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Farmers’ planting plans hinge on water, pandemic

Issue Date: January 27, 2021
By Ching Lee

As California farmers weigh decisions on what to plant and how much, lack of rainfall so far this winter has further clouded a 2021 crop outlook already complicated by market uncertainties created by the pandemic.

With current precipitation levels looking even drier than the 2014-15 drought years, Kings County farmer Brian Medeiros said he's already making decisions about what ground to fallow. He noted that if he does not receive surface-water deliveries and must rely on groundwater all year, it becomes cost-prohibitive to grow many of the field crops that have been core to his business.

"At this point, other than keeping the trees alive, I don't know that there's going to be much of anything else that we're going to do," Medeiros said.

Winter crops such as wheat that normally don't need irrigation this time of year already look "stunted and dwarfed," he said, forcing him to irrigate twice this growing season.

Electricity rate hikes are expected to further raise the cost of growing many of his traditional crops if he must pump groundwater, Medeiros said. Even contracted crops such as corn nuts, which he grows for Kraft Heinz, may not be able to pencil out, he added.

Despite higher prices for commodity crops such as cotton, Kern County farmer Travis Fugitt said it remains a "giant unknown" what he'll be able to grow if he doesn't have adequate water supplies.

"Everything is so up and down right now," he said. "The markets are going back up, but our water allocations are down."

Fugitt had fallowed "a lot of ground" last year due to lower commodity prices and "the crazy market" reacting to the pandemic, making some crops "too risky" to grow, he said. Though his early-season crops will remain "about the same," he said he likely won't be able to double-crop this year because of expected water shortages.

For Tulare County farmer James Birch, changes to his crop mix relate more to how he's marketing those crops. Whereas he used to sell 80% of his produce at farmers markets and to restaurants, his crops are now going largely to community-supported agriculture subscription and home-delivery food boxes. Sales from his farm stand also have soared, he noted.

"I am planting more for the home kitchen than for chefs," he said, noting that the restaurant trade still "has not picked up" and that he thinks it's "at least another year away" before sales to that sector improve to pre-pandemic levels.

In trying to cater his crops for CSA and home-delivery customers, Birch said he's cut back on specialty vegetables and herbs favored by chefs. He's also growing more varieties of certain crops. For example, instead of the two main varieties of potatoes that restaurants "really liked," he's growing seven different kinds. Whereas he used to grow three types of cherry tomatoes popular with chefs, he will now grow about 15 varieties, many of them larger, heirloom tomatoes.

Even though he sold just 25% to 30% of what he grew last year—with much of it disked under—Birch said he plans to farm all his acreage this year, as he adds more outlets.

Though the state's historical water issues weigh "heavily" on what crops and how many acres are planted, Matt Linder, who manages Western region sales for Sakata Seed America, said "the more concerning issue" is the pandemic's continuing impact on food service, with the sector still not fully serving and ordering products.

He noted "a significant decline" in conventional spinach acreage, though organic spinach acreage "has remained more stable." Plantings for other leafy greens such as chard and mizuna also have "taken a hit due to food-service disruption," he added.

With "a severe decline" in food-service demand from sporting events, cruises and other venues, leading to products being postponed and canceled, Linder said seed distributors, farmers, shippers and others in the produce business "are hesitant to forecast and provide contracts." An unclear forecast of market trends and product needs for the next six months also makes it difficult for seed suppliers to serve customers, he said, as "orders come quickly with, at times, little notice."

Carrots, garlic, onions and melons do not represent a major part of Merced County farmer Cannon Michael's operation, but he said increased demand for those crops has spurred more plantings this year. With concerns about water shortages, Michael said he plans to fallow some fields, including reducing acreage for crops such as cotton and alfalfa, which used to represent half of what he grows but now accounts for less than 5%.

"We're trying to be conservative, but also trying to come up with a plan that maximizes what we think we can do," Michael said.

He said he thinks many farmers who don't have stable water supplies, especially those on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, won't be growing cotton this year and are "cutting back considerably" on plantings of other annual crops to ensure they have enough water for their permanent crops. Even though the cotton market is starting to strengthen, he added, prices aren't attractive enough for farmers to "feel comfortable" growing it.

As a rice farmer in Colusa County, Bruce Rolen said the rice market has provided "good returns" to growers for the last three years, which should motivate them to plant all their acreage. But reduced water allocations will limit plantings if dry conditions continue for the next three months, he said, noting that he expects his water allotments to be cut by 25%, which will force him to fallow 25% of his rice acres.

Even if late-spring rains restored full water allotments, he said those announcements sometimes come too late in the season, after farmers have already made their planting decisions, noting this was the case last year.

Though limited water supplies remain a key consideration for what farmers can grow, employee availability and cost also determine crop decisions. For this reason, Santa Clara County farmer Tim Chiala said his main focus has been trying to reduce crops such as small specialty peppers that require "a lot of excessive labor."

The pandemic has further affected his workforce, he said, with crew sizes that "change all the time." But even before the emergence of COVID-19, Chiala said the need to reduce reliance on hand labor was something "we've been looking at every year anyway."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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