From the Fields® - April 16, 2014

By John Duarte, Stanislaus County nursery operator

For our tree and vine nursery, shipments are going very well. Growers have had a good chance to get prepared with the dry winter and dry early spring. Of course, they slowed down a little bit when the rains came through, but we'll welcome the rains.

Orders are still coming in and it looks like it will be another good year for nursery sales. Grapes are coming in steadily, but not quite as crazy as they have been in the past couple years in terms of new orders. The nut crops—pistachios, almonds and walnuts—are still very strong. There is very good demand for new citrus stock. The industry is definitely growing. And with the psyllid and some of the challenges that growers in the south valley are facing, there is good demand for citrus nursery stock wherever it is being successfully produced. We are seeing demand for all types of citrus, especially the easy-peel varieties. We are selling lemons and some navels.

Some of the longer-term projects that we have been seeing in the past couple years might be slowing down a bit as water security becomes an issue. Land acquisitions are going to change with this year's water cutbacks. When you have guys who thought they had fairly high-security water customers getting cut, that changes some of the projects going forward.

There have been fewer cancellations of orders than you would have imagined with the water situation being what it is, but it may be ebbing the tide a bit on future big plans in some areas.

I am hearing some growers following the strategy of now during the drought may be a good time to pull an old citrus grove out or an old orchard out that has needed to be replanted for some years now, and let the ground go fallow for a year during the drought. And even if there is some water shortage next year, a young orchard takes a lot less water than a mature orchard. So this is a good time to retool.

By Joe Valente, San Joaquin County winegrape and cherry grower

The winegrapes began bud break about a week ago, earlier than normal, but with the warm weather everything seems to be growing well. The grapes are doing what they should be doing. We are putting crop protection products on for mildew. It is too early to predict any kind of a crop size.

With the cherries, it has been a very sporadic bloom. Even though we had relatively good weather during bloom for bee pollination, the bloom is just really messed up this year. We have some trees where a portion of the tree will have some fruit already setting with green leaves and the other portion of the tree will still have bloom on it. All indications are that the cherry crop in San Joaquin County will be light. Last year we had a very light crop and again this year it seems like we will have another light crop.

It all gets back to the weather. We did have good chilling hours, but because of the dry condition in December and January, it affected the trees.

As far as labor, we are doing OK right now. We are finishing up with the pruning of winegrapes and we are kind of in a lull. In about a month or so, once the cherries start, that is usually when we get tight on labor.

As far as water, the majority of farmers here rely on well water. There is always a concern of overdrafting. The pump people and well drillers are very busy.

By Dan Errotabere, Fresno County diversified farmer

For our operation, right now we just completed planting tomatoes. We will plant a little bit of cotton. We are going to be down quite a bit on all of our commodities. We will be fallowing 1,200 acres, which represents about 25 percent of our operation, just due to lack of water.

We just completed drilling one well and there is another one coming in about six months.

No surface deliveries is what we are hearing for this year and hopefully it won’t be like that next year.

Everything looks pretty good. It is an ideal growing season. The crops are progressing well.

We lost one field of garbanzos to an aphid infestation. It has affected a lot of the garbanzos that are grown in this area. There were varying degrees of damage from field to field, but we had one field that we just lost completely.

Almonds look pretty good and we will try to stay on time with water, as limited as it is. A lot of folks in our area are going to have a difficult time with it because the project has just dried up and it is all well water. We will see what this means later in the summer as people run out of water or have very thin water. We will have to see what that means for them, too.

We will be putting some well water on our almonds. Our well water isn’t as bad as it is in some areas, but we are going to blend it as much as possible. We carried over some surface water from the prior year through conservation and fallowing a lot of land last year. We are just continuing an unsustainable situation of losing our allocation and pumping groundwater.

In our area, we are 100 percent drip irrigation for our row crops, our trees and everything. It is a very large investment because the water is very difficult to acquire and it is very expensive.

By Dino Giacomazzi, Kings County dairy farmer

From the dairy perspective, we are seeing record high milk prices although milk futures are starting to drop. While we are receiving high prices, it doesn't necessarily translate into record high profit margins because feed costs are still high. Protein feeds like soybean meal and canola meal are in the top 10 percent of their highs from a historical perspective. And alfalfa is at an all-time record high and in very short supply, partly brought on by the demand now that dairy producers have some money to spend, partly it is because of the drought creating a very short supply, and partly it is because there is a lot of property in California that had historically grown alfalfa and now has trees on it.

Corn silage is going to be very difficult to get hold of this year. There are very few farmers who are custom farming any more. A lot of the higher-value crops on the Westside have moved to the east, to where the water is at, because of the drought. Areas that traditionally had been used to grow dairy feed are now growing tomatoes and other crops.

I am in my first year of almond growing. I put in a couple fields of almonds this year and I will plant a couple more fields of almonds next year. It is a move toward diversification. I have a very old dairy. My place is 121 years old and the facility is 70-plus years old. Everything is falling apart. And my only choices to stay competitive as a dairyman are to rebuild and double up on what I have and try to make my dairy more efficient at considerable expense and with a very unknown payback cycle, or I can plant some trees, wait until the trees make money and use that money to fix the dairy. So that is my plan.

By Grant Chaffin, Riverside County diversified grower

In the low desert of Southern California, the old-crop cotton—planted in March 2013 and harvested in November—has concluded. It was a disastrous year. Yields were off by 25 percent and grades were substantially off base grade. Historically, 95 percent of our production meets and exceeds base grade, but last year only 65 percent met or exceeded base grade.

It was a year cotton growers want to forget, but with counts of the brown stinkbug already showing up in wheat fields, I fear we are going to have a similar year with tremendous stinkbug and whitefly pressure. I have reduced this year's cotton acreage by 50 percent. Of that reduced acreage, half of it is a short-season variety. This cotton crop was planted in the first two weeks of March and it is off to a very good start. Weather information indicates we are 16 days ahead of normal heat unit accumulation (year to date).

Alfalfa has suffered a similar situation to that of cotton. Last year and so far this year, the aphid complex is overwhelming. We are getting limited, at best, control with our current chemistries available and it doesn't appear any relief is in sight. Because of this, supply is limited and demand is strong.

This is going to be a very challenging year, to say the least.