From the Fields® - October 9, 2013

By Christa Campbell, El Dorado County apple grower

We’re picking golden and red delicious apples, some Granny Smith and Braeburn right now. The cider mill is in operation and we’re making pies, apple donuts, apple cream cheese tarts and cobblers because we’re getting ready for the weekend.

We’re one of the 55 small ranches that belong to the Apple Hill Growers Association. Basically, we sell fresh produce and our value-added farm products directly to the customer. They come to us to enjoy the fall experience in our orchards as families.

We started our farm in 1977, Rainbow Orchards. In the beginning, my husband and two sons set a few baskets of apples and pears by the roadside, added some jars of jams and jellies, and sat and waited for customers to come by. Now Apple Hill gets more than 1 million visitors during fall weekends.

In the beginning, our idea was to sell locally and not truck our produce. I never guessed Apple Hill would become a national model for direct marketing of farm products.

I’m president of our local Agriculture in the Classroom program and we got a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant last year for our "Fields of Learning" project. We partner with Camino Elementary School Kids come to the ranch four times a year and spend the day doing activities that are all California-curriculum based.

But, fall is our favorite time on the ranch—the colors in the orchards, the crisp air, the smell of fresh fruit in our packinghouse and greeting the people who come year after year. It’s harvest and we love it.

By Art Perry, San Joaquin County pumpkin grower

The quality of this year’s pumpkin crop is excellent and supplies are going to be OK. There could be a little bit of a tight supply for the industry overall as we get later into October, but I think we have enough. We will be able to take care of our customers.

There are very few pumpkins shipped out of state, with some 95 percent of our pumpkins staying in California. Growers here are able to supply the California market. There are a few pumpkins brought in, but it is a very small amount.

The area around Manteca is where the majority of pumpkins are grown in California. This was an excellent growing season. The rain in mid-September made us very nervous, but fortunately it got windy the next day and everything dried out quickly. Rain is not a friend of pumpkin growers during the weeks leading up to harvest. We pray for rain to come in November, but not before.

Pumpkins bring smiling faces to children, and when that happens, the adults become happy. So that is why we really enjoy the pumpkin season. It is really a happy crop.

By Ed Curiel, Tehama County olive grower

We are geared up right now for harvest, which is in full swing. We’re pretty much midway through the season, but ground-wise, we’re about a third done. At this rate, hopefully we’ll be done the first week of November.

It is a lighter crop this year for us in the north. Some orchards are off by about half what we had last year. But theoretically, it is our off year.

Labor is a real issue this year, just like it was last year. Even though there is a lighter crop, we’re still struggling with labor. I wish I had 40 guys, but right now we have about 22. Some growers don’t even have half of what they need. I was talking with a contractor who’s been picking and he only has five to six guys out there. He should be picking a 15-acre orchard in three days maximum, but he’s going on three weeks.

What we’re hoping is that in about a week or two, growers who have smaller acreages will start finishing up, and their workers will start looking for other places to go. So hopefully we will be able to bump up our crew with those workers who have finished and are looking for more picking.

If you have a very light orchard, you’re going to have to pay more to pick it. We’re paying $5 a box right now to pick it. Hopefully we can maintain that price, but there are growers who are paying $6 or $7 a box. There are contractors who will have to charge almost $500 a ton to get it picked. If you get a bad load, you might get paid $750 or $800 a load, and two-thirds of that is going to labor, with one-third coming back to you.

The upside is that fruit quality is better this year.

By Mike Vukelich, Contra Costa County greenhouse grower

We’ve been growing and shipping millions of chrysanthemums for fall gardens in the past few weeks. This year, especially, we’re shipping lots of very large nursery mums, called Belgian varieties, which have hundreds of blooms on each plant. Some of the plants have bloom areas more than two feet wide.

People are buying more of these in big pots because they make such a splash in the garden and on the patio. With smaller yards, these large, potted mums make a big show in a small space.

We’re selling more patio-sized plants for fall outdoor entertaining. But, with the size of these mums, we can’t get as many on the trucks. It’s harder to deliver, but customers really want them.

We try to offer a selection of red, purple, bronze and pink mums, but in the fall it’s the whites and yellows people buy the most. I’ve been growing fall mums ever since I went into business. They make such a beautiful display in home gardens and there are plenty in the nurseries right now.

By Stan Lester, Yolo County orchardist

It’s officially fall and crops can look rather brown. But farmers around here see the change as a signal the crops are ready for harvest. Sunflowers and cornstalks are brown, heavy-headed rice bends over and pumpkin fields, once covered with lush, green vines, are bare, except for a dotting of orange balls.

Like marathon runners who start out fresh, but have given their all by the finish line, our fields are exhausted, but they’re yielding wonderful crops.

We’re racing to harvest walnuts. The trees have gone through quite a bit this year—cold weather, lack of normal rainfall, a lot of wind in April and May, an extended heat spell in late June and early July, up and down temperatures after that and occasional rain last month. Now, we’re experiencing high winds.

It’s a wonder we have a crop! So far production numbers for the Serr and Tulare walnut varieties are below expectation, but the Howard variety is looking pretty good, with strong yields and high quality.

We haven’t started on the Hartley, Chandler, Eureka or Franquette varieties yet, but I’m hearing the whole walnut crop may be below the statewide crop estimate. The crop results aren’t surprising after seeing what these trees have gone through this year.

However, we’re thankful for the crops we have and hope our customers enjoy what we’ve helped produce. It’s time to enjoy warm buttery popcorn from the corn stalks, pumpkin pie a la mode from the vines and delicious short or medium grain rice from California fields.

Most of all, I hope families enjoy our walnuts in muffins, cookies, salads and morning cereal. And, we give thanks to God, our employees and California farmers for this year’s bountiful harvest.