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From the Fields® - April 4, 2012

By Shannon Wooten, Shasta County beekeeper and cattle rancher

As far as the queen breeders in the northern part of the state, we have no queens to ship. Our customers—the beekeepers—are ready for their queens. Their hives are huge, they are looking good, they need to make divides and we have no queens. A lot of the beekeepers re-queen their bees every year or make splits. They'll split a hive into two or three little ones to increase their numbers.

We generally have queens for sale that are freshly mated the last week of March. That's when we start our bookings to ship and then ship all of the way through April, May and half-way through June. As soon as it gets really hot, we have to quit shipping. The weather will change one of these days and then we'll start shipping and we'll be OK, but we can't catch up.

The other side of this is all of this rain is good because it is bringing the grass and the flowers, and that is good for the bees and of course for cattle it is really good. So things in our future look at lot better because of this. Prior to this rain we didn't have a future; we were going to be feeding bees sugar syrup all summer long.

By Brian Fedora, Colusa County walnut grower

Like everyone, we've been very concerned about the lack of rain. Last week was the exception. It was a great week of rain, but later in the season than many of us would prefer. However, I'm not hearing anyone in my travels around our area who's complaining about it.

The walnuts are just starting to bloom and the wet groves aren't a problem so far. In about another week, we'll have to get our blight sprays going because the early varieties are pushing out. Working from the ground with the orchard sprayers will be a challenge because of the rain, but we always seem to find a way to get things done, no matter the conditions.

A lot of our winter grasses are being mowed and we're finishing up the pruning. We're transitioning from winter into spring processes.

One thing that's a concern is the rising cost of petroleum-based products—not just what goes into the gas tank, but also what goes into our farm products, like fertilizer and various crop protection materials. Farmers are watching and wondering where the prices are going to go. It's a big concern as we get into our orchards and fields because it affects the bottom line.

The prices for last year's crop were outstanding. I attribute that to a better understanding of the health benefits of walnuts and increased world demand. It's hard to see how the situation could get better for walnuts at this time, but I keep in mind that markets are cyclical.

Although the prices for this year's crop aren't officially out, there's talk that the returns to growers will be strong.

By Steve Bontadelli, Santa Cruz County brussels sprout grower

We're waiting for the fields to dry out right now. Normally, we'd be preparing the fields for planting.

Our transplant seeds have sprouted and are in the nursery growing into transplants. We did get some early sprouts planted for our early season and those will be coming off, some as early as Easter.

Most of the brussels sprouts in the market now are from Mexico, but that season usually is over by the end of May. Our big push domestically is around Thanksgiving; for Canada, it's Christmas.

But there's a big pull right now for Easter and the prices have jumped up. There's an increase in demand for all kinds of produce, asparagus and lettuces, but also to some extent for brussels sprouts.

In terms of market prices, conditions are the best they've ever been in my lifetime. I can't tell you why, exactly. There are a lot of factors—acreage has stayed about the same, consumers are more aware of the nutritional benefits of brussels sprouts, chefs like Emeril are going on TV and cooking with sprouts and going, "Bam!" It's hard to figure out the market.

Some of our inputs, like water and labor, seem to be stable, but we haven't really geared up for production.

By Colin Bornia, Imperial Valley fish producer

We grow tilapia and catfish. Prices have been strong and demand has been strong. During most of the winter we supply the live markets in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, and in the summertime we also pick up lake stocking contracts.

For tilapia, it takes about nine or 10 months to go from eggs to marketing size. For catfish, it takes about a year and a half to two years. We grow them in tanks and quarter-acre ponds.

Tilapia is about 1-1/2 pounds going to market and catfish going to market is anywhere from a pound and a half to four pounds.

Feed costs have really affected our operation in the past few years and fuel costs, as well. We took a hit in 2008 because of the economic downturn, but we do see this as growing now.

What we grow is kind of the high end in the fish market. Just about everyone in Southern California produces live fish for the market and they are generally the most expensive fish in the market. So when there was a downturn in the market in 2008, there was a lot of economic substitution happening. People were buying more frozen fish and less live fish. Imports are not really a competitor because it is hard to import live fish.

By Steve Nash, Fresno County dairy farmer

Spring is here. Our wheat has doubled in height since January and looks much better with the warmer weather and much-needed rains. We are hearing corn seed is very limited in inventory. Prices are up, along with fertilizer and of course fuel. It looks like a challenging year in farming. However, our business is not inside a building with climate control. Our dependence on weather makes every year a challenge.

Our dairy is up substantially from 2011 and herd health is very good without excessively wet conditions. Mild weather and large milk production have led many cooperatives to implement very strict rules for producing milk over a base amount given to each dairy around 2008. Plant capacity is at its peak and prices are falling.

Some people ask, why are dairies producing so much milk if the price is low? Remember, the last two seasons have been very mild versus historical averages. The cows have responded accordingly. Also, when milk prices fall we must produce volume in order to have cash flow and remain profitable.

The high cost of feed and declining milk price are making that goal very difficult for most dairy farmers. However, a milk hearing has been called for May 31 and June 1 to address the inequity between federal order pricing of whey and California pricing. Most feel the current formula is overly advantageous to the cheese processor.

By Tyler Nelson, Mendocino County grape and pear grower

It looks like grape farmers will be in business for a few more years. Prices have rebounded back to a sustainable level and planting contracts are the big buzz. Now, we are hoping there will be enough water for frost protection, irrigation and the fish.

Farmers using water for frost protection in the Russian River watershed have been under heavy scrutiny from the State Water Resources Control Board, which enacted the Russian River Frost Water Regulation. An injunction was granted Feb. 2 and we are very hopeful this regulation will be thrown out.

Food safety issues are now impacting the pear industry. Several large purchasers are demanding third-party inspections on the farm.

While food safety is most important, the new guidelines need to use science instead of fear to write them. Apparently, growers using livestock to keep the grass down will no longer be able to use this method. I'm still trying to figure out how sheep or cows could possibly contaminate fruit hanging in the air.




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