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From the Fields® - July 21, 2021

By David Roberti, Plumas County rancher and farmer

Drought is our biggest problem. A lot of our dryland fields and pastures are probably drying up three months early. Where we should have pastures until the first of November, they're just about gone already. We're selling off some cows to try to stretch things as far as we can. Our biggest challenge coming in this year is managing feed for cows from pasture because there's no growth from lack of rain.

We're still OK with irrigation water. We do have several deep wells that we're pumping from, but our surface-water allocation got cut about 50%, so that hurt things somewhat. Our biggest problem is the pasture lands and the lack of any dryland hay ground. We use that hay for our winter feed. We're going to be really short on that, too.

On the positive side of things, hay prices and hay demand are way up because of the lack of production across the West. At least hay prices are up to help offset a lot of the added costs of electrical pumping.

We do have a little bit of hemp planted again this year. Like with everybody that tried to grow hemp, it's not turning out nearly as well as everybody thought it would. We haven't completely given up on it, but we've scaled back quite a bit.

Right after we got planted the first week of June, we had a couple of pretty good windstorms. We lost probably about 30% of what was planted, but we had some extra plants, so we replanted some of that.

We use all feminized seed for the hemp. This year we tried some other stuff. We've actually got it genetically changed to where if a plant does produce pollen, it will not be able to be received by many of the plants. They've got it built into the seed now, so it's pretty interesting how they're modifying this stuff to control pollination problems.

Finding a market is really tough. A couple of years ago, there was pretty heavy supply, especially for what's called the crude-oil process to make the CBD oil. There was so much hemp grown and so much oil produced that one year that shelves were just full of CBD crude oil, so it's taken a while for that to dry up and for markets to get established.

We just had this Beckwourth wildfire, which is right in our backyard. It didn't damage any of the agriculture too badly, other than a lot of rangeland that was in the mountain areas; it did burn a lot of that up. The entire area of Frenchman Lake, where we get quite a bit of our surface water, was burned. We're not sure what's going to happen with that watershed and what kind of environmental impacts will come out of that. It's been a pretty devastating fire.

By Jim Spinetta, Amador County winegrape grower

In the Sierra foothills, it's dry just like everywhere else in the state. We're only about 40% normal of precipitation. The stress is already showing in our winegrapes—lots of zinfandel, lots of barbera. They're showing stress now in July like they would end of August, close to harvest. We're actually already seeing some veraison, which is when they go from green to purple. We see the grapes already turning color just out of stress because it's so early.

There's no water source for several growers up here. A lot of the water is runoff in this area and it's just not available, so we don't have the water this year to water the grapes. We're keeping whatever grass is there short, dropping the crop on the young vines and thinning it on the older vines.

Sometimes we get hotter in the Sierra foothills because it's inversion. It gets really hot in the day, then it gets really cold at night. That's why the Italian grapes do good in our region because of the hot days and cold nights versus down in Sonoma. Down in that area, all the French varietals do good because they get that delta breeze that comes in.

The good thing is that our grapes are Italian varietals, so they are acclimated for the dry conditions. Plus, we only have drip systems, so it's very efficient. Over the years we do very few drip water, so the roots are down deep. We do have 7 feet of decomposed granite, so those roots are deep down there. We use St. George rootstock. They're very drought-tolerant vines. We graft our scion on top of that, whether it's zinfandel, barbera or muscat.

We're not going to get the quantity, but there's always something positive in the grape industry. We're going to get hopefully better quality this year, because a grape only has so much flavor. The more water you add to it, the more you dilute that quality. It should be an exceptional year as far as quality. It's definitely going to be an early harvest. We're planning on mid- to early August for harvest this year because the yields are just so low—and the earliest on record.

By Nick Rocca, Fresno County almond and raisin grower

Green field prices for grapes are higher than normal, so a lot of farmers that normally grow grapes to be made into raisins are electing—because it's an early year—to sell grapes for early-variety champagne or sell to a dehydrator to make golden raisins instead of laying them down on the ground and drying them. This, coupled with more acres that have been pulled out, means that the crop size for raisins will be lower again. That seems to be the trend.

Harvest is going to be early this year. We'll start cutting canes in mid-August, and then harvest will likely happen at the end of August. Coming out of COVID, people are now finally deciding to get back to work, but that's compounded with people making more money staying at home.

We have 80 acres of almonds, and because I don't have enough acreage to own the equipment to harvest just my ranch, we hire a harvesting company to come in and harvest our almonds. For harvesting almonds, some growers offered to pay more for harvesters, and that's been driving up the hourly price for other farmers. The extra markup on labor is because no one can find anyone that wants to work, so the ones that want to work, they're given extra.

By Chris Capaul, Sutter County farmer

I cut back 100 acres on the baby limas. They were just planted. They're about a 70- to 90-day bean, so you plant them in June, July. On dry beans, the market is so terrible. Since COVID, the Japanese haven't been buying like they used to, because their country has been shut down. They use baby limas to make more of a confectionary-type product. They sell a lot of it to tourists. They're not having parties and there's not a lot of travel over there.

The whole bean market in California is about half of what it was last year. The price is not good and the competition of other crops that are better I think has made a difference there. I know in my area, there are only two or three people that are growing the baby limas. Most of them switched to black-eyes. The black-eyed market looks better in price, but there's still not as much grown in the state. People aren't growing them because the price isn't that great, and there's not a big demand at the moment.

On some of my fields, water was cut back 25%. Half of my rice acreage was 100% (cut back). I couldn't grow all my acres of rice because I don't have enough water. I'm being creative with water, running a well and recirculating every little bit. One field I left completely out. I had to do the preventive planting insurance route on that. The other field we drilled the well, and it's a struggle. In hindsight I probably should have never done it. To try to keep it covered, the wells just can't do it because the ditches everywhere are dry. You try to make an effort in whatever you can do. You don't want to put it all under insurance, and you've got to make decisions at certain times. Those decisions were tough this year to make.

I've done a lot to get planted what I could. The beans were planted in fields that didn't require any water now. We pre-irrigated them and planted the dry beans. Those fields take less water, so I could move that over to my rice acres.

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