From the Fields® - May 7, 2014

By Jamie Johansson, Butte County olive grower

While March came in like a lion and left like a lion, the only moisture we saw in April occurred near the end of the month and was barely measurable. No matter how scarce rain may be, you can bet it will happen when the olives bloom. And no one is complaining, with Lake Oroville about 100 feet below where it was last year at this time.

The olive trees are in full bloom this week, which is about two to three weeks earlier than normal, but it was expected. Those orchards we were able to give a quick shot of water to during record dry months of January and February certainly show a much stronger bloom than those orchards that were left to fend for themselves. Just being able to turn on the irrigation for a full cycle this week was certainly an activity I wasn't too certain would occur last February.

This year we will be grateful for whatever we can produce. In the last five months here in the northern Sacramento Valley, farms have had to deal with record-breaking cold weather, drought, tornadoes and just last week a large hailstorm. Like I said, I'm not going to complain about the size of harvest. I am just going to be glad to get one this year, and so far we are headed in that direction.

By Luke Reimers, Glenn County diversified grower

The drought has had a severe effect on what we have historically done. At the beginning of the year, I was feeding a significant amount of hay and our water district was expressing that we would have no or limited water for summer irrigation. I ended up selling 80 percent of my cow herd. It was a tough decision because the herd, which took 10 years to build, could take a very long time to rebuild. From my perspective, everyone with cattle had to make similar decisions to varying degrees and my situation was not uncommon throughout the industry. The feed has come on strong now and the remaining cattle obviously look good. Cattle prices are at historical highs, which has lessened the impact of the increased expenses.

Regionally, people who have historically planted rice and have identified sources of water have been working ground. Winter hay is being cut now and should be in the bale soon, depending on localized thundershowers. The trees in our area, predominantly walnuts, almonds and prunes, have all leafed out and the mild weather has been beneficial. With the weather showing mid-90s, there is a rush to get irrigation going prior to the first hot days.

There remains a lingering question for everyone: How much water are we going to have? I have a well for my walnuts, but the assumption is that there will be significant pressure on our water basin, as people like me are relying more on wells rather than the district water. Additionally, the increased demand for well work seems to be limiting additional development in our area, with well drillers booked through next year. In the end, it is all about water and how that will affect supply, both long and short term.

By Brad Goehring, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

We seem to be getting rain events—small or large—every couple weeks. This is really helping our disking, as the ground is turning over really nice. On the one hand, that is a benefit for us as well as the need for water, and on the other hand, it creates work delays with the crews not being able to get out in the field. It also creates more mildew pressure, so we have to stay on top of our sulfuring programs. We are doing shoot thinning, suckering and training young vines.

We can see labor constricting with each passing week right now, as we head into cherry season and the demand for labor for more crops is competing for our limited resource. We will be in a full-blown shortage soon.

Our grapes this year are across the board. Nothing appears to be too heavy. Some varieties are light, some are average and some a little above average.

Our growing season seems to be about two weeks ahead of normal based on where the vines are at, physiologically speaking. Also if you look at degree days, we are closely tracking last year, which was an extremely early year. This could lead to an early harvest, but there is a lot of time between now and then. An early harvest is a benefit because of the potential for inclement weather later in the fall. The earlier we get them off, the better chance we have of not having bad weather.

It looks like we got through frost season OK. The oldtimers say that a dry winter increases the odds of frost in the spring. They also say if you make it to May 1 without frost, you pretty much escape that threat.

By David Schwabauer, Ventura County tree crop grower

What's interesting in this dry year is that prices for our crops—lemons and avocados—are very good. There's not a tremendous avocado crop on the trees, because last year we had a huge crop and the trees are typically cyclical. Last year some blocks produced 25,000 pounds to the acre, but this year will be a lot less.

We've established some avocado production in southern Monterey County, but the area has its own water challenges. Nacimiento and San Antonio reservoir levels are low. There's concern about what the groundwater basins will do with less recharge coming in. It's very disconcerting.

But we're looking at a very strong lemon market; prices and yields are strong. Of course, we have concerns about pests and new quarantine restrictions. If we can get to market, it should be a good year, but there are immense challenges this year.

With production down because of drought and the freeze in the San Joaquin Valley, along with the economy picking up, demand for lemons is high. The domestic and export markets are strong. I also think there's some substitution of lemons for limes as prices for that fruit have skyrockted.

We expect utilization by the packinghouses to go up, which is always beneficial to the grower. So, with these conditions, everybody is doing the best they can, but waiting for the next shoe to drop. We're running as much water as we can, trying to prevent fruit drop because of the heat spell.

Heat can be devastating during avocado bloom, and the trees right now are absolutely covered in blooms.

By Mat Conant, Sutter County walnut grower

Water is really tight this year, even in the North State. Guys are now finding out that the allocation that they thought could go May 1 may be put off later. Some people are saying not until June, which doesn't work at all. You can't plant rice if you can't plant until June.

The orchard business is being cut back, too. Our district, for example, is only delivering 1.1 acre-feet. We are a conjunctive-use district in south Sutter and we farmers will have to pump the other water for the orchards and rice. The rice guys are saying they are going to cut back anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent on planting in our area, depending on how good their wells are.

In the orchard business right now, we are busy applying ag chemicals and planting the last of our trees and getting water going everywhere. We are doing some replants in some new walnut orchards that we planted last year.

We had an ideal bloom on our walnuts, with very little rainfall. This has been a good year to clean up any bad blight situations. That's the good thing, but the bad thing is that we needed more rainfall. So it is a double-edged sword.

It looks like harvest might be a little earlier than usual, perhaps similar to last year. Crop set looks good, but it is hard to say at this stage of the game. I always figure that only bad things happen to walnuts after March 1.