From the Fields® - September 12, 2018

By Jeff Frey, Santa Barbara County winegrape grower

We just got over a big heat spell down here. That made working in the fields rather difficult. We sent people home early because temperatures were in the triple digits in some places and our employees are just not used to working in that kind of heat. We did get a little bit behind, but we are catching up now, with bird netting, finishing our final sprays, going through veraison on our early varieties such as pinot noir and pinot grigio.

We are starting to gear up for harvest, which we think will start a little later this year, probably in mid-September. The crop levels look good for most varieties. Some look normal and others look normal to a bit better than normal.

There hasn't been much activity in wineries looking for grapes, which is disheartening for growers who have any grapes for sale. For most varieties, there isn't a lot of interest right now, which isn't good. For the grapes that are contracted, the wineries seem to be paying attention to it.

Labor has been short all season. We have been getting by, but for the whole season we could have probably used 10 percent to 15 percent more people in our crews. I don't see that getting any better. There is some mechanical and more people moving toward mechanical harvesting. This year, we saw more leafing being done mechanically. So that is helping some. But we do have a lot of vineyards that are not set up for mechanical work, so that does require a lot of labor.

The weather is good. We only had slight damage from the heat spell and I think everyone weathered it fairly well.

We do have some olives for oil and they look terrible this year. Not just us, but it seems like every olive grove doesn't have much fruit on it at all. We can't figure out why this is happening.

By Tom Chandler, Fresno County orchardist

We finished harvesting our Nonpareil variety almonds and they are all about 30 percent less than last year, based on truckloads we delivered to the processor.

Hull rot this year is a much bigger problem than in years past. Our more mature almond orchards with higher-density plantings appear to have the most hull rot.

The almond market is stalled out because of the trade wars. So, we are all concerned about this year's almond price outlook.

The peach and plum harvest is still going well. The crop size and quality of fruit this year has been great. The market for fresh-market peaches has been good in both the early and mid parts of the season. The fresh peach market has softened a lot recently due to the typical supply build-up because Southeast peach production is in full swing. Also, the higher cost for trucking product back east caused by the stricter regulations on truck driver hours of operation has not helped.

Last week, we cut the canes on our dried-on-the-vine raisin grapes in order to begin their long drying process. Our Fiesta variety raisin block appears to have mildew problems again this year, but the Thompson raisin blocks appear to have a good, clean crop. Some growers in our area are just starting to pick and lay down their Thompson raisins for the tray-dried system.

Our surface water supplies from our irrigation district shut off July 30. Fortunately, this turned out to be a fair water supply year for the farmers in our area, at about 70 percent of a full water run from the Kings River.

By Josh Barton, San Joaquin County walnut and olive grower

We're gearing up for walnut harvest the latter part of this month. We're making our final preparation on most of our pest control. In walnuts, we are currently actively spraying for husk fly and mites, which typically come in the middle part to the latter part of the summer. For this time of year, it's a steady regimen of control to keep down on husk fly populations.

The other thing we are considering is timing on our Ethrel application. Ethrel is a product that we use to help bring the fruit along a little quicker. Ethephon is the active ingredient. What we're looking for in the walnut crop is 95 to 100 percent packing-tissue brown, which is an indication that it's time for us to apply Ethrel. Once that Ethrel is applied, we know that we've got a timeframe of around 11 to 14 days before we're ready to start shaking those trees.

The crop looks good. I think we're going to have a record crop this year. There's going to be more walnuts this year than we've seen ever. The quality of the crop looks good. These cooler days have definitely helped maintain some of the quality as far as color goes. I think we're looking at potentially a really nice crop overall.

As far as the olives go, olives have this bizarre alternate-bearing cycle that we're seeing more and more of. And we are in a downward swing of that alternate-bearing cycle. The crop this year is very light. We farm predominately the Arbequina variety and the crop set is very low. Unfortunately, they did not crop up as well as we had anticipated with some of the pruning techniques we've tried to utilize the last two years.

Overall, tree vigor looks very healthy; the trees look great. They put on a lot of new vegetative wood this year, which will be set for next year's fruit wood. Our concern is that we are going to put on so much vegetative wood this year that we'll over-crop for next year and just continue this shift. So, we're trying to come up with a few different ideas as far as how we can try to minimize the alternate-bearing swing and get more of a consistent crop set.

As far as timing on harvest on the olives, it looks relatively similar to last year, maybe slightly later. It'll be in October, but maybe a week behind last year. The walnut harvest will be a little bit later this year than it was last year as well. We're just a little further behind. The weather has been phenomenal this summer and so it really hasn't stressed or pushed us for an early harvest. It's more of a normal harvest timing, maybe slightly later.

By James Durst, Yolo County organic grower

Summer will be over in a few weeks and the autumnal solstice will occur.

A moderate spring with cooler temps and minimal extreme weather occurrences promoted flower set in most crops, resulting in excellent yields of tomatoes, watermelons, melons and winter squash. Plantings happened on time and timing for harvest could not be better.

For those of us selling into wholesale and retail markets, we are seeing our margins eroded by imported fruits and vegetables and larger-scale operations that have converted some of their operations to organic to try to capture some of this market. And then our president's decision to put tariffs on steel and aluminum resulted in reciprocal trade tariffs on agricultural commodities normally exported overseas from our country.

We are seeing a slight uptick in pricing at the retail level, but farm gate prices are equal or lower than previous years. Retailers are covering their own increased costs. And at the same time we are seeing double-digit inflation on the inputs we as farmers need to run our business: utilities, fuel, seed, fertility products, labor, and parts and equipment.

I am not an economist, but it feels like our agricultural economy is backsliding as a result of circumstances over which we may have seemingly little control.