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From the Fields® - September 2, 2020

By Andrée Soares, Merced County sheep rancher

Our typical (targeted) grazing season goes from about mid-February to the first part of September. This year, it's being extended.

Based on the new calls I'm getting, we will be grazing probably until mid-October, at least. Normally, we're winding down in the next two, three weeks. We typically would have everything home in the Los Banos area, but I think it's going to change for us quite a bit.

Right now, all of our animals, about 5,500 head, are still out grazing on contracts. Of those, the breeding animals are pregnant, so it's time for them to start coming home where we can get them on some higher-quality feed to meet their nutritional demands. That will start happening, but our nonbreeding stock—and we have quite a few of those—typically, they're also coming home, because this is normally the end of the grazing season, but it's extending this year because of the circumstances and the fires lately.

In the last 10 days, I've gotten a lot of calls interested in new grazing projects. We're doing some juggling with our animals and scheduling to see how we can make that work.

We do have some labor issues. Our H-2A herders all come from Peru and because of COVID, the Peruvian borders have been shut down completely for travel. We have a limited resource of herders to use. It's difficult for me to pull in additional labor. That's been a challenge for the whole sheep industry this year.

We have done a little bit of consolidation and made larger herds, and we also have been able to get some transfers because of the joint employer that we work with. They're able to transfer from another sheep producer that uses H-2A. They can transfer herders to us as long as they're within the same association, so that has worked for us so far. But if I could have two more herders right now, I could have that much more work available to me.

We did have to evacuate two herds out of the fire's path this year. That was something we hadn't had to do before. We were able to get them in and out in enough time. The herders were in areas where the smoke was pretty heavy and we had to get them N95 masks. We revisited our evacuation plan, which in some cases means if we can't get trucks to the animals fast enough, the plan is we take down the fences and let them loose if we can't get out.

By Scott Long, San Joaquin County pork producer

It's been a roller coaster. The year started out great. We were doing really good up until COVID hit.

Once the governor shut everything down, that put a big damper on our business because we rely on people having parties and they couldn't have parties anymore, so we started shifting gears. We do have a retail store on the premises. That really took off, but it just doesn't do the numbers that our harvesting facility does as far as the party pigs.

When the governor opened things back up, it started to take off again, and then, boom, he shut it down again. Now it's back to where we were. We're not as bad as we were in March, but we're not back to where we were a year ago either. It's just been a real tough year.

The hog market has been down all year, on the open market. We've had a lot of extra pigs to sell on the open market, and we're not making any money on those. I'm hoping we can get things opened back up here in the next month, so we have a good holiday season.

We've really concentrated on our retail store and selling to restaurants and things like that, but of course the restaurant deal is in really bad shape right now. Even with the dine outside, it's not working; they can't do what they want to do, especially this time of year when it's hot and you've got the smoke, too.

We've been getting new accounts. We're in a couple of fruit stands now; they're selling our products. Besides that, our new venture is getting into restaurants. We were just getting into some of them, and then (the governor) closed them down again, so they've cut back. There are a lot of places that are really devastated by all this. We used to sell to some high-end restaurants in the Bay Area, and some of them are already out of business and not coming back.

As far as planning, we're just moving forward. We raise so many pigs every week. We thought about cutting back, but when things open back up, then what do you do? If it continues for another six months, we're going to have to cut back, but we're rolling the dice and hoping things get opened back up and we can get our numbers back where they were.

There are people that depend on us—my employees and suppliers—and we depend on them. It's a trickle-down effect. You just don't want to sever those ties. If you start losing too much money, then you've got to do something, but I want to keep everything going if we can.

I don't know how long it's going to take for it to come back. I know our production has shifted. We used to sell a lot of roaster pigs for the parties and now we're selling a lot of market hogs for home use. I'm selling some through the store, but most of it is the whole pig. We still have on-farm slaughter, but it's shifted to a different production. Where they used to have parties, now they're not having the parties, but they still want the pork for their home use. Instead of buying a 100-pound pig and having a big party, they'll buy a bigger pig and they'll put the meat in the freezer.

By Doug Phillips, Tulare County fruit grower, packer and shipper

It's been a decent season overall. Some of the crops were more affected by the COVID situation than others. Certainly, our lemons were negatively impacted, because quite a few lemons go to food service, restaurants, bars and such. That affected the price of lemons. Oranges, on the other hand, seem to have gotten a boost from the COVID, although specialty citrus like blood oranges were negatively impacted.

We just finished our season on plums and pluots, so we're kind of at a gap right now. Overall, we've enjoyed a reasonably strong plum market. Peaches was a decent crop too, very good in some cases.

Our next crop that's coming up is kiwifruit, and we're about a month away. For me, the big excitement is on the new gold- and red-flesh kiwi varieties that we're producing. We're looking forward to harvesting red kiwis here in about three weeks, and then some gold-flesh kiwis after that, before the traditional green kiwi harvest, which we start in October.

The (red kiwifruit varieties) are fairly new and extremely great tasting pieces of fruit, much sweeter than the traditional green kiwi. Plus, they have an amazing color inside that's a red starburst around a gold background. I've had some production for the last two years and it's increasing this year on the reds. In most cases, these varieties are more productive. We've been playing around with different varieties for several years, and we're finally getting some better selections producing now. They're going to become more available in retail supermarkets. There are limited supplies, but they are increasing a little bit this year. They're going to some higher-end supermarkets and some export.

We've suffered through a fairly prolonged heat wave. It hasn't really damaged anything. It's just we're irrigating more than normal, especially on the kiwifruit. Of course, now we're getting all this smoke down here from all the fires. It's just the air quality is not good and the high temperatures. We're having to go shorter days and be careful.

When it's ultra-hot, like 104 degrees, it actually holds the crops back. It's not that abnormal to get a heat wave. It's just a little more difficult when it lasts for two weeks or more with 100 degrees or higher, but we're getting through it. Fortunately, we've had enough water this year to get by.

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