From the Fields® - August 21, 2013

By Dennis Atkinson, Kern County nut and grape grower

The wind is blowing like crazy, dirt flying. It’s the beginning of the Santa Ana-type winds, which make everybody nervous because of wildfires. We’ve only had a few small fires this season, burned a couple of thousand acres.

The winds now are knocking the pistachios on the ground, which isn’t good. The nuts are heavy, but not quite ready to harvest.

We’re harvesting grapes, but a couple of our fields were pretty light. We’ve just harvested pinot gris that was really nice and the zinfandel was good, but the colombard was way off—old vines, a vicious windstorm and a spring heat wave reduced yields.

The almond crop seems to be a little lighter than last year. The nuts look small, which seems to be the case for the other farmers I’ve talked to in our area. Other than that, labor is tight. We can’t seem to get crews when we need them and the crews are working really hard.

Right now, our biggest problems are water and labor.

By Sam Dolcini, Marin County cattle rancher

All of this season’s beef calves have been sold and most everyone has bought their hay and other supplements for the coming winter. The fact that we had a poor feed season and the hay market is still strong, as well as a strong market for cull cows, means many ranchers have trimmed their herds as they head into fall.

There’s no room for cows that are not at the top of their game this year. Ranchers who buy replacement cows and heifers every year have been out doing their fall shopping. There are special sales at the auction yards and there’ve been a lot of trucks coming and going.

The first calves of the season are just being born. As more and more heifers and cows start calving, these early calves are a reminder of busy days to come. The workdays get longer as ranchers spend more time checking their stock, especially looking after first-calf heifers that might need assistance during the birthing process.

Last year was not a good feed year because of the lack of rain during the second half of the winter, so we are all hoping for a better feed season this year. We’re also hoping that consumer demand for beef will remain strong and that it will be reflected in the continued strength in the beef market.

By Bob Steinacher, Tehama County orchardist

We are in full swing of our fresh fig harvest right now. We are two and a half weeks early this year. Crop looks not too heavy, but the fruit quality is very good.

Surprisingly, we have been able to find quality workers this year. In the past, we struggled to find enough good workers. So we are at full production. The market is good, not great, but we have longtime customers who support us fully.

Our walnut crop looks average. Quality is very good, very little sunburn even with the high temperatures that we have seen. We are looking forward to the higher prices that I am hearing for our walnuts.

Looking around the area, I see the almonds have started harvest now and I understand that both the walnuts and olives will be starting a couple weeks early as well. In talking with some prune growers, I’m hearing that some growers have good crops and others have lower production. Quality of the prunes is OK.

I am hoping that we get a long, cold winter with lots of snowpack to replenish our water tables, which are depleted. We need a good snowpack to replenish them.

By Joe Valente, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

The 2013 grape harvest is underway with varieties such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir coming off first.

The crop size seems to be average or slightly above average, depending on variety and age of the vineyard. Quality seems to be exceptional this year.

Most grapes in the Lodi area are harvested during night hours with mechanical harvesters. Hand harvesting is still required in vineyards where the trellis system is not suitable for mechanical harvesters, such as old-vine zinfandel. Some of these old-vine zinfandels in the Lodi area were planted nearly 100 years ago. Again, like last year, it appears that the labor shortage will continue.

One of the advantages of mechanical harvesting is that fruit is being harvested and delivered to wineries under cooler temperatures.

By Dave Roberti, Sierra County cattle and hay producer

We had a great week at the Plumas-Sierra County Fair. My daughter Kristin took grand champion honors for her steer and dairy goat. We’re really proud of her and she had more blue ribbons than she could haul, just about. We had a great time.

Now it’s catch-up time on the ranch, but luckily I have two brothers and they covered for me, so it’s not too bad. We were between hay cuttings, which worked out OK. We usually get three cuttings a year up here, sometimes a small fourth one. We’re getting ready for the third one now.

If we don’t get some good fall rain for late pasture, there’ll be a lot of cattle sold from around here. A lot of guys are selling the weaner calves early because the feed isn’t here.

Beef prices are extremely high right now, but with a drought throughout the West, there may be a lot of shipments to the Midwest. It’s a big concern.

We’re going to try to hang on to our cattle. We think we’ve got enough hay for the winter, but will probably cull the herd harder than we normally do in a good feed year.

We’ll have to wait and see if we get any rain. If we don’t, we won’t have a choice. We’ll have to sell.

By Ken Doty, Santa Barbara County citrus/avocado grower

The older I get, the less I know about growing avocados. The crop, which is nearly off the trees, was fairly large, but fruit size was terrible. If I knew how to correct the problem, I’d have done something about it.

Avocados are touchy critters. They take any excuse not to set a crop or drop their fruit.

Growers are speculating that since crop size the last couple years has been good, the trees are tired. But, who knows?

California is picking flat out right now at about 18 million and 20 million pounds per week. We have maybe two to three weeks left at full volume; after that, things will start to decline.

Prices aren’t bad, but size 60s and 70s have been problem children all year because the crop didn’t size well.

Although we don’t do a lot of crop thinning, the bulk of the labor need is in harvesting. Growers are pruning more and that takes manpower. However, many of the upright-growing varieties—Bacon or Zutano—are nearly gone; very few of those varieties are left.

Although Hass is a more compact tree, there is more pruning going on. Given labor and insurance costs, it’s expensive to prune, but we find the trees do better culturally when we prune. It seems to have a stimulant effect on the future crop.

We are experiencing labor shortages and that’s affecting harvesting strategy. It’s getting harder to make up picking crews. There’s a good deal of expertise required and there’s some crew poaching going on.

That’s true on both the avocado and lemon sides of our operation. The crews are smaller than normal and harder to find, and pay for piece rates is increasing.