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From the Fields® - June 16, 2021

By Tom Ikeda, San Luis Obispo County vegetable grower

We had a storm come through for several days in late January and we were hoping that at least normal rain would continue. But after that, the taps pretty much got shut off and we ended the season with about 50% normal rainfall. That created a fairly mild, late-winter and early-spring growing season in pretty much all growing areas.

All vegetable supplies are plentiful. I've heard comments that this is the worst those in the vegetable business have seen it in 10 years, related to oversupply. On top of that, with further reopenings across the nation, we really haven't seen that translate into high enough demand to offset the oversupply. A lot of people are scratching their heads asking, "Why haven't the markets come up, because things are opening up?" We are seeing more people out locally and at restaurants, so you're thinking things should be better.

Outside of that, field production has been good. At harvest, we have to leave part of the crop in the field because of low prices and poor demand. I also heard there is a shortage of trucks and a shortage of labor generally, so until there is an incentive to go back to work, we'll be facing this.

There is an increase in our bottom-line costs, so it's going to be interesting this year. Last year was a COVID year. I would classify this as a COVID-hangover year, and I think 2022 is going to be when we see how things really settle out. The trick is being able to figure out how to position yourself to take advantage of a new normal.

By Brandon Fawaz, Siskiyou County hay and grain grower

We are trying to be hay farmers in a commodity that does use water, while we're dealing with record drought. Our valley is completely a snowpack-dependent system, and there is no snowpack. We are still more fortunate than some, in that we do have some water.

There's a lot of management decisions on crop rotation and doing things differently than maybe we've done in other years, to try to accommodate that. We can either go for three or four cuttings, and while there's not a tremendous amount of water difference between the two schedules, there is a timing difference. Most growers are electing to go for the three-cutting system. The tradeoff will be a higher quantity but a lower quality, and be done irrigating earlier in the season. We are trying to be mindful of water in the fall for fish runs.

There's been a number of fields that were rotated last year to an annual crop, which is usually a cereal grain for us, and would have gone back into a permanent crop like alfalfa or grass this year. We elected to go another year of a rotational crop. While it's a financial hit, it does remove our water demand.

This labor shortage is horrible. It's becoming more and more challenging to do what we do when we don't have people that want to work.

By Dave Van Ommering, San Diego County agritourism operator

We have been doing a pumpkin patch for over 20 years and dairy tours for probably 35 to 40 years. Of course, COVID hit us like everybody else. We stayed open (last year) until December, when Gov. Newsom shut everything down. We didn't reopen until March, when we started doing events outside.

COVID taught us a lot of lessons. We were forced to go into time ticketing, which (allows) people to reserve a time that they visit our farm. We would probably never have tried this option unless we were forced into it, and we learned a lot of lessons about that. It worked in planning and holding the amount of people to a certain number. It brought new insight into our business.

We also got involved with doing a few weddings this year and other events. For instance, we had our daughter's high school prom, or winter formal, as they call it. It was forced to be outdoors because of COVID. It allowed us to learn a little bit more about the event business that's a little bit different than the farm tours.

We have been doing what we call Recess at Oma's. One week a month, moms can bring their kids to the farm, which is all outdoors. We also started Food Truck Friday, which has been a really big hit for our customers and loyal visitors to our farm. They can come on a Friday evening, kids can play and they can enjoy a good food truck that we've chosen each month.

We did do a couple of days of tours, but since the schools were basically closed, all of that business evaporated, and we couldn't do field trips. We did a couple of days before the schools were forced to close. Those that stayed open, they did tours where we go through our old barns, where we have cows and a lot of animals. We are also now growing vegetables, so we incorporate information about agriculture, vegetable farming and animal farming on the farm tours. Those were introduced this past spring and in 2020. We've tried to reinvent ourselves by doing different events.

We don't know yet how that will play out in the fall season. We are going to keep doing the events that we do. We're hoping to get more events like family reunions and people that want to have outdoor events and don't want to concern themselves with mask wearing.

We have activities on our farm where people can come and play outside. We have that open year-round. In the past, we limited it to the October pumpkin patch, during Christmas tree sales and farm tours. Now we're doing year-round activities on the farm.

By Pete Verberg, Stanislaus County dairy farmer

We're still waiting on the vote on the quota referendum. I heard we're supposed to know what the vote is within the next two weeks.

Right now, with feed costs where they're at, it's getting insane. Feed keeps going up every day. We're in that time when we have to start buying feed.

Milk production is great because we had some pretty nice weather. The wind blows every afternoon, but it's still good cow weather. Cows don't like 100 degrees. But the feed costs are what's going to kill us.

As far as the crops, we're getting ready to put on the second irrigation on all of my corn. The corn looks great.

There's not going to be a lot of straw available, because we didn't have the winter rains, so there was no volunteer. That's going to hurt us. I've been feeding straw for the last three years, and it looks like it's going to double in price this year because there isn't any. We have to live with it, whether we like it or not.

I'm fortunate in that I've been in this business a long time and most of my bills are paid off, so I'm not paying any interest or anything. The interest alone can be a big percentage of your milk check.

I've got a lot of quota and I only average $16.34 or $16.36 (per hundredweight of milk). That's a long ways from the $20 (a cwt.) that they keep talking about. With the feed cost where it's at, it's going to take that $20. The feed cost is what's going to hurt us all summer long. Though I haven't bought any, I'm hearing alfalfa hay and milk-cow hay is up in that $320, $340 (a ton) range, if you can find it. My nutritionist took me off of alfalfa hay three years ago. I'd always been taught that you have to have alfalfa in the ration. He finally convinced me to go without it, and so far it's working fine for us.

The beef (market) has been in the toilet as soon as we had that Russian (hacking) scare. We were getting close to 70 cents (a pound) on a big, fat beef cow, and now you're down to 55-60 cents, so we lost 10 cents on that deal. Because the plant couldn't kill for 48 hours, why did the beef market go in the toilet? The consumers haven't backed off (buying) beef.

Same with the milk price: Milk price is going up in the store, but it's not reflecting back to us. Restaurants opening back up should help, but it doesn't seem to, so far.

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