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From the Fields® - February 17, 2021

By Matt Watkins, Tulare County citrus farmer

Right now, the biggest thing is harvest. We are in the middle of the navel, lemon and mandarin harvest. It's a large crop this year. We are moving through it at a good pace.

The retail side has been pretty good with the COVID restrictions, but the food-service side with restaurants and all that has been behind and slowing. Lemons have struggled a little bit on the food-service side, but also some of the smaller oranges on the navel side. A lot of that goes to school-lunch programs, so that's been affected also. Hopefully, with the vaccine, that'll see an uptick and help us out in the future.

The yields are on the high end. Yields for navels and mandarins are higher than last year. There's a lot of fruit to pick. The market depends on getting the quality up to maintain that and to keep the exports going. So far we're OK, but there's a long way to go.

We export navels to Asia, and some of the COVID restrictions or just a slowing of the economy has hurt some of the exports over in Korea and Japan, because there's just not as many people out buying the high-end fruit that we send them, so that has hurt the market a little bit, too.

Labor supplies are adequate. A lot of that depends on the weather and, luckily for the labor side, it hasn't rained much. There is a shortage of labor on normal farming practices right now, some of the pruning side, partially because of the COVID stimulus packages. There's a lot of money to not work right now, so it's been harder to get new employees out there with some of the programs that the government is helping everyone out with. But on the harvesting side, it seems to be going OK.

It hasn't rained, so that's getting a little worrisome coming into the spring. Here in Central California, we've had one rainstorm all year, the one a few weeks ago. We got a nice chunk of snow, but that's it. It doesn't look like the pattern's going to really change. It looks like it's going to be a dry year, after last year being a relatively dry year, so there's not much extra (water) supplies. I'm a little worried that Northern California is going to be so dry that it's going to be hard to move water south through the delta. That is definitely a major concern.

By Kevin Herman, Madera County fig grower

Right now, we're wrapping up our mechanical and hand pruning. We're also mulching up the pruning clippings behind the crew.

We have a new device this year that we're using that's helping us to save labor. It's like a big brush rake, and when the guys prune trees, all they have to do is drop the pruning clippings straight on the ground. They do not have to pile them up. This machine comes along and puts them into a windrow like at harvesttime, so it saves a lot of labor and makes the mulching of the pruning clippings a little bit more efficient, and we don't leave as many pieces of unmulched wood behind. We're kind of excited about that.

The machine has been around for a while. With the increase in wages and overtime threshold, in the past it was marginally cost-effective to buy the machine and operate it. With wages going up, all of a sudden it made it cost-effective. We're seeing more and more circumstances like that where, as wages go up, these expensive new technologies all of a sudden are becoming more cost-effective.

Labor so far has been OK. A lot of the folks that are working with us are expressing frustration about not being able to work more hours. I certainly share that sentiment with them, because we could be further along with getting our pruning done this week if we could afford to let them work an extra half an hour or an hour a day.

It's really too early to tell what kind of crop we're going to have in 2021, although you can make assumptions based on how last year turned out, because figs can be a little bit alternate-bearing like pistachios are. Last year we had a light crop, so we have hopes and expectations that this year compensates for that with a big crop.

I'm excited about what our sales have been on the dried figs. Fresh figs were really strong last year as well, but I'm concerned with the increase in the minimum wage and the reduction in the threshold for overtime. My labor costs for picking fresh figs, which is very labor-intensive, are going to go way up this year. Hopefully, consumers will be able to continue to afford fresh figs, because those costs are going way up.

Fresh figs are really perishable, kind of like a raspberry or a strawberry. We ship very little outside of North America. My observation with the pandemic is that crops that have a lot of export, like almonds, were perhaps hurt in terms of volume and/or pricing, because of the export dependency. But a crop like fresh and dried figs that stays pretty much in North America, with everybody staying home in the U.S. and people cooking more, our sales have been good, because folks are using things like fresh and dried figs in their households.

By Ken Fleming, Tuolumne County forester

We did get the rain. Now we're out of the woods because there's quite a bit of snow.

We were doing winter logging; we're not now. We're trying to get back out. We were able to do a lot of logging before the rain came. This rain's going to help us when we get to August for fire protection.

We can't actually do any logs right now. We can haul the equipment on the hillside trying to work, and everything kind of turns to mush. So we really can't do much right now. We got to let it dry a little bit. I think right now, with the amount of snow we got, it might be a month before we get back out there.

The sawmill's still going; we still have plenty of logs to keep the sawmill going. Other than that, loggers are down for now. We can't do our planting or anything yet because of the snow, so we're just kind of doing paperwork—catching up on paperwork.

By Joshua Polich, Kern County table grape grower

Let's recap the last few months in Kern County table grapes. We came off an interesting pandemic year, but as an industry we are optimistic that 2021 will be better than 2020.

After the 2020 harvest season, the prep for the 2021 season began. We worked to get postharvest nutrition into the vines, supplying the vines with the needed nutrients and carbohydrates that are demanded during bud break and early shoot development. As the vine canopies started to senesce, we began the process of mechanical pre-pruning, getting ahead of the pruning crews with pre-pruners to make it less strenuous and more efficient to prune by hand.

With many challenges that California faces with new labor laws, we managed labor very tight and are continuing looking for new technology to aid in their efficiency.

With Mother Nature delivering many of her winter storms late in the season, we have been substituting with irrigation to fill deep profiles and leach excess cations and anions. Scheduling off these late-winter storms, we planted cover crop in between the vine rows. We are banking that we get enough soil moisture and sunlight to grow a lush, beneficial cover crop.

As many operations are now wrapping up pruning, we are applying our dormant sprays, focusing on materials that clean off wood with overwintered fungal spores and applying materials that aid in bud break uniformity. With soil temps heating up, we are gearing up to spread compost and soil amendments across the vine berms. With warmer-than-average temperatures, bud break will be here soon and we will ramp back up into the 2021 season.

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