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From the Fields® - May 19, 2021

By Celeste Alonzo, Riverside County vegetable grower

The COVID clouds are finally, slowly starting to dissipate in the Coachella Valley. We were lucky to be one of the first places in the state to vaccinate farm employees. With all the COVID measures in place, plus vaccinations, our employees feel more comfortable and at ease going to work.

The weather really affected some crops this season. We had record winds. This led to stressed plants, fruit fall and a delayed harvest. Labor has been an issue as well; labor costs are very high. The markets have been hit or miss.

Regardless of those obstacles, spring harvest is underway in the Coachella Valley. Junior Enterprises is currently harvesting sweet corn, eggplant and bell peppers.

By Colby Pereira, Monterey County vegetable grower

With the return of row crop vegetables from the desert region during winter, Salinas Valley is in full swing this spring. The approximate 90 miles of valley floor are now a picturesque landscape of varying shades of greens, reds and purples—a wonderful depiction of the incredible variety of crops produced in this region.

Colder weather and lack of rain had crops taking their time in maturing, but a stretch of warmer days has things picking up quickly. Pest and disease issues continue to be on growers' radar, particularly Pythium, thrips and INSV, which have unfortunately continued to appear widely here on the Central Coast. Coming off a dry winter certainly begs the question of whether or not it will be a "buggy" year.

Speaking of a dry winter, water remains a hot topic. With the two large reservoirs at the south end of the valley and the Salinas River exhibiting marginal storage, producers will continue to monitor water supply and practice efficient irrigation, which is common practice already. As the day-to-day continues, our Salinas Valley Groundwater Basin is in the final stages of preparing a groundwater sustainability plan for the majority of our sub-basins that will be submitted prior to next January's deadline. The process has been a heavy lift and has certainly presented challenges, but is a work product our region can be proud of, having brought together various stakeholders from throughout the region to discuss and adopt a plan intended for long-term sustainability of groundwater in the region.

We continue to evaluate local infrastructure. The Highway 101 corridor that runs through the valley is certainly busier this time of year, with people, equipment and product being moved. Being the sole thoroughfare for not only our local community and ag economy, but also a statewide route that moves product nationally, has local stakeholders evaluating improvements that will be necessary for the continued movement of goods in the future and, most importantly, a safe route for all motorists.

By Christine Kubogamell, Santa Clara mushroom farmer

It seems like demand has been picking up since the worst part of the pandemic over the holidays, when everything was shut down. Cafes and the places where you sit down, we're starting to see some of those customers come back. We do have our retail side, and that definitely has been steady. With COVID, it changed people's habits: Instead of dining out, they cooked at home. People are still kind of in that new habit.

The demand is there, but the problem is that our costs have gone so high. For example, our tills for the grocery store baskets have gone up. Baskets have gone up. The cardboard boxes have gone up. Anything that is a supply item has gone up like crazy. There's been a shortage because the supply chain has been disrupted, and there's things that we get from China that aren't getting offloaded in time. We're just happy to get what we can get, so we've been scrambling. Where we can, we have to cover our costs. Since prices of those items have gone up, we have to charge more, so people will start seeing a little uptick in pricing for things that require a lot of packaging.

Also in 2021, labor costs have gone up across the board. Where normal (working) time used to be maybe 50 hours a week, this year it's 45 hours. They're trying to get agricultural workers overtime after eight hours, so that's creating more of a cost for the farmer. It's a benefit for the employee; I can understand that, but it's a bigger cost for the farmers.

For the summer, we're scaling back. Mushrooms are a year-round product and it's all grown indoors. We have employees that will leave around this time of year, because they'll get paid higher wages (picking) berries or chilis, so we do have a little bit of a problem with labor. When I talk to other mushroom farmers, they're saying they're not picking what's called the third break. When we do a crop, we grow it until it's mature and then we pick them off. It grows back, and that's the second break. Those get picked off, and then there's a third break. People scale back by not picking the third break because of lack of labor or there's overtime costs involved. During the summer, there's always a little bit of scale-back, at least for us—not a whole lot, but maybe 5% to 10%. Once all the (other) crops are finished in September, then the workers all come back, because we're one of the few crops that are here for the fall, winter and early spring.

By Joe Colace, Imperial County farmer

We grow a lot of melons this time of year, along with sweet corn. We've been in our sweet corn harvest going into our sixth week; we started a couple of days late for what we consider to be normal. The cooler spring had an effect, but our quality has been nice. We're also now harvesting the melons—the cantaloupes, the honeydews, the variety melons. All in all, we're real pleased with how things have started with both production and quality.

It's all about weather, and right now the weather seems to be very favorable for the early summer crops, and that really has been exceptional for the quality—and very dry conditions. Of course, that's kind of a double-edged sword. We need rain desperately in the western United States.

Down here in the Imperial Valley, we receive Colorado River water. We're one of the high-priority areas, based off our past water agreements that were established way back at the turn of the 20th century. With that, our water availability is more stable here.

The one area that right now remains a little more inconsistent is labor availability, and when I say labor, I mean true, qualified labor. There's been labor shortages, not just in the field harvest but also in the semi drivers who move product from the farm community into the different cities, so that's made it a little more difficult.

A year ago at this time during the pandemic, the food-service sector was struggling. Now, your restaurants are starting to open up. The consumer last year was very focused on the grocery store. Currently, you are seeing more of the population returning to restaurants and some of what we might refer to as food-service items, but we do think retail has remained strong and are hopeful that that will be the case.

We are up in acres from a year ago to this point. We're probably up 10% to almost 15% on sweet corn acreage and probably up 5% to 8% in the melon category. We would like to believe we're very close to upper management within the retail sector, and we try to maintain a very open line of communication with them on what trends they see in what specific commodities or varieties, and then we try to react to that.

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