From the Fields® - February 18, 2015

By Garrett Patricio, Fresno County melon grower

The drought is real and burdensome environmental regulation is exacerbating the problem. Although the recent rains were a welcome relief, we are still praying for additional rain events through the central and south valley.

These past few months, we've been dusting off the cobwebs and cleaning and sanitizing equipment, as preventative maintenance and season planning is in full swing. As rains give way to longer, warmer days, Westside Produce will begin planting for the start of our late June cantaloupe and honeydew harvest.

We anticipate another strong year for melon production throughout the state. Melons are a desert crop and low water user, so production shortages are not expected in 2015. This summer, expect cantaloupe and honeydew varieties with high brix and sweet flavor profile.

Managing water supplies, labor shortages, food safety compliance and regulatory challenges will still pose problems for us and other ag producers in the state, but in typical farmer fashion we fully expect to preserve and prosper.

By Al Medvitz, Solano County sheep producer

The recent spate of rainstorms has been a great relief. We are now pretty certain we will have adequate pasture feed for our sheep and lambs. We can even talk of harvesting some of it as hay to provide additional security for later in the year.

The blessing, of course, comes with the associated curse of the rapid growth of our invasive thistle and pepper weed population. We are in the constant agony of trying to figure out the most cost-effective and sustainable way to maintain our pasture quality.

We are also pretty much assured of a decent grain crop as well, although we will need more rain later in March or April. An interesting turn on the evolution of our ranch is that even though our land produces several thousand tons of grain per year in a three-year rotation with our sheep, current price structures and technology costs don't justify our purchase of new (or even good used) harvesting equipment.

We've leased our grain to our neighbor and his friend who are expanding their operation and investing in state-of-the-art technologies.

Even though the recent rains will help our sheep and grain crops, they are not sufficient to ensure Sacramento River water quality, so that we can continue to irrigate our alfalfa crop. That's a conundrum for us. This past year we had to take emergency action to use irrigation well water to provide for our winegrapes when our riparian supply became unusable. We should be OK for this next year. But who knows?

On top of coping with changing farming and ranching conditions, we are spending a lot of time working to ensure our water rights and, if that isn't enough, needing to act to keep our H2A visa program viable so that we, and others in the sheep industry, will have adequate labor to husband our animals.

By Greg Wegis, Kern County diversified grower

Bloom started this past weekend and now all of the bees are moved into the almonds. It is just the first few branches popping out, so it is hard to tell right now if it is going to be a concentrated bloom or erratic. We are applying amendments in the almonds, like gypsum, and we're starting a little bit of irrigation. The weather looks clear. We hope that we don't have to put bloom sprays on at the beginning.

With pistachios, we are starting pre-irrigation and we just finished an experiment with some oil sprays to see if the oil in fact will help with overall pollination, specifically the timing of the male and female flowers in the Kerman variety. The oil is supposed to help introduce earliness by about two weeks of bloom and that the male and female will bloom at the same time in a low-chill hour year, which is this year. We probably have about 730 chill hours and around 50 tree chill portions. We are lower on chill hours, but better on chill portions than a year ago. Last year, we had close to 1,000 chill hours and about 40 chill portions.

We also grow 24 acres of cherries and we've always looked at chill portions. In cherries we applied Dormex with about 52 chill portions and that is late. In low-chill years, in cherries Dormex helps overall crop set and forces it into a fruiting mode. If you don't spray Dormex, you get a lighter crop.

With alfalfa, we are green chopping. It started raining in November and we couldn't get the machines in (to green chop), but now everything is kind of dry so we were able to get in and clean up some of the fields. There's abundant food for sheep in the foothills because of all of this rain, so it is hard to find enough sheep for our alfalfa fields.

Wheat looks good. We have a little bit of frost damage in some of the earlier-planted wheat fields. We see a little bit of disease in the wheat crop that we've never seen before. They've seen it in several fields throughout Kern County. There are lesions on the lower canopy, but University of California Cooperative Extension and our PCAs are not sure what it is yet. We are waiting for lab results. It is a small percentage of the overall acreage, but what is concerning is we don't know what it is right now. We should know more in a couple of weeks.

By BJ Van Dam, San Bernardino County dairy farmer

After making serious cutbacks to our herd size in 2012 and 2013, the rise in milk prices in 2014 allowed us to replace cows in our herd and we have gotten our production and numbers back to levels that we can be happy with and proud of.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing the predicted drop in milk prices for 2015 and increases in feed costs. We are happy we made the improvements and changes that we did in 2014, when we could afford them. We don't know yet what the times ahead will bring financially, but milk prices are still dropping and feed prices are forecasted to continue to go up.

Our oldest son, now 2 years old, continues to be fascinated with the dairy and loves to go to the barn and help Daddy with the cows. We hope that our new son, just 2 weeks old, will love the dairy just as much.

We are now the last dairy on our street, and construction of new neighborhoods has begun all around us. It is hard to be optimistic about the future of passing this particular dairy on to our sons, but hopefully we will be able to pass a dairy on to our sons in the future.

By Dana Merrill , San Luis Obispo County winegrape grower

After a promising December with 6 inches of rain in some locations, January proved very dry. Now we have 1.25 inches to 2.5 inches of rain added this past weekend, which has helped growing grain crops and grass for grazing, and we still have hope for more rain to start to refill strained aquifers.

With almonds beginning to blossom, winegrapes could be only a couple of weeks away, which will cause concern for frost threats if the temperatures become cooler. Generally it is too early to expect only warm weather, so warm days and moderate nights are a mixed blessing at this point.

Pruning in the vineyards is well underway now. Crew labor appears ample; our crunch time is now mid-spring when there are other crops to compete with. Labor rates are up, partly due to farm labor contractors trying to recover costs for mandatory health coverage, which started this year.

After three larger crops, initial interest by buying wineries has been relatively strong. The Preliminary Crush Report has just been released and it is another yardstick by which wineries can judge pricing and growers can evaluate demand. Open market prices for the past year are easy to spot by experienced growers and wineries, and each year the report is eagerly awaited.

Water remains a major concern. Paso Robles has an urgency ordinance via San Luis Obispo County, which prohibits new development whether agricultural or rural housing without a 1:1 offset in use. While housing can comply relatively easily, ag projects such as vineyards find it challenging. Yet the temporary ordinance is slated to expire in August and if no permanent ordinance follows, well pumping could increase exponentially, adding more stress to a basin at or near overdraft. Elected officials try to balance property rights with concern for water as a resource, which has proven challenging. There are tough decisions to make and reactions range from denial to efforts to form a local Paso Robles Basin water district as enabled by the passage of Assembly Bill 2453 last year.