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From the Fields® - January 20, 2016

By Grant Chaffin, Riverside County diversified grower

We had an early week of freezing temperatures in the low desert of Southern California in late November. This, combined with four days of freezing temperatures in early December, virtually put a stop to alfalfa production and significantly limited growth of our baby potato crop.

Potatoes are being harvested now. I expect the frost damage to decrease yields by 35 percent.

Garlic and onions were planted in late September and the crops show good germination and growth so far. Overall, I expect all commodities to continue to decline in price for 2016. Since the last quarter of 2015, commodity demand has been weak as the prices continue to slip. I expect 2016 to be a difficult year with prices already falling 20 percent to 35 percent.

We will continue to fallow 35 percent of all irrigated farm ground; that water will be diverted to the Los Angeles metropolitan area to help alleviate the drought situation. 2016 is shaping up to be a challenging year.

By Toine Overgaag , Santa Barbara County orchid grower

Even with environmentally controlled greenhouses, weather has played a role in orchid production over the last several months. Relatively hot and humid weather through October accelerated inventory.

Our sales team needed to work with customers in order to manage these levels. During this period, we were able to conduct a Breast Cancer Awareness tie-in promotion with our "Pink Diamond" orchids. Profits of over $28,000 were donated to a local organization, the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Resource Center.

When cooler temperatures arrived in November, our inventory levels dropped below forecast and are now just climbing back to expected levels. This reversed the challenge, as the sales team successfully balanced regular and seasonal orders.

In production, we continue to be challenged by some fungal issues in the early growth phases. Improved hygiene protocols for our team and a round of treatment is starting to make progress. We are setting targets for 2016 to improve this aspect of our business.

From an operations standpoint, we see that continued efforts to create an engaged workforce are paying off. An improved benefits package, better training and companywide events have helped with recruiting and turnover, lowered claims and improved engagement.

Industrywide, the last two years saw both flat overall supply and demand (as at least one direct competitor cut production). For 2016, we are expecting an increase in supply as some healthy new competition enters the market.

By Ed Hale, Imperial County diversified farmer

We've had a real winter this year, with rain and cold temperatures. But the valley produce season started with high temperatures and problems with stands—getting seed germination and the plants to come up.

Because of the drought and reduced crop water in other growing areas, farmers in those areas have been finishing earlier for the past few years. We've been trying to fill the gap and start earlier in the Imperial Valley with winter-grown vegetables, sometimes planting as early as September.

But that pushes the weather limits. It's often quite hot here in September. This year, one of the field managers for a big grower used a laser thermometer to measure temperature at bed level: It was 160 F. That's smokin' hot and explains why we were having problems with stands.

From that weather, we went to colder than normal. The supply gaps widened and resulted in wonderful market prices for farmers and wholesalers. People in the East still wanted to eat salad right through Christmas. A lot of vegetable growers ended up smiling.

But prices for field crop growers—corn, wheat, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa—are in the tank. Very few, even with good yields, see much of a chance for a return. That's mostly due to international commodity markets, which are beyond our control.

A strong dollar and China's economic problems are hurting us now. The world markets are in turmoil. For example, Imperial Valley durum wheat was $19.50 a hundredweight last year. Right now, it's $11. Alfalfa was $280 a ton; now, it's more like $160 a ton.

I've got market onions and new-crop alfalfa planted. I made the decision to plant alfalfa about a year and a half ago. Now, I'm regretting it. There's an awful lot of new hay out there.

But we're relieved there's growing attention on the Salton Sea and see that with improved conservation, we'll be able to end our land fallowing program and increase our production. There's a lot less furrow irrigation going on and we're seeing more overhead sprinkling of crops.

The water savings have been helping pay for investment in more pipe and conservation equipment in the field. And we're looking at redesigning our underground tiling system, placing tiles closer to the soil surface, which may save additional water.

I'm putting in shallower tile on a project I'm working on today. We'll see if that approach provides the kind of added conservation benefits we need.

By Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County diversified grower

These rainstorms are a step in the right direction, but reservoir storage is way below normal. We're encouraged by the snowpack, but we have a long way to go.

Looking at forecasts, February could be when El Niño really hits. But that's the time when we start almond bloom around here. That could be a problem, so it's not time to celebrate yet.

We get supplies through the Central Valley Project and with reservoirs at half of historical average, I'm not optimistic about irrigation water supplies for our district. I'm on the list with a well driller, but it's not clear when they'll be able to get here.

When we look at the water supply picture as a whole, it will take a lot more water in storage before we breathe a little easier. And when we do get some water, we'll need to rethink operations because we can't rely on how precipitation used to be decades ago.

By Sam Dolcini, Marin County cattle rancher

Over here on the coast just above San Francisco, we are enjoying a great winter. So far, we could not ask for better rains. No big storms yet and the ground seems to be taking almost all the moisture it can get.

Some runoff has started and smaller stock ponds are full. Bigger dams are gaining storage. Full stock ponds and filling dams is a wonderful sight.

I'm also hearing lots of reports from mushroom foragers about it being a great year, based on the rains and the timing. We're not out of the drought by a long shot, but things are looking better for this year.

The rains will also help the grass. It is dormant now, but the longer days are the first sign of the coming of warming weather and the grass will start growing.

Most beef producers have branded this year's calf crop and will be starting to give them their booster shots in the next 45 days or so. The beef market has come off some from its all-time highs, and many ranchers are wondering just where the market is going to be in June when most calves are shipped from this area.

All of the dairy producers have their silage crops planted and the crops look like they're off to a good start. These crops are just waiting for some warmer weather as well.

The organic milk market is still healthy, but the few traditional milk producers are seeing their milk check shrink. Thank goodness producers in this area have the option to ship organic milk.

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