From the Fields® - March 6, 2019

By Joe Colace, Imperial County diversified grower

We are finally getting some warmer temperatures down here in the desert. We are obviously behind on the spring crops. We have had a very cold, wet winter and as a result we are running behind schedule.

Prices are strong at this point. It has fluctuated a lot with the vegetables, but finally we are into some very nice weather and it is extended for the next several days. So that is bringing some renewed optimism for the spring crops, primarily melons and sweet corn, as well as our citrus. I am noticing a response in the growth.

The turnaround has just started. Prices are strong because the inventory is low as a result of the cold. For the leafy items, I would say the price per pound is below budget, which means they are utilizing more acres to produce the same number of pounds. So, they go through the acreage more quickly. It has really been interesting: Cauliflower, broccoli, those markets have had some very nice periods with strong demand.

I would say we are running ahead of our normal rainfall totals. Probably, since early December, we are at 2 to 2 1/2 inches, depending on where you are at. That doesn't sound like a lot, but for the desert, it actually is. So, it has created some bumpy planting periods for the spring crops.

Typically, we try to get a second crop with approximately half of our spring corn and melons. There weren't many problems getting the first crop in this year, but the second crop, primarily the leafy items, has been more challenging.

I don't think we are back to normal yet. We are showing some strong advancements. Growth is definitely behind schedule.

Labor has been fine. We seem to be in a good place. And of course, the entire state is optimistic with snow and rain this year and that will resupply and restore the reservoirs, which is a very positive thing. Our water supply is very promising, and that is a good thing.

By Steve McShane, Monterey County nursery producer

The Salinas Valley has experienced a very wet February and as a result, planting is delayed all over the place. The local vegetable industry suffered a major blow due to E. coli found on romaine in Yuma early last season and E. coli found on romaine in Santa Maria late season. The hit to local Salinas Valley growers was measured in the tens of millions. Some long-time grower-shippers have gone out of business or were forced to re-organize. I'm sure planted acres will be down this season, which could be good for markets.

Strawberries are coming off of two horrible years for markets. Still, I'm told planted acres are similar to last year. Grapes in the valley went through successful pruning and we just hope bud break is not followed by frost.

The start of the year marked higher minimum wage and tighter overtime allowances for agriculture. This challenge is compounded by less available farmworker housing. These challenges fuel innovation and remind us why it's worth farming in the Salinas Valley.

By George Tibbitts, Colusa County rice grower

It seems like we don't often have "normal" years in agriculture. Whether it's the markets or the weather, farmers usually have something interesting to talk about when two or more of them get together.

For California rice producers, 2018 certainly had its share of weather topics for conversation, but the end result turned out to be that the growing season led to pretty good yields. Also, weather in the fall was favorable, so we were able to finish up harvest in a reasonable amount of time with very good head-rice quality (a lower-than-average amount of broken kernels).

The number of acres we harvested in California, at just over half a million, was a bit on the low side of what used to be normal for rice production (before the drought). Some of us do wonder among ourselves, "Is this the new normal?" In drought years, we lose some rice acres due to lack of water, and some rice acreage has been permanently lost to trees.

What challenges are we going to have in 2019? Well, right now I'm wondering if it's ever going to stop raining. It's only early March, so there's still plenty of time for fields to dry out in time for fieldwork to begin in April. And yet, the forecast is calling for more rain through the middle of March. The reservoirs are rising, the rivers are high and the bypasses are flooded.

The year has already started out very different than "normal," and we have a long way to go before we can begin thinking about taking our tractors out of the barn.

By Jim Durst, Yolo County organic grower

What a difference a year makes.

In Yolo County, we have been the recipients of abundant rainfall this winter. Reservoirs are full, streams and rivers are full, soil profile is full, and still more rain is coming. Having all the water storage filled settles our minds and provides opportunity to relieve pressure on wells and recharge groundwater aquifers.

As organic vegetable growers, we will want to begin incorporating cover crops in a few weeks, followed by transplanting.

Saturated soils will present challenges of meeting planting schedules without damaging soils with compaction or wet tillage.

For the last two years, we began asparagus harvest in mid-February. This year, we are still looking at two more weeks of wet, cold soils. Even the earthworms are wearing coats.

The organic vegetable business has always been competitive with domestic growers, but supply is catching up with demand and prices continue to slide on organic crops. New pressure is also coming from an influx of product coming from Mexican producers. As organic growers, we can compete in the marketplace when parity is present, but when wages in Mexico per day are less than we pay per hour, it becomes more difficult.

We have seen this happen in many conventional veg crops through the years and now organic produce is following similar patterns. With minimum wage hikes in California on the rise over the next few years, our ability to compete in the organic vegetable business will become increasingly more difficult.

Many large California growers have already moved some of their operations to Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labor costs, or contracted with Mexican growers to produce for them.

And the National Organic Standard Board has approved hydroponic production of vegetables as an accepted organic practice. We foresee increasing competition from greenhouses as well.

So we are using these rain-filled days to scratch our heads and try to make good decisions that will ensure a stable economic future for our farm.

Because, like many other farms, true sustainability has to have an economic as well as environmental component.

What a difference a year makes.