From the Fields® - November 5, 2014

By Sasha Farkas, Tuolumne County apple and timber producer

Apple harvest is underway and we're making good progress. Right now, we're harvesting Granny Smith and Arkansas black apples, which are dark-skinned apples, almost maroon. People love their crunchiness with a slightly tart flavor.

We had a 36-degree morning recently, but generally our mornings have been about 40 degrees, warm enough to not cause any problems with harvest. We hope to be finished with apple harvest in a couple of weeks.

One challenge we've encountered is this crop is somewhat larger than expected, which is usually a good problem to have, except we've been running out of bins and have had to slow down while we empty some out or get more.

Because the foothill apple crop is harvested so late in the season, we haven't had problems getting help. But we do have to pay a bit more because of workers' added travel costs.

We barely squeaked by with our water supplies, but we made it this year. Getting the crop through this year meant paying a lot more attention to water management, which is very time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Right now, I'm trying to beat the weather to wrap up some brush clearing jobs. We've been working in the Rim Fire burn area, grinding dead vegetation and leaving it in place for mulch.

There's been some discussion about whether mulch adds to the future fuel load or helps restore the soil. I think leaving mulched material in some places will help hold the soil if we get a lot of precipitation, which we hope will prevent damaging erosion.

In Stanislaus County, it's water, water, water. Groundwater is a hot topic right now and there have been a number of important meetings on this issue. I'm trying to stay on top of these policy issues on both counts to help represent our members' interests.

By Jim Spinetta, Amador County winegrape grower

The good news is that we had two inches of rain in our area, so the pasture is growing for cattle ranchers. Walnut harvest is in full swing and the walnuts are quite large this year. Our barbera winegrape crop was down 75 percent due to last year's fall frost before the vines were dormant, in addition to the two inches of spring hail. But that is farming.

Water continues to be a big concern in our area as it is throughout the state. Our water tables have really dropped, from about 350 to almost 700 feet. All we have is solid granite fractures; we do not have an aquifer. Everything we grow is on drip irrigation and everything is efficient. We are saving every drop of water that we possibly can.

Overall in our region, the grape crop was down 15 to 30 percent. The No. 1 cause is the drought. Ironically, the drought is going to set the stage for the best quality vintage since 1997. A light crop provides small grapes, and small grapes give dark color and lots of flavor—everything that our consumers crave.

In addition, the 2014 vintage marks the earliest winegrape harvest ever on record, due to the dry conditions and warm climate.

By Sarb Atwal, Yuba-Sutter counties orchardist

Cling peach harvest began a week early in mid-July. Most growers experienced lighter yields in the extra-early and early varieties, while the late and extra-late varieties provided excellent yields. Overall, the fruit quality and size were ideal, given the lighter set and the above-normal temperatures we experienced during the growing season.

Labor was plentiful thanks in part to canneries allowing growers to mechanically harvest their crops. The peach industry is showing positive signs. Canners are offering long-term contracts for growers and some are even offering financing options to help develop new orchards. However, many growers are still reluctant to plant additional acreage, as the increase of minimum wage and other growing costs offset the increase in price and return.

The prune crop in Yuba-Sutter was decent. The prune set in the North State was below average, along with the crop in the south. Prune acreage is declining substantially even with the higher prices. Most of this is due to growers redeveloping those blocks into nut crops, which are quicker to produce and have proven to sustain a stronger market.

The walnut crop appears to be lighter than expected. The quality is excellent and so far we have had minimal issues. Most growers are finishing harvest of Chandler varieties.

By Mark McBroom, Imperial County citrus farmer

We grow mostly lemons, mandarins and grapefruit. Our lemon crop is better than last year and markets are holding up really well. We're having a little trouble with labor right now, but we're still able to move across our crop at a near-normal pace.

The Asian citrus psyllid is causing problems because we have an infested area. Our county has its own pest control district, which has been very aggressive in attacking the challenge posed by this pest and the disease it spreads. We're satisfied with the response.

Our grower community is very educated about this problem and we feel our county is doing a good job. I serve on the state Citrus Research Board and the Citrus Disease and Pest Prevention Committee, and we're getting the latest information on developments with this problem and have a good sense of what's going on.

We're off to a good start with our lemon harvest, not quite halfway through. We'll start with seeded tangerines shortly and then transition to our seedless varieties about mid-December. Grapefruit, it's a fruit that's kind of been neglected, and the grapefruit market is always a challenge.

California grapefruit growers generally have a third place at the table behind Florida and Texas because of marketing reasons and perhaps some consumer acceptability issues. Our crop doesn't usually come off until about May and June. However, if an opportunity comes up, we have fruit that is pickable right now.

We had an average crop year last year, but we're hoping for better this year. Farmers are always optimistic.

By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower

The relatively small amount of rice acreage we were able to plant in 2014 yielded reasonably well, both in quantity and quality. With the open fall weather we, like an increasing number of rice growers, opted to contract with one of the numerous outfits in the area putting up rice straw for various purposes, from dry stock feed to dairy cattle fodder to environmental purposes such as straw wattles, etc. When the rice industry moved into the era of sharply reduced burning with the passage of AB 1378 in the early '90s, many hoped that large-scale alternative uses for the straw would be quick in coming.

Ironically, the drought with which we are now wrestling has increased the demand for rice straw as a livestock feed supplement. Removing a large portion of the straw makes for much more efficient postharvest tillage, not to mention the fact that dependable water supplies for rice straw decomposition are limited and, in some cases, simply not available.

Here it is Halloween, and we've already been tantalized by a couple of storms right out of the Gulf of Alaska that looked really promising for the North State, but didn't materialize for much more than a shower or two. Driving through our big ranch out in the Colusa Basin east of Delevan, a large portion of which had to be fallowed in crop year 2014, it is a another stark reminder of how fragile our irrigated agricultural industry is in traditionally arid California.

Given the current condition of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, it appears that nothing short of an extremely wet winter and early spring can bring the system back even to early spring 2014 levels. It certainly can happen, as did happen in January of 1978, right on the heels of the drought of 1976-77. With the realization of any new water storage probably at least a decade away, it is difficult and painful to imagine what our farming operations may look like, absent a return to plentiful rain and snow.