From the Fields® - February 4, 2015

By Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County winegrape grower

For many of us in Mendocino County, January has ended on a down note. We have seen virtually no rain and letters have arrived from the State Water Resources Control Board notifying us of possible water diversion curtailments (see story). Ponds and very intense water management practices helped us limp through last year. It looks like we will have to continue to refine those tools to stay in business.

On the positive side, the beautiful weather has been great for getting work done. We are well ahead of our normal pruning schedule.

Marijuana grows continue to impact water, law enforcement effectiveness and our community. It is critical that our local, state and federal governments start working together on this issue.

For the last few years, we have been working with the Kaos Sheep Outfit to manage our under-vine weeds. Traditionally, we have used herbicides, mowing and disking to manage weeds. The owners of Kaos run the sheep through our vineyards. The sheep mow and fertilize as they walk through vineyards. They use portable electric fences to move the sheep from one block to another. The sheep are protected from predators with Great Pyrenees. We will have the sheep make two to three passes based on weed growth. The sheep have helped reduce pesticide usage, lowered our diesel cost and freed up labor.

By John Miller, Placer County beekeeper and mandarin grower

Beekeepers across California are moving hives into almond orchards. It's the largest paid pollination event on earth. Probably 2 million hives will be moved in; 15 percent will fail first inspection in mid-February, just before bloom. Beekeeping supply houses are selling record tonnage of honeybee protein supplements this year.

Beekeepers are more than ever trying to keep our hives alive. Sugar syrup prices are up; diesel is down: a push. Pollination prices seem stable at the $180-a-hive range. Brokers now have fewer hives in inventory than previous years and anything can happen over the next few weeks.

Rain is forecast. We hope to see big rain prior to bloom.

We bring all rolling stock to California. We bring all our labor from all branches, hire a lot of trucking, track a lot of data. For the first time, we are using thermal imaging to predict hive well-being before placing hives in orchards.

I spend time talking to fellow beekeepers, sharing information: help a guy out who is short, ask for help if we are short.

Bee health is always a challenge. The Bee Informed Project tech teams were on our property last week. We know hive health actions taken last August are now evident in February. It is still varroa, varroa, varroa—and everything else.

I think we can meet demand, but the arithmetic can change in a hurry. Our bees look excellent right now.

Honey production in America has gone off a cliff. Lack of forage equates to lousy honey crops. Lousy honey crops mean hives don't build up for winter rigors as they used to. USDA ag policy needs to re-establish meaningful forage acreage and it needs to happen soon.

The mandarins in Placer County are in winter mode. A number of growers watered trees this week and a light fertilizer application went on. Fields need a good rain. Our mandarin season is November-January. This season's crop was excellent. Lots of folks were introduced to hand-picked, tree-ripened fruit. The flavor was excellent.

Mandarin trees are fairly hardy and can withstand 26 degrees. Most of the fruit was off the trees by Christmas. Our crop was damaged when storm winds banged the fruit together, driving the protective oil from the rind.

By James Durst, Yolo County organic grower

December brought some welcoming rains to California and we were able to shut off pumps and enjoy the moisture. Cover crops and grain are all planted. We take all our soil samples in the fall and apply amendments where needed.

January was a little warm to my liking. Last year, we had some pest issues due to an unusually warm winter. I believe the cold and wet keeps insect populations at bay.

We will be ready to start harvesting asparagus by Feb. 15 if temperatures remain warm, and we may start irrigating if we don't get rain soon. We are planting our first snap peas for April harvest.

Since we have not had any rain for several weeks, we may start running our pumps periodically to keep surface water available in locations for wildlife.

By Zack Stuller, Tulare County diversified grower

We're right in the middle of citrus and mandarin harvest. Because of the warmer temperatures lately and no rain, we're going to start irrigation and fertilizer pretty soon on the citrus. Quality is fine. It was above average in terms of yield, but we're seeing smaller sizes everywhere.

We're anticipating bloom on cherries at the end of February, so we're getting ready to start Dormex applications to wake up the cherries. Because of the warmer winter, we don't have adequate chill hours, so we're anticipating an early bloom. The chill hours are much lower than in years past. We're applying Dormex two weeks later than normal this year because of how warm it's been. I think the cherry industry in general is anticipating another not-so-good crop because of lack of chill hours.

We're pruning grapes and kiwifruit. In normal years when it's raining, we'd be sitting around looking at each other because it'd be wet, but we're going hard on land preparations for planting because there's no rain and we're taking advantage of it. We've got tractors going full bore. We're deep ripping, leveling and getting the ground prepped for planting in the spring.

With the wheat we got planted, the early rains in December were great for germination. They got it growing strong, but we're irrigating like crazy now because there hasn't been any rain. But the wheat crop looks good. I'm hoping I can get by with one irrigation. I'm hoping when we get done with this round, that in February or March it'll rain and take us home and we won't have to give it another shot of water.

As of right now, going into the 2015 growing year, we are anticipating no surface water at all. We'll be farming 100 percent with wells, and that's scary. We're removing older plants in tight water areas. On ranches where we've decided to replant, we're concerned about the wells holding up and whether we're going to get district water to farm those. We've decided to do a lot more redevelopment right now where water is tight, because young trees don't take as much water. If a ranch has only one well and the well has dropped off quite a bit, we know we can't get a well drilled for at least another year, so we've decided to redevelop it and plant baby trees that can survive on one well until we can get another well drilled or we get more district water.

By Stacy Gore, Butte County diversified farmer

After the wet but welcome weather in December, the north valley is busily working away with orchard and field tasks. Pruning in the almonds is finished and it looks like the later-blooming tree crops are going great guns. Stumps are being dug and holes prepped for replants in the near future.

Since it has been dry, fertilizer is being applied in advance of the spring bloom. However, if dry conditions persist, we'll need to irrigate the fertilizer into the soil so that the tree roots will have easy access to the nutrients. Potassium is important to nut set, so having it available at the right time in the spring makes happy trees in March and happy farmers in September.

The lack of precipitation has also allowed some field-crop spraying, but winter forage is starting to stress in some areas. As we close in on the end of duck season, flooded fields that were bank full a few weeks ago are starting to show ground. There is still some great waterfowl viewing though, and there are a good number of bald eagles in the fields of the North State.