From the Fields® - June 4, 2014

By Greg Meyers, Fresno County tree crop farmer

I’m disappointed in our new cherry orchards. The trees are about three years old and we should be getting something off the trees. But this year, I haven’t seen one cherry.

Cherry growers in our area say the hard freeze in December followed by warm temperatures may have confused the trees. Neighbors with established orchards in our area can pick five or six times in a season, but this year it was bing, bang and they were done. There just wasn’t much fruit.

All of our trees took a beating in the freeze last winter. We’ve got almonds, pistachios and olives for oil. The cold temperatures just smoked our olive trees. They’re just now starting to regrow. We’re not anticipating much of a crop this year.

My objective now is to get our orchards to push new growth so they’ll set fruit next year. But what crops will come from this area next year isn’t known. It’s not looking good.

We’ve got farmers in our area buying water hand to mouth at very high prices. Growers are pumping well water, which can be high in boron and salts, and the water isn’t good for the trees, especially if you don’t have surface water to blend with it.

On the west side of the valley where we’ve got some orchards, there are probably seven drilling rigs working in a 10-mile radius right now. One of the rigs came in from New Mexico. On our ranch, we’re getting well water coming out of the ground at 94 degrees, which is bad for the trees. If things go south and I can’t grow, I’ll probably have to open a health spa.

The disappointing thing right now is that the markets are strong, but when you’re paying $1,600 an acre-foot for water, the returns to the grower don’t cover the cost of water, which makes it hard to sustain operations. Any profit is wiped out if you’re paying for high-dollar water.

By Joe Martinez, Solano County tree crop farmer

We've just finished planting a new pistachio orchard and have all the irrigation systems in, so everything's being irrigated. Depending on what happens with the water supply as we go later into the summer, we should be able to produce some good crops.

With walnuts and almonds, we are out applying agricultural chemicals, mowing, fertilizing and irrigating. It's the normal activities for this time of year.

But the prune crop in our district is way down. I'm estimating we only have 30 percent of a normal crop in the Yolo-Solano growing area.

As far as the water outlook—we'll be OK, unless the wells start to fail. If our wells hold on, all of our orchards will be irrigated. I've been farming here since 1975 and we got through the drought back then without any wells failing.

But we had to shut down one of our wells yesterday because it was only pumping sand. We're trying to get the pump people out to see what's going on, but they're busy and we have to wait in line. It could be weeks before someone comes out.

There are a lot more straws in the ground than in 1975. The whole water system in our area is stretched almost to the breaking point.

At the same time, labor is very tight, but we've managed to get through the busy planting portion of our crop year and right now things look positive. I think we'll have enough labor to get through the season.

By Bruce Fry, San Joaquin County winegrape grower

The vines began bloom about two weeks early in all varieties. Cabernet sauvignon was in full bloom around the 15th of May, which is much earlier than normal. We had that heat wave and the vines grew like crazy, so people are scrambling, trying to get things done to keep ahead of the curve with things like the suckering and shoot thinning.

We are trying to find enough people as usual to get the things done that need to be done in the vineyard. I have had trouble since December trying to find enough people. I usually have a crew of about 20 people and this year I only had 14. I hired some people and they would leave and then I'd hire others. It fluctuated up and down. I was short six people all year, so I got behind and I had to hire a labor contractor to handle a lot of my acreage.

It is all about the season. Some people are finding work at other places. Construction is picking up and so some workers are going back to construction. Labor is very tight and it is not going to get better.

The bad news for cherry growers is that the crop is very light, but this is good for growers of crops like grapes because we are able to keep some workers who otherwise would have left to pick cherries.

The winegrape crop looks good so far, but we will have to see what happens when it gets hot in June and July and how the vines react after two drought years in a row. All of my vines are on wells and the groundwater levels are around 50 feet, which is pretty good.

By Nick Short, Stanislaus County almond and walnut grower

The main thing right now is just water, water, water. We are managing our irrigation now based on what we have available to us. The almonds look pretty good—some of the varieties may be a little light and we are just waiting to see where they all end up. Walnuts are looking pretty strong, at least for us. The main thing is water.

A lot of the dairy producers have their corn planted. Cherries are done in our area.

Right now we are doing general orchard tasks such as mowing and applying agricultural chemicals as needed to control weeds.

We are in a better position than growers in other areas because we are getting 20 inches of district water. We are used to getting 36 to 40 inches, but we can produce a crop with what we are getting. We also have pre-1914 water rights to the Tuolumne River and we use that to irrigate our walnuts.

Right now we are putting a little more water to the trees as the nuts are still forming. Once the nuts form and everything is done, we will cut back on the water and get ready for harvest.

I think everything is going to be early this year because of how dry it has been.

By Tim Nilsen, Sacramento County turkey farmer

As contract turkey growers, we have felt no significant changes with our placement schedules, even with a potential increase in demand for turkeys, as we are a bit insulated from the market demands. We are maxed out year-round between our three facilities. Foster Farms is happy with our performance and because of that, they would love for us to expand, especially since there may be an increasing need for more turkey meat, with other protein markets suffering.

What holds us back from any increase in production is the rising cost of doing business in California. There is an unprecedented amount of compounding government regulations with ridiculous fees, which have been counterproductive for agricultural pursuits.

We are a state-of-the-art, eco-friendly operation, and we would love to do our part to absorb an increasing demand and boost our local economy. It is frustrating that the only thing holding us back is a government that should be working for us. This makes it difficult to compete with other states that are not on a level playing field.

The price of turkey in California may be more affordable now, but I feel this is only because of the imports we compete with. If we were able to lower our production cost, the retail prices could continue to reflect out-of-state producers. This would support local farming, create more jobs and ultimately, generate more tax dollars right here.

Our agricultural community in California is diminishing every year, especially now because of the drought. I fear we will be forced to import all of our food soon to where we have no voice in how our food is grown and raised. Until we get back to the basics of doing business and organize a government that works with small business and promotes small business growth that boosts our local economy, we will unfortunately not be able to expand our operation.