From the Fields® - April 15, 2015

By Chris Lange, Tulare County diversified grower

We are still harvesting navel oranges, Minneola tangelos and lemons. Our estimates for the year's crop were low; we are harvesting more than we anticipated. The fruit quality is good, but there are indications that it is on a quick decline and that could be attributed to the early maturity, the mild weather from the winter and a few hot days. There is concern in the industry that some of this fruit is going south pretty fast.

On livestock, due to the drought I was forced to sell off 75 percent of my herd. Also because of the lack of availability of organic hay, we were forced to surrender our organic certification, so we are now back in the traditional cow-calf operation where we are not feeding organic materials necessarily. Unfortunately, it is a consequence of the drought. You have to make do with what you've got and nonorganic hay was what we had. We successfully harvested winter oats and much surprisingly, we ended up with a pretty decent crop. I'm probably going to have surplus hay because my livestock numbers are down, so that's a bright spot.

We've got an enormous olive bloom. It is way too early to judge how much is going to set and produce olives, but it is one of the biggest blooms we've had in years, so this coming year's olive crop looks very promising. The canners and growers really need a strong crop to compensate for those crops that have been short.

Our huge concern is water. I go to about two water meetings a week. We are on waiting lists for water and we don't know if it will become available and we don't know the price, but it is not going to be cheap. The key factor is our wells held up last year. We were pleased with their performance. Will they do the same this summer? We're keeping our fingers crossed.

By John Duarte, Stanislaus County nursery operator

What we're seeing with the drought is a lot of growers with alfalfa and cotton ground are finding that it is a good time to plant new orchards—particularly almond orchards—because for the first couple of years they take less than an acre-foot of water. While water is constrained, it is a good time to transfer over to permanent crops. It's a gamble either way. You idle the ground and grow nothing, or you plant a new orchard and hope that the drought alleviates and that there is water as the orchard gets more mature.

Tree sales are still very good. We've seen a lot of demand for nut trees, particularly almonds and walnuts. There's also a lot of pistachio plantings going in. Citrus is doing well in the easy-peel market, especially if there is water. If they have water, they are making money in citrus. But, generally, there is a slow-down in traditional citrus plantings because of the drought. We are not seeing a lot of interest in cherries, cling peaches, prunes or olives. There's almost no return that would compete with growing other crops. All of the nut crops are returning well on the investment.

The grapevine side of things in the Central Valley is mainly for raisin and table grapes. We don't see a lot of south San Joaquin winegrapes going in, but there are some, mainly pinot gris. With the coastal wineries—a little bit more premium end of the wine market—we're seeing a lot of interest in new plantings. The higher end of the market is making money.

We've been selling a lot more of our larger-format grapevines. We do a 24-inch MagnumVine and a 36-inch UberVine, which are much bigger grapevines than are normally planted. They've been growing in popularity. They bring the growers into production faster and they minimize field labor. We've been doing them for about five years and growers are seeing results and starting to do more. I think other nurseries are picking up on it as well, so that is a trend that we are seeing.

Right now in grapevines, growers are very concerned about virus in the nursery stock, so we've increased testing tremendously in our quality assurance. There's more discussion about certified grapevines and making sure grafting material is virus-free. Raisins are doing well. Table grapes are doing very well. We don't do a lot of table grapes at our nursery, but I understand there is acreage going in.

In the last decade, nurseries have developed and expanded peach-almond hybrids on rootstocks, so salt tolerance with the peach-almond hybrids is showing very good performance. We can do better almond growing on some of the groundwater basins than we used to be able to do. They are tolerating more salt and lower-quality water, but of course, there is always a limit.

By Jonnalee Henderson, Colusa County nut grower

With most fungicides sprayed before last week's rainstorm, first rounds of nitrogen applied and strips sprayed, spring activities are definitely underway in the almonds. If we can keep water on them this summer, it seems that yields across the county are up from last year.

We are using every tool in the toolbox to monitor moisture and make the most of every inch of water we might get. Depending on the ranch, these tools include a mix of: Sentek moisture probes, Watermark Irrometers and old-fashioned hand probing and pressure bombing.

One of the more fun things to report is that seven of the eight owl boxes located at one of our orchards have owls sitting on eggs. My cousin and I recently attached his iPhone to a painter's pole, put it at the box opening and videotaped them. This is at least the third year in a row that our owls have made the boxes their homes, and gopher damage has decreased tremendously since installing them.

In the walnuts, the catkins are falling rapidly and pistillate flowers are emerging. Pollination weather has been favorable, but with only 630 chilling hours reported in Colusa County by the first signs of bloom, time will tell what effect that will have on yields. Most research indicates walnuts need at least 800 hours for a good set, but with many factors to consider (fog, exact temperature, variety), this might be the year the research is put to the test.

By Richard Mounts, Sonoma County winegrape grower

We are not quite as bad off as so much of the state as far as rain and water goes. It comes in buckets or nothing, but we had big rainstorms during the winter that filled most of the reservoirs. We just got about 2 inches of rain in this last storm that came through, so that set us up pretty well. Water-wise, we’re better than most; we are very lucky.

We grow 14 different varieties on the property. Our primary varieties are zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and grenache. We are two to three weeks early in the season. Where we would normally be just considering the start of shoot removal and those jobs, we are halfway through it. Right now we are in the middle of shoot removal or suckering, which takes off the unwanted shoots just leaving the shoots that you want to bear fruit for the year. Labor is tight, but personally, we’ve been all right. I’ve hired a few extra people who have worked for me in years past, so we’re getting by. Things go a little slower than maybe you’d want, but maybe because of the earliness of the year, we’ll have a little more time to get it done with a smaller crew. We are keeping our fingers crossed. One of the guys that I hired usually does construction, but it hasn’t started yet, so he is willing to work for a month or two and help get us through.

Everyone is complaining that we have a fair amount of vines that aren’t coming out right. Nobody really has an answer for it. Then there are others saying the lingering effects of the drought are affecting some vines that maybe don’t have as strong of a root system that are slow to come out, but nobody really knows. It is really disheartening if you spend enough time in the vineyard and you see vines that were healthy last year not growing very well this year.

It is a little too early to tell crop size, although most people are saying they are seeing immature bunches and it seems to be a pretty average, good crop. Most have two bunches on them, which would be really amazing if we have a third or a fourth good crop without a miss. We shall see. We still haven’t finished the frost season yet. We still have another two or three weeks to worry about frost.

Wine sales continue to be good and grape sales follow along with that. I’ve had numerous calls from the wineries that I deal with that want to be reassured that they will get at least the same amount of fruit that they got last year, if not more. That is the biggest bright spot. The market seems to be good. As long as people keep drinking wine, we will keep producing grapes.