From the Fields® - April 20, 2016

By Frost Pauli, Mendocino County winegrape grower

Bud break came early in Mendocino County and we have been playing catch-up ever since.

The pear crop looks average, with an extended bloom having just finished up. We have been busy spraying for blight and scab because of the mild and humid weather.

Winegrapes are about two weeks ahead of normal, but the great news is we have had very little frost, so our reservoirs are still full. Grapes in the North Coast are still a few weeks away from bloom depending on variety, but initial cluster counts look promising.

The market for both grapes and bulk wine has been strong since the end of February, with most growers being fully contracted with a few exceptions for certain varieties.

On the down side, it looks like labor costs are about 10 percent higher this year than last due to a number of factors.

By Mike Vereschagin, Glenn County diversified farmer

I have good news and bad news. The good is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is giving North State agriculture 100 percent of their contracts of water supply. The 100 percent allocation means the cost of water has gone down significantly, making it cheaper than groundwater pumping in most cases.

Being able to keep the wells turned off will help the declining groundwater levels recover some. The bad news: We had to drill two wells last year, plus purchase expensive transferred water supplies. We are still drilling one more well this year.

The almond crop and prune crop do not look as good as the bloom suggested.

The almond bloom had one of the best overlaps between varieties that we have ever seen. The bloom was strong and fast, but I think it was so fast that the bees didn't have enough time to do a good pollination. As a result the crop is lighter than expected, especially on the nonpareils. Hopefully, the lower crop will reverse the falling almond prices we have seen since last harvest.

The prune crop is very light this year, and talking to other growers and industry people, it looks like the state crop is going to be very light.

We got to about 25 percent bloom, and then the heavy rains started and continued until the bloom, was done. Most years, prunes will set a good crop with wet weather, but usually there are breaks in the weather so the bees can do their job. But this year, the rains never stopped during bloom, thus the bees did not get a chance to work.

The prices for the 2015 prune crop have fallen by more than $800 per ton compared to the 2014 crop. Hopefully, with the light crop being predicted, there is still enough time for marketing the remaining 2015 crop supplies at an elevated price due to the upcoming shortage, and improve the average price.

Every grower I talk to is disgusted with the direction the state is going in the cost of doing business. The new $15 per hour minimum wage, payroll taxes going up 50 percent and the proposed 40-hour workweek will not work in an agricultural environment, plus all the other regulations. It is going to force farmers to continue to look to more mechanization and technology to reduce labor costs.

Agriculture has a history of developing labor-saving equipment that is now commonly used and increased labor costs are going to fuel the next round of intensive development of equipment and technology to reduce labor costs.

Oh, did I say there was some good news? We have water this year!

By Jamie Johansson, Butte County olive and citrus farmer

It's been a couple of years, but the return of a spring where pastures and orchards actually turned green is a welcome one. Even more stunning is the return of wildflowers. Last year at this time we had already gone through one full irrigation cycle in the olive orchards, but with nearly 10 inches of March rain on the farm, compared to 1 inch in 2015, it looks like we will return to a traditional irrigation schedule starting the last week of April.

On the citrus side, the Meyer lemon trees are halfway through a heavy spring bloom and thankfully mild winter temperatures meant a lot less hand labor pruning out deadwood later in the year. The new blood orange orchard has really taken off with the heavy March rainfall and 70-degree days, but probably more so because of their first fertilizer application in late February. They actually look like trees now, but what labor savings we have with the lemons will be spent on pruning in the blood oranges.

The higher water level of Lake Oroville and return of wildflowers on Table Mountain has brought in more visitors from outside of Butte County to our farm. Without a doubt, the No. 1 conversation we have with visitors to our tasting room concerns the lake. While Lake Oroville has made a recovery, the recent opening of the spillway has created a lot of skepticism with those outside of agriculture concerning how we manage water in California. It is a welcomed conversation and one that will only grow throughout the summer as continued drought restrictions remain in place.

The weeks ahead will keep us busy with suckering trees, mowing, seasonal irrigation maintenance and gearing up for the start of our seasonal farmers markets.

By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower

What a contrast to see the foothills and grain and hay fields verdant and waving in the north breeze: another amazing example of how quickly things can (and do) change weather-wise here in arid and unpredictable Northern California. I don't know if there is an appropriate label for this turnaround, such as "March Miracle," but Shasta and Oroville were at 31.4 percent and 28 percent of capacity on the 31st of December and today are at 91 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

With the much improved water situation, it appears that the majority of the water districts, at least north of the delta, will have a 100 percent supply for 2016. For those of us in the Colusa Basin who operate chiefly from water rights issued by the state of California, it will likely mean that we will not receive notices curtailing our rights in May, as has been the case for the last two years.

That situation left many of us in the Colusa Basin with no choice but to fallow large amounts of rice land. In some instances, we were able to cobble together enough groundwater and some purchased water to get at least a small amount of acreage planted to rice. While there are no guarantees that return flows in the Colusa Basin Drain and tributaries will be adequate, at least our water rights will be valid and we can pump what is available.

Historically in California, the returns for rice have generally moved inverse to supply, and coasting into these last two years with sharply reduced acreage, it was thought that would continue to be the case. Unfortunately, with the sharp reduction in the production of California medium grain, coupled with the fact that California rice is priced at a premium over Southern medium grain, Southern medium-grain acreage has more than doubled, to the extent that overall medium-grain production in the U.S. has actually increased.

Despite the fact that returns for California medium grain are disappointing, rice plantings in the state will likely increase, as few cropping alternatives exist. In addition, while there is apparently need of additional water supplies south of the delta, transfer water is a lower priority with respect to movement through the delta pumping systems. As such, any transfer water from the Sacramento River settlement contractors as a result of fallowing of rice lands would not be available to south-of-delta interests in a timely manner.

We have all our equipment in the fields, many of which have not been planted for two seasons. From the standpoint of soil husbandry and stewardship, it will be most interesting to see how the fallowing will affect the overall rice culture, weed control and most importantly, production.