Farmers consider planting options amid uncertainty
By Ching Lee
A wetter winter this year has cast a more-positive water outlook for some farmers in the state, as they make their planting decisions for the coming season.
But the prospect of tighter water supplies during the summer, combined with sagging commodity prices, makes certain crops even more unattractive this year.
Alfalfa acreage and yield have been dropping steadily since 2012 due to water shortages. They may drop even further this year, as farmers choose not to fully irrigate existing fields while having little incentive to plant new ones due to lower prices.
"We haven't planted any new alfalfa for over two years now, just because of water and price concerns," Merced County farmer Cannon Michael said.
His farm used to devote "quite a number of acres" to the forage crop, but it is now "down to our lowest amount we've ever had," he noted.
Michael said his water picture for the year looks better, because his area has senior water rights. Still, he said summer water supplies may continue to be tight this year. And with lower market prices for most everything he grows—from tomatoes to cotton to alfalfa—he said there's still "a lot of difficulty in deciding" what and how much to plant.
Unlike last year, when he was forced to idle a third of his farm due to water shortages, Michael said he may have to fallow 10 percent this year.
"If we get in a tight situation in the summertime, we probably won't irrigate alfalfa at all, just so we can use that water for the tomatoes or some of our other crops," he said.
He's also trying two new crops—carrots and watermelon—in order to diversify, "change things up and spread the risk around," he said.
Despite flat cotton prices, Michael said he plans to grow as much pima as he can, but noted that a wet spring could thwart those plans if too much rain does not allow him to get in the field. Pima cotton commands a higher price, he said, especially now that he's part of a program that uses DNA technology to verify the authenticity of the high-quality cotton, distinguishing it from adulterated fibers.
He said he still plans to devote "a pretty good amount" of his acreage to processing tomatoes and some to fresh-market tomatoes, both of which allow more planting flexibility if there is a wet spring. Tomatoes can still be planted late, he noted, unlike cotton, which does not yield well if planted after late April.
Kern County farmer Travis Fugitt said he also expects to have more water to farm this year. Whereas for the last three years he had no surface water for irrigation, he said he thinks he will receive two or three months of district water this year, but he won't know what his full allotment will be for another month. He also has access to groundwater.
While he's still finalizing his planting decisions, the one crop he knows he'll be growing is cotton for seed, because it has been contracted. He said his remaining acres will likely be planted in additional cotton and maybe corn. He planted corn last year but is now considering not planting it because of lower prices. He's also hesitant about planting corn silage, because of limited water supplies and because he hasn't heard a definite price for it yet.
Fugitt noted prices for feed and forage crops have been sluggish, particularly alfalfa because lower fuel costs have allowed dairy farmers to transport hay from Nevada and other surrounding states. With not much incentive to grow those crops, Fugitt said he's looking toward growing more cotton this year, as that is one field crop for which prices have remained steady.
Like Michael, he also has not planted any new alfalfa and may even plow under his existing fields after one or two more cuttings, if prices remain low. In its place, he may plant more almonds. He noted he has already replaced 40 acres of alfalfa with almonds.
Fallowing may still be an option, he said, but more than likely he would plant safflower as a cover crop on that ground to cover any pre-irrigation costs. If it ends up making a marketable crop, he said he would still harvest it.
"We're still not sure what to do," Fugitt said. "We'll probably have to lock it down within the next 30 days or less. We'll be planting cotton probably around March 10."
In terms of water availability, Placer County rice farmer Lorraine Greco said she's about 80 percent certain that she'll be able to receive her full water allotment from the Placer County Water Agency. As such, she's planning to plant all of her acreage this year. At this point, late spring rains would be the only problem that could prevent her from planting on time, she said.
Summer strawberry acreage is projected to be down nearly 27 percent, according to the California Strawberry Commission, although spokeswoman Carolyn O'Donnell said that "could completely change come summer."
"It's been a slow progression of things," she said of the state's eroding strawberry acreage.
She noted that while consumer demand for strawberries remains strong, farmers continue to see rising production costs and regulatory restraints that either restrict acreage or where the crop can be grown. Because strawberries require specific climate and growing conditions and are usually grown in the state's coastal region, O'Donnell said, it is not likely for production to move elsewhere. Most of the state's summer production comes from the Oxnard and Santa Maria districts.
Water availability may figure into the projected summer acreage being reduced, she said, but it may also be related to demand and labor availability.
While the El Niño winter has delivered a healthier snowpack and more water to some parts of the state, Ventura County vegetable grower Ed Terry said "rainfall has been nil" for his region. He farms a variety of row crops, including bell peppers, celery, cilantro, spinach and strawberries, all of which he grows on contract. Because he relies on groundwater for nearly all of his irrigation and is concerned about draining his aquifer, he said he may have to scale back 10 percent to 20 percent of his acreage for the first time this year.
"If we don't have a March miracle, I think this time next year it's going to be a more desperate situation in Ventura County," Terry said.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.