I hope and pray that we have at least normal rain and snow this year; otherwise, we all will be in a very serious situation next year.

We're looking forward to a good walnut harvest starting in about five weeks. The crop looks good both in size and quality. As is happening in other tree crops, we are anticipating the crop ripening about a week earlier than normal.

In the meantime, we're wishing everyone a successful harvest season and conclusion to this difficult year.

By Pete Belluomini, Kern County diversified grower

Our main spring and summer potato crop is harvested and complete. The prices got pretty sloppy over the summer because big growers in the Northwestern states had more potatoes in storage than was originally reported. That hurt our prices.

Now we've started planting the fall crops, and we're working to get them going. The water situation means we have to pick and choose our planting spots. The drought has narrowed our field choices, and we have to calculate which properties have enough water to host a crop.

We can't afford to take a chance on fields where water is iffy. On some properties, the surface water source is not dependable, and we don't want to stretch wells too thin. We look at the mix of water sources and adjust our management decisions accordingly.

We've fallowed some ground, but mainly the lack of water means we're unable to double crop, and we don't have the water for rotational crops to maintain soil health and tilth. Those crops are not being done. As we get into the fall, the rotational grain crops—sudan hay, wheat, for example—aren't being planted.

In our situation, we haven't stopped farming and we're trying to be water smart. We're working with six-month, prorated water allotments, which can be used up in a week or stretched out over six months, but basically that's all we got.

There are a lot of permanent crops in our water district—citrus and grapes—so growers have had to protect those crops for the long term. Some row crops just didn't get planted.

Overall, we budgeted and we were conservative with our water use. When it's all said and done, we'll come out of the season just fine. But nobody has a crystal ball; the drought is still a long way from being over.

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