From the Fields® - February 15, 2012

By Michael Young, Kern County diversified grower

Happy "June"uary from Kern County. The weather has been amazing...if it was spring. It has been extremely dry in Kern this winter. Most farmers continue to do their rain dance, if not to replenish our aquifers, to at least settle the dust on the roads.

Most people are prepping for planting of summer row crops. Bees are being moved into orchards around the county to prep for the various tree blooms. Most farmers have finished their winter prep of their trees and vines and now we are waiting for spring.

I think many people are really on edge as to what February to April will bring. With the super mild winter we have had, we are cautious as to what this is going to do to our crops going into the spring and summer seasons. It is now wait and see.

Here's to a successful 2012 up and down our Golden State.

By Henry Giacomini, Shasta County beef producer

Things are pretty quiet for us in the winter. All of the cattle are turned out on winter range. They need to be checked periodically to make sure they are where they belong, mineral supplements are put out and fences are maintained. Calving season doesn't begin for us until March and while rainfall has been way below what we want, we have had enough to keep the feed and stock water adequate and the cattle are really doing pretty well. Everyone has had some well-deserved time off and we are spending a lot of our time planning and preparing for the upcoming spring and summer.

Our grassfed meat business keeps growing, especially our Internet sales. Consequently, more time is spent filling and shipping orders and managing inventories.

With prices for cattle and hay at record highs coupled with our growing direct marketing business, we are optimistic that 2012 will be a good year for us. Of course, the lack of rain and snowpack is a great concern and will definitely have a negative impact on our bottom line and resources. We just don't know yet to what degree. Our strategy now is to begin planning for worst case scenarios and try to ensure that where we are the most vulnerable, we are prepared so that we get through this with the minimum of damage. We always forget after good moisture years that drought is really normal. Good planning is extremely important.

By Brandon Flynn, Tehama County diversified grower

We're finishing up pruning activities on prunes and walnuts. But this year, for the first time ever, we don't have any almond acreage. We've migrated out of the almond business, at least for the moment.

There are a number of reasons. We've bought and sold some ranches and we've removed some of our older blocks and replanted to walnuts. From the standpoint of market prices, almond returns for growers have been somewhat flat for the last few years and it's more challenging to achieve competitive almond yields so far north due to weather conditions—late spring rains during bloom, pollination issues, added costs and frosts.

We can grow a good almond crop, but it's not as easy or as inexpensive as growing in the south. Added to that, our soils are more suited to walnuts, especially given the climate conditions.

The walnut orchards of today are much different than those of 20 years ago. Now we're looking at smaller-statured trees, more trees per acre—25-foot spacings compared to 40-foot spacing a couple of decades ago. We've been actively planting walnuts for the past several years and now we're seeing break-even yields in four years.

We just wrapped up oil production yesterday for some of our late-season olive varieties. It's a good market and there are a lot of exciting things happening in the olive oil segment, although it was a short crop year. Getting the yields we need was a struggle and we extended our season a bit, trying to get the pounds we need.

Right now we're sitting at about 40 percent of average precipitation and looking at the possibility of starting the growing season with an empty tank as it relates to soil moisture. Typically, we get soaking rains and that means a full gas tank, so to speak, in the root zone, so the crops can really take off. But not so far this year.

By Joe Zanger, San Benito County diversified grower

Ag Alert informs me I've been on a hiatus from this column for about two years. So what's changed with San Benito County ag since that time? The Salinas Valley leafy green industry continues to operate on more and more acreage, taking over for the local families that once spent their lives in those fields. Some of the loss of these local growers is due to attrition and others are just no longer able to compete with the Salinas consolidation of the industry that is able to meet the year-round supply demands of the chains and institutional buyers.

Fruit and nut trees that once numbered in the several thousands of acres continue to die with virtually no replacement orchards of consequence being planted. The few apricots and walnuts that are left have enjoyed the statewide upturn in those markets, but not to the extent that any of us are putting in trees. Those of us with the Chandler walnut variety converted to the easily achieved organic practices that result in better farm gate prices each year.

The 2011 fresh market cherries met their demise from the May rains and the very low chilling hour count this winter does not bode well for the 2012 crop. The winegrape vines have a way of hanging on year after year, for which we continue to find markets. We crush our own, while others are contracted with local wineries and larger wineries throughout the state.

Our cattlemen neighbors in the foothills have a brown-scape greeting them each day. The cattle market is up, but with nowhere green to run cattle here this year, there will not be much to sell.

So what's changed? Markets have gotten better and for the most part, those that choose to continue doing what they love doing are making ends meet.

By Marvin Meyers, Merced County diversified grower

Our almonds are approaching bloom about two weeks early. We've just finished putting the bees into the orchards. Bee prices are about the same as last year.

We've had to irrigate more than we expected this spring because of the dry weather. But the good thing is we are ahead with some of our cultural work—pruning, chipping, weed control—because of the dry weather.

We finished planting our new almonds three weeks ago. Our orchards are in perfect shape right now.

We're getting ready for bloom spray because blooms are beginning to appear and we expect full bloom in eight to 10 days on the nonpareils. The California varieties are right behind them.

In about 10 days, the ranch will be beautiful. But we predict a flash bloom that will be short because everything is coming on at once. It'll probably last about three weeks. With that in mind, we've put a lot of bees in, about three hives per acre. We want good pollination so we've loaded up.

One problem is water. Our initial allocation for project water is forecast at 25 percent to 35 percent. If that holds, it will make it difficult for some farmers.

If it doesn't rain or snow substantially, that may be all we get. And they are predicting a shortage of supplemental water that growers can go out and purchase. That's a real concern.