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From the Fields® - June 17, 2015

By Tony Toso, Mariposa County beef producer

We are hot and dry, just like everyone else. We got a few late rains that maybe put a little water in the ponds and settled the dust. The cattle and calves that I have been shipping from other ranches have done really well this year. The quality is good; the weights are good. In fact, most cattle are meeting or exceeding their base weights. I've heard that there are somewhat lower pregnancy rates as far as getting them bred back.

The market has been on an upswing the last couple weeks, so the price of cattle looks pretty good. Overall, we have had really strong prices all spring, and the demand has been pretty good.

Other than some people having little feed, it looks like even though we didn't get a lot of rain, the rains were well placed and the gains were fairly good.

Most producers are still feeling the sting of having to feed hay. We are still going to have to feed hay; by no means are we out of the woods. It's dire as far as us losing our ponds and springs. I have adequate water so far, but on one of our ranches we have no water at all. We have decided that we will stick with raising our own replacement heifers and just eking this thing out until we get back to a more normal water situation.

Pricing-wise, this year is going to be OK. But we will have to watch next year, because there are other places like Texas and the Midwest where they are getting rain. Those ranchers are going to be able to expand their herds quicker than we are. So that will make more calves available, and that will set the price.

By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower

While we were blessed with some nice rains in the last months of 2014, raising hopes for a more "normal" rain and snow year, the winter of 2015 saw Northern California continue to live up to its old descriptions from when settlers first viewed the Central Valley and called it semi-arid. Many old writings suggested that the dry, grassy plains would never be good for much.

With the arrival of Reclamation and the completion of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, our Mediterranean climate has proven to be ideal for the production of a diversity of crops, rice prominent among them. We farm rice along the Colusa Basin Drain, or Reclamation 2047 Canal, which was originally constructed for summer irrigation drainage, connecting all those creeks and drains that formerly died upon the plains prior to the arrival of the water projects.

We, along with many folks from Willow Creek southeast of Willows to Knights Landing, have appropriative water rights issued by the state of California to divert waters from the Colusa Basin Drain during the spring and summer irrigation seasons. Those rights are junior to many others in the North State and unfortunately subject to curtailment in years such as 2014 and 2015.

As such, we had few options this spring other than fallowing a large percentage of the rice lands and planting a small amount of rice. What rice we did get planted this year in the basin looks good. If there is a positive side to the dry early spring weather, it is that we were able to get these basin soils good and dry prior to planting, which is a necessity for efficient stand establishment and early weed suppression. But we continue to have fits with weed control.

The overall water picture in California seems to be undergoing a major paradigm shift. The issues are far bigger than simply the shortage of rainfall and snowpack. Our old common-law system of water rights and allocation are facing significant challenges. The loosening of impediments to marketing of water, and the resulting effect that water can and will move from lower to higher value crops, or away from agricultural production completely, promises to create some huge new challenges for our agricultural industry.

By Tonetta Gladwin, Merced County fig farmer

We are reliant on the Merced Irrigation District. I do not have any wells. They are not giving any surface water to farmers here in our county, so we have zero water allocation for the year. We are trying to do some work-arounds to try to get some water to the fields.

We did have a June drop. When there's lack of water to a fig tree, it will drop its fruit to try to survive. The fig tree is a desert tree, so it needs almost half of what nut trees take. So it's not that we need a lot of water to begin with for fig trees, but no water means that they're going to abort some of their fruit. We're using our domestic wells to get a little bit of water to the fields primarily to keep the trees alive. We've had minimal water for the last couple of years. Our trees will survive a year with no water. They just will abort their crop, though.

I have 30 acres of new plantings that I have no water to and I will probably lose those. Where the new trees are, I don't have any water available to me. It's just so hard to watch them die. It's five years of investment. It's five years going out and babying those trees, watering them with tanks, and now I don't have any choice but to watch them go. It's only June. I've got to get to October and I'm hoping it'll rain. There's no surface water in sight. I've been farming for 15 years myself; I'm a third-generation fig farmer and never has it been this bad. There's water going by us, but it's not for us. Meanwhile, how do I make the mortgage payment?

We just started harvest for the first crop, but it's very light. The fruit is very good. It's just very expensive to pick; it's all hand done. I've got one employee right now, where normally I would probably have 50. I'm trying to get my labor back and keep a few people working. I have a very loyal labor pool that has come to me for the last 15 years. I just don't have the work for them because I have so little to pick. Last year was a really tough year for us to get through. I just don't quite know yet how we're going to do it this year.

By Mark Watte, Tulare County diversified grower

We were on a waiting list for well drillers for close to two years. I finally got them in and we had eight wells drilled. Now we are waiting on the pump company, which will be another six to eight months.

We will fallow about 30 percent of our row-crop land because of lack of water. The crops we have are fine and normal. I am seeing higher than normal bug pressure in our cotton. We sprayed it two or three times already, which is unusual. But it is progressing normally.

On the dairy side of things, we are stable. We will probably break even, nothing more than that.

The one thing that isn’t looking good is our pistachios. The lack of chill is what we are blaming it on and the crop definitely looks less than last year, at least on our acreage. It is quite disappointing. All in all, even with the additional acreage, I don’t think we are going to make the overall production that we made last year.

At the end of the day, it is all about water.

By Jeff Merwin, Yolo County alfalfa and seed grower

Between well-timed rain and irrigation, we were able to finish the wheat crop, and are preparing to start harvest with the organic grains first.

Safflower looks good too, and it will be blooming earlier than usual due to early planting and adequate, but not ample, moisture. Thankfully, the weather has been mild.

I am almost finished with the second cutting of alfalfa. The first cutting was reduced due to late aphid pressure and lack of rainfall. The onion seed crop looks fair to good, and other seed crops look excellent.

I have seen the first two agricultural wells in our district drilled within the last two weeks, which is disturbing to us old timers here. Our district does not have well water, so there is concern about potential curtailment of our most senior water rights, but we are currently irrigating crops that need it with no problems. I'm looking forward to a wet winter.

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