From the Fields® - July 24, 2013

By BJ Van Dam, San Bernardino County dairy farmer

We made serious cutbacks to our herd size in 2012 and early in 2013, in order to continue milking. These drastic cuts to our herd made it possible to cut our overhead expenses, dropping us below many of the threshold levels for higher regulatory fees in the state.

Thanks to this and a slight reduction in feed cost, we have been able to slowly improve the quality of our herd as well as slowly bring the size of our herd up again. Although we are still below two-thirds of our herd size from two years ago, it is a good feeling to be bringing more cows in.

Milk prices are still low, but we are trying to remain optimistic about the future. The dairy fascinates our eight-month-old son and we would love to be able to pass it on to him some day.

We have watched more dairies in our area move during the last six months, and it has given us even more determination to make it through. Whether 2013 will show a profit for us or not remains to be seen, but at the least, we should be closer to the black than we were in 2012.

By Pat Borelli, Merced County diversified grower

We just finished our fourth cutting on our older hay and third cutting on some of our newer hay, but hay is doing good as far as production goes. Test hay is still bringing some pretty good money and dry cow hay has softened a little bit. It’s been steadily moving.

We had that heat spell awhile back, but we were in the middle of cycles so we survived it all right.

We’ve got canning tomatoes that we’ve been keeping wet. We’ve got some curly top virus in the field, but the tomatoes still look pretty decent. We’ve been doing some preventive spraying, trying to stay ahead of some of it. We’re probably about a month out from starting to harvest, but the tomatoes look good overall.

We’re putting our first irrigation on dry beans and our dry beans look good. We just finished our second irrigation on cotton and it seems like it is doing really well. It has a pretty good set on it. There isn’t much lygus right now.

Overall, it has been a good growing season. The heat set us back a little bit, but it cooled off and now it is supposed to warm up again. Our water supply seems to be holding up. We’ve got to stay positive in this business.

By Tom Ikeda, San Luis Obispo County vegetable farmer

This year has been one of the driest in memory, with less than 2.25 inches total. This makes it the third year in a row with below-average rainfall. This has created problems with salt buildup in the soil, which has increased the growing costs. We have had to add soil amendments, most commonly gypsum, and pre-sprinkle to leach the salts. This low rainfall has also caused a drop in our well levels and reduced the amount of water available for irrigating our crops.

The lack of sufficient labor has also created many problems. Even though wages have increased, we have lacked a sufficient workforce to be able to harvest all our crops in a timely manner, and losses have occurred more frequently than in past years. This shortage has emboldened the workforce to at times refuse to harvest some marginal fields, leading to total loss, and has also led to a greater amount of unannounced absences, leading to a delay in critical operations. This has made growers re-evaluate their cropping pattern and many have reduced the acreage planted.

Even though a dry winter usually equates to lower market prices, we have been fortunate so far this year with good prices on certain crops. This may be due to a decrease in acres planted as well as a lack of labor available to harvest all the crops planted.

Mother Nature has also played a part in creating spikes in the markets. The heat wave two weeks ago caused damage to some crops, resulting in a reduction is supplies. This may also have residual effects, in that the hot weather would increase the maturation process for some crops, thus bunching them up, but create supply gaps later. Also, some quality issues may not express themselves until later.

All in all, we have a long way to go to end the year in the black. The silver lining is, the hole is not as deep as I thought it would be and we are hopeful the fall markets will help to put us over the top.

By George Tibbitts, Yolo County rice farmer

Now that it’s the end of July, growers have few decisions left to make regarding California’s 2013 rice crop. It’s too late for any more weed control measures, or for fertilizer topdress applications. It’s all up to Mother Nature now.

We haven’t had a cooler-than-average summer as we have had in recent years (that’s only my observation—I haven’t looked at the data yet). That, along with the fact that we were able to get into the fields and plant early this spring, means that the crop is much further along at this point than it was last July. I hear that heading began in mid-July in the earliest fields (planted around April 20). It’s a good bet that rice harvest in California will be in full swing by mid-September, a few weeks earlier than in recent years.

How does the crop look? In Colusa County, I would say it is a mixed bag. Many fields, including some of our own, got off to a bad start (despite the warm weather) due to all the wind we had in late April and May. It’s tough to get a good stand of rice when the wind moves the seed before it has a chance to anchor itself, or when waves cause the seed to become buried in mud before it has a chance to grow. On the other hand, I think the potential is there for a good rice crop, as the weather in June and July has been conducive for crop growth and development.

The weeds have done well too. On our farm, I have spent more on weed control this year than I had planned. Yields will suffer some from the increased weed competition, and also from the extra dose of herbicide; rice is not immune to the herbicides we use, it just tolerates them better. Overall, I expect at least average yields and, as always, hoping for better.

By Michael McDowell, Sacramento County diversified grower

We are currently in the middle of Bartlett pear harvest. We started picking about one week earlier than last year and this is one of the earliest harvests that I have seen. Pears don’t like the heat so much, so the heat wave in early July slowed the pears from sizing a little, but the last week has been good.

It is a good crop this year as far as numbers, but the size of the fruit on average is smaller.

The labor supply is a little short for us this year. I could use about 10 more pickers. But as long as the pears don’t ripen too fast, we should be able to get all of our crop off. We hope to finish harvest by July 31.

The rest of our crops, which include alfalfa, corn, safflower and game birds, all struggled a little during the heat wave, but we did not have any significant losses.

Our pheasants have been holding their own in the heat, but I’m keeping the fans on more consistently. I also purchased a swamp cooler for the incubator room to maintain the desired temperature for hatching eggs—99.5 degrees.