From the Fields® - August 17, 2016

By Doug McGeoghegan, Colusa County rice grower , It has been a generally favorable growing season for rice this year, at least in my opinion.

On balance, our rice crop looks pretty good this year, both on the better soils around Delevan and the tough, heavy clay soils out in the Colusa Basin.

With the annual uncertainty with respect to the status of our water rights and supplies along the Colusa Basin Drain, we rarely get much planting done before about the 5th of May, this year being no exception, with our last fields having been sown May 23.

With the announcements of full supplies for the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors, several of those districts draining into the Colusa Basin above us, we were much more confident that there would be return flows available to pump under our appropriative rights, which have not been curtailed this season. As such, we planted all the available rice lands, many hundreds of which acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015.

While I had hoped that several years of fallowing might reduce the weed pest pressure, we experienced what seemed to me to be an inordinate amount of sprangletop and barnyardgrass pressure in a number of the fields. Again, the crop protection materials available to control these pests didn't seem to be up to the task, due I presume to continuing biotype resistance, particularly with respect to the sprangletop.

With all our applications complete for the year, with the possible exception of some treatment for blast or aggregate sheath spot and stem rot, it's pretty much keep the water on the rice, think positive with respect to upcoming yields and, of paramount importance, successfully market the very large 2016 California rice crop. That is, by most accounts, going to be challenging.

By Norm Yenni, Sonoma County hay and grain grower

Farm markets are cyclical. What goes up will come down. A few years back, hay was very profitable. This year, it's not fun being a hay farmer. Hay prices are down, and it's definitely a buyer's market. Compound that with there being few buyers, and it's hard to say what is your best strategy. Lowering the price won't stimulate sales if nobody wants the product, but holding out for a profitable price may not get any sales either.

I sell to a large number of small buyers, and thus far they have been showing up as usual, but the large-volume dealers I need have been lagging in sales. I'm hoping for a spike in interest with the coming rainy season.

My grain markets have been slightly better. At least I can sell that product, and there is some amount of profit.

The good market right now is in straw, which is left over once the crop's grain has been removed. What was long considered a by-product, sometimes not worth the bother, is now an important part of my cash flow. Most of my straw goes for erosion control, but the traditional bedding use is still in demand. And, with the unreasonably high hay prices four years ago, some cattle producers started feeding straw mixed with grains to make a balanced ration. In today's market, you can buy some hay cheaper than straw.

Sonoma County is also gearing up for grape harvest. Some champagne grapes have been picked, and still wines will follow soon.

By Nicholas Miller, Santa Barbara County diversified grower

We are finally finishing up with our avocado harvest this year and it proved to be a fruitful one. Both avocados and lemons proved to be strong crops for us this year, and I continue to be impressed with how our packinghouses—Index Fresh and Saticoy Lemon—are able to market these crops.

The timing of picking on the avocado side seems to have run right into our winegrape harvest, which was early again this year by historical dates, but seems to be the new norm for the last few years.

This year, we started picking winegrapes for sparkling wine programs in July and for still wines in August. Most winemakers I've been talking to have been lamenting that they used to bottle their previous vintage wines toward the end of summer, then had two weeks "off" before moving into harvest. But with these earlier harvests, there is no longer any break in between.

As far as crop load: After the disastrous almost crop failure of 2015, we were all hoping for a more substantial crop in 2016, but that does not seem to be in the cards.

Everything we are seeing from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles seems to be coming in at lighter yields than our historical averages. This means that many varieties from the Central Coast will be very short this year, because in addition to the light coastal yields, there is fear about "smoke taint" getting into the grapes/wines in Monterey County due to the ongoing Soberanes fire that has been burning up there.

By Al Medvitz, Solano County farmer and sheep producer

This spring, a building contractor recruited away one of our five key employees by providing higher wages, shorter hours and better benefits than we. By coincidence, we have permanently leased out our grain and safflower production and scaled back alfalfa production for the year. We can cope shorthanded until next year, but we face the daunting task of finding a qualified replacement.

Our equipment for raising dryland grain and safflower has gotten old, and the scale of our operation in today's markets doesn't justify expenditure on new harvesters or tractors. So, for the first time after nearly 150 years, the ranch has leased the entirety of its grain production to neighbors who are expanding their scale.

The yield on roughly 1,200 acres of wheat and barley was OK, and 140 acres or so of safflower is getting ready to harvest. They are also grooming 1,200 acres of summer fallow for next year's grain crop.

After eight years of 120 acres of alfalfa production, we are rotating that land through a barley crop. Some of that crop was grazed off by our early lambs, some was baled as hay for our fall and winter feed needs, and some was harvested as grain for finishing our lambs for market. We will replant alfalfa next year.

Our breeding ewes and bucks are being set loose on the recently harvested lands, after being confined to uncultivated pastures that will be prepared next year for the 2017-18 crop.

Maintaining weed-free and nutritious forage on our grazing land is a never-ending struggle. We are planning a 40-acre test plot for several varieties of pasture grasses and dryland alfalfa, to improve our forage base.

Over the past several years, we have culled and improved our flock of sheep. We are rebuilding it using high tech ID tracking that gives detailed information on the health management and breeding of each individual ewe. This allows for better selection of ewe lambs for replacement breeding stock.

This year's lamb production has gone well. We continue monthly lamb shipments to Niman Ranch and weekly shipments to our restaurant customers in the Bay Area. Prices have remained relatively stable.

Our 50 acres of winegrapes look good after reduced yields last year. Within weeks, we will be harvesting.

Because of encroaching salinity in the Sacramento River and damage to the irrigation intake pipe, we are relying on groundwater when the river is not available. This is costly because of the necessity to treat the groundwater for high pH, boron and sodium levels and the necessity of running an additional groundwater pump to feed our drip pumping system.