From the Fields® - December 3, 2014

By Joe Valente, San Joaquin County winegrape and cherry grower

We finished winegrape harvest early this year. We got all of the fields worked up and we prepared them for winter. The harvesters are cleaned up ready to store for next season.

The winegrape harvest started about 10 days earlier than normal and other than just one rain, it went relatively smooth. The sugars this year just came in line on the varieties that needed to be harvested. Typically, you are trying to figure out the scheduling of what you are going to harvest the next day and this year we had this figured out three or four days in advance. It seemed like all of the sugars just fell into place and there were no scheduling issues. The grape quality was extremely good; everything just went well and there were no issues with rot or mildew.

We mostly do mechanical harvesting, so finding labor isn't much of a problem as when we are doing hand-harvesting. Right now, we are setting up to start pre-pruning of the vines and ultimately cut costs of pruning. We'll probably start pruning towards the end of December.

With all of the varieties, the yields were average to below average. Probably the crops that were the lighter ones overall were zinfandel, for whatever reason, and cabernet was normal to slightly above normal, but overall, everything went well.

By Ed Hale, Imperial County diversified farmer

We're frantically trying to get durum wheat in because the prices are relatively good and it looks like they'll be strong due to weather problems in Canada and the Dakotas. Conventional wisdom is that mills will need to come to the desert to pick up higher quality wheat to blend with weather-damaged wheat.

And we're trying to get the last of our subsurface, drip-irrigated alfalfa crop up and germinated. We'll convert from sprinklers to drip once germination is complete. We've got 1,800 acres of drip-irrigated alfalfa in the Imperial Valley right now.

We started irrigating with drip about three years ago on this ranch. We just put another drip system in on a ranch we lease in Wenden, Ariz. We have 3,000 acres of alfalfa under drip there.

Drip irrigation in the desert is getting more attention because of our long growing season. The fixed costs of installing drip require year-round harvesting to amortize it across nine or 10 cuttings a season. With crop production increases, the expenditure on drip systems can be justified.

Our approach is to produce more alfalfa per acre-foot than we did before. Because of the success we're having, there's a lot of interest from valley farmers. At first there was a lot skepticism about using drip in the valley, but that has drained away as neighbors have seen our production results.

We're looking at ranches in Arizona more closely now to locate contiguous blocks of ground with a good water source, so we can install drip irrigation systems there that make the ranches more self-sufficient. Large pieces of ground are hard to find in the Imperial Valley at any price, so were looking for opportunities in Arizona.

By Mat Conant, Sutter County walnut grower

In Sutter County and most other counties, the walnut crop is up and I expect the value of the crop will probably go up. I wouldn't be too surprised if walnuts actually have a higher value than rice this year for two reasons: Even though rice prices are up this year, acreage is down, and walnuts will have a similar price to last year and maybe down just a touch from last year's high prices.

California walnut production is expected to be up this year by about 10 to 12 percent, overall. Walnut production was around 495,000 tons last year and this year we should be around 545,000 tons total state production. It looks like walnuts are doing pretty well and rice is doing well too. Rice prices are up $6 to $8 a sack from last year.

Now that walnut growers have finished harvest, they are working on sanitation, strip spraying and starting pruning and looking forward to the holidays. It was a long harvest this year and seemed to drag on for a lot of people, including us.

Regarding water, for us our district is pretty well managed. We have a well-managed groundwater plan and have been doing it roughly 60 years in our district. We are used to droughts and during the drought years we of course rely more heavily on the groundwater than surface water. Because we had less surface water, we had to tap heavily into the wells this year.

We talked to a well district manager recently and he thinks that the wells did not go down as much as he thought they would have. Some areas are only down a couple of feet from last year at this time, so that's pretty good. Some areas are down more. He thinks if we have any significant rainfall this year that we will recover very nicely. But not every area can say that.

By Jim Morris, Siskiyou County diversified grower

We're heading into the cold season. Ten days ago, we finally had cold temperatures down into the 20s—or a killing frost—that shut all of the plants off, and that allows us to turn cattle out onto alfalfa fields without the risk of bloat. It is risky before that. Cattle are mostly down and out of the mountains right now and back onto winter feed grounds. There's a little bit of hay but not much, but we're looking towards snow flying in the next two weeks, at which time we'll start feeding hay in our part of the world.

It's been a very nice fall as far as moisture in the north state. We've had plentiful rain. The rivers are running, the fish are swimming and the feed has grown.

We'll have to see how the areas that burned last summer respond to winter storms. We're hoping we don't have a lot of erosion problems and that they can be salvage-logged and reforested, and put away properly before there's too much erosion in those areas.

Hay markets are looking not as strong as they were, but the hay producers in our area will do OK. Cattle prices are strong enough that it looks like they will be able to support good hay prices and still be able to make money with cattle.

All in all, it's a pretty good year for people who are producing hay and cattle.

By April Mackie, Monterey County diversified grower

Some people think winter is downtime for agriculture, but that's not the case. Already, many of our farming operations in the Salinas Valley have moved to Yuma, Ariz., to continue producing lettuce and leafy greens during the winter months. The Yuma Valley provides moderate daytime temperatures that create great growing conditions for lettuce and leafy greens.

But at the same time, here in the Salinas Valley, there are still a few lush green crops growing; many of these are late-season lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower. For us, the growing never stops.

Just a few weeks ago, strawberry growers were still producing berries, but harvest was halted on Halloween when we received our first large rain. After the rain, many of the fields were cleared or covered in plastic to prepare for fall berry planting.

Our strawberry field workers have been staying busy prepping beds, laying drip tape and now planting strawberry transplants.

In the leafy-green fields, tractors are disking up old crops, laser leveling ground and bedding up fields in preparation for our winter planting of vegetable crops.

This is also the best time for growers to implement water quality and field sustainability projects—planting buffer strips, transitioning old irrigation equipment to more efficient systems, clearing brush from potential flood-threatened areas, planning development for technical trials and working on other sediment/water quality management practices.

In addition, there are many regulatory compliance deadlines during the winter months: updates for water-quality regulations, local water-use reporting, air quality regulations, local government hazardous materials compliance and preparation for upcoming food-safety audits.