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From the Fields® - January 20, 2021

By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

I think people started pruning in December because of the cost savings—the minimum wage going up (on Jan. 1). So people started pruning earlier to get those cost savings in. People are still pruning around our area, and probably will be doing that for another month or so.

We're very concerned about the drought we're in. Last year in Lodi, we only got about 8 inches of rain. Usually, we get about 17. And now with this rain season starting, we've only had 2 inches of rain. Some growers are going to start putting on some water to make sure these vines have enough water when bud break happens in March. Usually, your PG&E bills are quiet this time of year, through April or May, and that's another added cost we have to put in our budget that you weren't expecting.

A lot of grapes have been pulled out in the Lodi area, because they're older and the prices didn't make those vineyards sustainable. Growers had to make a decision to farm them or put them in a pile and tear them out. I think growers are looking at all the options on the table: go back for replant with another vineyard, or going into some sort of tree, or something else. Because of the cost of labor, you've got to analyze all that. There's been quite a bit of acres taken out, which should help the wine market in our area and the demand that the wineries need.

A lot of them have been old-vine zinfandel that can't be machined or anything mechanical done to them, and that's the problem. They're going to disappear, and that's sad. We have a vineyard that's 120 years old this year—an 8-acre, old-vine zinfandel planted in 1901—and then we have some other vineyards planted in the early 1940s. We need sustainable prices to keep those in the ground.

By Wayne Bishop, Yuba County farmer and agritourism operator

We have an older almond orchard that we are taking out right now. We're cutting the orchard ourselves, because we have people who come and have campfires on the farm in the fall, so we can use the wood ourselves here. We have a walnut orchard that we're getting ready to prune. The walnuts are new to us. We also have some wheat that we need to spray the weeds on. We grow it for forage and sell it to a local dairy, so they'll come in and chop that in May.

The pumpkins are our main thing. For the (agritourism) season, we consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that (coronavirus) numbers were really low right around the 1st of September until mid-November, so that just happened to fit our season. We opened up, and it happened to be that people were anxious for something to do, so we had a very busy season. The vast majority of the people who came out here were happy to have a place to go. We did require masks indoors if they went inside the shops.

We had an excellent (pumpkin) crop and we had just enough. We grew about the same amount of pumpkins as we normally would and we did not have any extra at the end of the year. Everybody who wanted a pumpkin still was able to find one, but there wasn't a lot to choose from at the end.

We're working on our next season now. We're planning a new building or two and a couple of new attractions. We try to come up with something new every year. We feel that our customers notice that and they tell us that they do, so that has always been a philosophy we've had, that we want to show them something new every year.

By Ryan Indart, Fresno County sheep rancher and tree crop farmer

In the sheep business this time of the year, we're just finishing lambing out our lamb crop for 2021. We're on alfalfa fields out in the Central Valley.

Because we've had such a dry winter, we're going to need to move off of those alfalfa fields at the end of January, middle of February. If we don't have green grass in the hills or other places in the valley, it's going to be a very difficult time. We have several thousand mouths to feed and it can be very stressful when you don't know how you're going to feed them.

It's looking like the lamb prices coming into the spring are going to be a little higher than last year. We had a real tough time last spring with COVID and all the restaurants shutting down. The price of our lamb dropped in half. It was a very, very difficult year last year from that perspective, so we're looking forward to hopefully a better marketing year this spring. We're also hoping that once this vaccine starts to get out, hopefully these restaurants start to open up and that demand will come back a little bit in the restaurant trade. Over half the lamb consumed in our country is consumed in the restaurant trade. When that shuts down, it's a knife through the heart of our industry.

On the east side of the valley is where our home ranch is, and we have almonds, cherries and oranges out there, and we also dry-farm wheat. The thousand acres of dry-farmed wheat we have planted is germinated, because we've had these rains on the east side. But the soil is definitely drying out. We can't go a whole lot longer without some moisture—a drink of water from Mother Nature to keep that crop going.

The good news is this winter has been more of a normal winter from a chill standpoint. I'm talking about dormancy for both the almonds and the cherries. Both those crops need dormancy in order to produce a good bud push and a good crop and bloom, and then a good crop in the spring. The trees are shut down right now, but pretty soon those almonds will start to see some bud push.

If we don't get a lot of rain, though, the troubling thing is we'll have to turn our pumps on a lot earlier than we normally do. It seems like we're saying the same thing every year: "Gosh, we just need a little more rain." It's true again this year.

By Bill Carriere, Glenn County nut and rice farmer and walnut processor

Our three main crops are rice, walnuts and almonds. On the farming side, what's good is that we've had very dry weather, so we're able to get back and start doing a few things in the field, cleaning up. The bad is that we need more rain. We're very nervous about the snowpack, the reservoirs and the water situation, even here in the north, for both rice crops and our orchard crops. If we don't get a significant amount of rain here coming up shortly, we'll start irrigating.

We're still doing a lot of shop work. We're trying to do some office work and get our budgets for the new year squared away and ready for the season.

As far as the 2020 crop, we're actually pretty good. Prices were decent. We had decent yields and good quality. Our almonds had excellent yields and quality. The price was OK, but they are depressed from historic prices.

Walnuts were kind of a disappointment. We had a huge crop, very good yields, actually very good quality. The prices are below the cost of production, to put it bluntly. The market seems to be firming. We're shipping the product on schedule despite the COVID disruptions, but prices are still depressed. I'm trying to move most of the crop here relatively quickly before March and April when Chile, our main competitor for walnuts, starts to come to market with their expected large crop.

On the rice, we had a good crop. We had excellent yields and decent quality. The prices are actually very good. Of all three crops, we probably made more money in the rice this year. It's all cyclical, so that's why you want to be diversified.

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