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From the Fields® - October 21, 2020

By Larry Starrh, Kern County almond and pistachio grower

Fall is in the air, as well as other particulate matter, here in Kern County. Almond harvest is starting to taper off, and pistachio harvest is beginning to button up. The weather has been very cooperative for harvest. We did have an unusual slowdown mid-harvest, with almonds not drying as quickly in the field. I think the lack of sun due to all the smoke created a weird situation for drying, so we are probably a week or so behind our normal harvest timing.

Water, as usual, is our greatest concern. We had a 20% allocation on the state project, which drove our cost of water sky high. I really feel we should have a pay-for-what-you-get system.

Speaking of water, we are giving our orchards postharvest irrigation at the moment and beginning prep equipment for pruning. As this harvest winds down, we look forward to a cold, wet winter! Here's to hoping!

By Jim Morris, Siskiyou County diversified grower

The hay season ended two weeks ago here in this part of the world. There's a few people that are thinking about putting a little hay up, but for the most part forage crops are in the barn. We've had our first killing frost, so the season has changed.

For me, the cattle are out on the hay fields right now eating the aftermath, so the residual of what's left over in the hay field and everything's looking pretty good. The year was pretty good for forage crops.

I did have carrots that I harvested for seed, and the yield and quality looked very good, so that's encouraging because it's something kind of new to our area. If it works out this year, then it's probably something that will fit into our rotation.

It's been very dry. We're 70 days now without measurable rain, and the river running through our place is dry. The chinook salmon that would like to come up to spawn have nowhere to go at this point. It is not a factor of irrigation, but a factor of no snow in the mountains and no rain for an extended period of time. This is going to be an issue which we would like to find ways to mitigate for, but right now it just causes contention among our communities.

By Heidi Diestel, Tuolumne County turkey farmer

We're in the middle of producing for Thanksgiving. We have a variety of product offerings: some frozen, some fresh, some fully cooked, some raw, some brined and seasoned. Right now, it's not even the calm before storm; it's pretty much just the storm.

Our turkeys are all grown to be sized specifically. We're bringing those turkeys in to be very specific to the products that they are ultimately going to be: This is going to be a bone-in breast, this is going to be a boneless roast, this one's going to be fully cooked. It's a big jigsaw puzzle to figure out.

As for COVID: At the beginning of the year, folks were very nervous about how the holidays are going to be. It's also an election year. That always gets people a little bit worked up, in general. It's been a bit of a guessing game to decide what folks are going to need and how much they are going to need.

People have been really conservative, and as of recent, it's like, oh my, maybe we need some more turkeys, more smaller options like roasts or bone-in breast or things that could feed smaller gatherings. A lot of folks are not traveling to certain family members' homes, so they're determining, "OK, I'm going to stay home; therefore, I need to go get myself a small turkey rather than Aunt Susan getting the 30-pound turkey that they serve every year."

It's a guessing game. You're going to produce what you're going to produce, and then you'll see how the sales pan out. Sometimes it works and sometimes you've got too much and sometimes you have too little. It's just part of being a farmer.

We're very fortunate we have a lot of retail accounts. We have a lot of food-service accounts, so it's kind of split 50/50. Throughout the year, half of our business was really strong because people were going to the grocery stores and the other half is pretty much decimated because no one was going out to eat. That was really difficult, just because it takes different processing, different equipment, different labor and timing to get a food-service pack on a product versus a retail pack on a product.

We're not huge in the scope of the turkey industry. We're sizable, but we're not massive, and so we fared just fine because we can still be pretty nimble. Don't get me wrong, it has been very challenging, but we've got a lot to be thankful for.

I think this holiday season is going to be really interesting. Are people going to say, "I'm not going to give up my family traditions. I want to go visit"? Or are people going to stay home and still continue to quarantine? Also, how do people pick up all their turkeys? Imagine a grocery store the week of Thanksgiving, with social distancing and the number of guests in a store. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens.

By Charley Wolk, San Diego County avocado grower

Harvesting down here in San Diego County essentially is finished for this crop year. We're now looking at the crop for next year, and we had that heat wave on Labor Day weekend. Given the amount of heat we had, many of us expected to see a lot of fruit drop. That's normally what the tree does. This year, the drop, relatively speaking, was insignificant given the amount of heat we had. But now here we are, six weeks later, and that fruit that stayed on the tree is cooked; it's black, shriveled up, but it didn't fall on the ground. What that impact for next year's crop is going to be, too early to tell.

The crop was larger than last year, all over the state, with pretty good prices—except at the end of the season the market weakened. There wasn't that end-of-the-season price run-up. While we had a couple of bumps and extra fruit from Mexico, the total volume available in the marketplace—we're in the overlap area where you get fruit from California, Mexico, Peru and then the beginning of Chile—when you looked at the total volume, it seemed within reason, given the demand we had. Why did the market soften? My instinct says there was a market situation—projected, perceived instability, the unknown. As soon as that happens, the folks in the marketplace get panicky and they stop buying, or they buy erratically, and it impacts the market.

If the growers are on a pruning program, now's the time to do it, during these months here when you don't have the demands of harvesting consideration for your labor. The other thing, which has been very unusual this year, is that the weed-control problem was ongoing; seemed we could never get ahead of it. The thing that was confusing is that normally, we have that problem when you get a lot of rain the previous winter. We really didn't have that unseasonable large amount of rain, but the weeds were terrible—couldn't get them cut so you could spray them. You'd spray, and they'd be right back up before you could get back again. It was really ongoing. That left a weed-cleanup task for now that you normally would have had completed at this time of the year, in the fall.

The majority of the agriculture in San Diego is using district water. And of course, we've had extra water expenses because of the weather, the heat waves. The one Labor Day weekend got a lot of attention, but if you look at the whole season, we had these sporadic heat spikes that required extra water, especially for the avocados.

I think the labor situation is ongoing and persistent: very hard to hire labor. It appears it's not just agriculture; other industries, too, are having a hard time getting labor. You drive around town, or you look at chamber newsletters or community newspapers: The "Help Wanted" signs are all over the place.

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