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From the Fields® - August 18, 2021

By Kevin Merrill, Santa Barbara County winegrape grower

Winegrape harvest here on the Central Coast is just around the corner. In fact, we started picking some varieties last week in some locations. The crop looks to be average. So far, we haven't been affected by any smoke from the fires down this way, which is a good thing. The quality of our fruit looks pretty good. We don't have any real mildew or rot issues right now, so we're just gliding into the finish line before harvest.

Growers are aware of ongoing water supply issues. We're getting to the end of the line and for the most part, wells are holding up here, but of course we're concerned. We're certainly hoping for a big, wet year next year, like everybody. We are all working through our various Sustainable Groundwater Management Act groundwater sustainability plans as that deadline approaches in late December.

The COVID outbreak affected higher-end bottles of wine served in restaurants. If people aren't going to restaurants, they're not drinking wine. That segment of the industry was hit pretty hard by COVID. It was just starting to come out of that as things opened up and people were going out to restaurants again, and now it's sort of a question mark of where are we going with this COVID thing. Restaurants are still open, but you get a little nervous at this point. The restaurant closures certainly do affect us and the prices for grapes.

Overall, I think the grape market is better. The large supply of wine in tanks has diminished, so wineries are out there looking for other fruit, and that's a good thing. It helps drive up the price for grapes.

By Billie Roney, Tehama County rancher

We graze on a combination of Forest Service allotments and private timberland leases. From the beginning, we were monitoring the Dixie Fire to try to get a handle on the direction, try to stay ahead, but the fire blew up. At first it affected neighbors of ours to the west. Then all of a sudden it was coming our way at a rapid pace, and we had to scramble. We had cattle scattered all over the very northern part of that fire east of Lassen Volcanic National Park in Plumas and Lassen counties.

Aug. 2 is when we knew it was coming our way. My husband, Wally, has been out in the fire since last week. He's out every day driving through fire trying to gather cattle. Some of the cattle that he couldn't bring out were in a really nice meadow that the fire had already gone past, because it was wet enough and the grass was green and tall enough that it didn't bother the cattle at all. There's been no harm to the cattle. The good thing is we didn't wait. We were looking ahead.

The good thing about this fire that's on our land—which is so different than what other people experienced—is that most of it has been what we call good fire. It's cleaning up the crud—all the down trees and the brush—and so far no crown fires, none of that highly destructive stuff. That doesn't mean it couldn't change on a dime, but right now, the good thing about where we are is there was enough thinning. We have some private timber people up above us that keep their land cleared and in better shape. All the Forest Service land is so thick and so ridden with down trees that have been there for decades that you can't get through there with a horse; you can't get through there with a four-wheeler. Those are the places that burn the hottest.

Wally will be in the fires for at least another week. He's keeping an eye on the cattle, figuring out where they're going. We already got three and a half loads down. I think there's about a load and a half out there. When they're scattered all over 60,000 acres, they're not real easy to find.

When he brings them home, I have to feed them. Because of the drought, we sent only half of our cattle up to the mountains to begin with. We're experiencing the worst year we've had since the '76 drought. It's very dry up there.

Down here, it looks a bit like a ballpark. We saved some feed down here for fall when the cattle come down. They're existing on what I give them. I have to buy hay. Right now, I'm blowing through $14,000 a week, and the cost is going to get a lot higher.

It's a problem for everybody in this market not being able to sell their cattle. We'll make our decision sometime, but for right now, we're going to keep our cattle and keep feeding them as long as we can find feed. They are in good condition. We're very lucky. A lot of times we wouldn't turn the cattle out on the meadow because the wolves were everywhere, and they ruined our grazing. They made it so we couldn't use the allotments. This year we had no choice because we had no feed, so Wally started taking little bunches at a time up in these areas that are now burning, where the feed was just spectacular. Those areas have not been grazed for at least three years because the wolves kept the cattle out.

By Joshua Polich, Kern County grape grower

Southern San Joaquin Valley table grape growers have been challenged with many hurdles this growing season. Lack of labor has been a topic at every dinner table across California. With hand-labor-intensive commodities like table grapes, it has been very challenging to get enough labor to perform crucial cultural tasks throughout the growing season. Along with cultural work, labor has affected cost and availability of input goods, chemicals and freight. Now, as we get into a larger volume of harvest, it has been a balancing act to find enough labor to get fruit picked, packed and shipped.

Dry springs brought minimal precipitation with little snowpack in the mountains. Surface water has been in short supply. Water storage district allocations have been prorated due to the lack of snowmelt. To have enough water to finish this year's crop, growers are having to fire up deep wells and buy water on the open market.

Despite the hurdles, bunch counts throughout the valley were high and there is a lot of really nice fruit out there. Grape bloom moved very fast this season with good berry set and growing conditions during sizing. Some regions up and down the valley saw some secondary effects from last year's wildfires. With lack of stored carbohydrates from post-harvest, some growers have struggled with shoot growth and canopy development. Record-high temperatures and late July showers have added to the list of challenges this season.

Fruit maturation is advanced and is moving very rapidly. Still trending from the first variety till today, fruit is more mature than its looks. We are quite a bit ahead of harvest dates from last year and seem to continue to remain ahead of schedule. Regardless of the speed bumps, the market demand for good quality table grapes has held strong.

By Peter Johnson, Mendocino County pear grower

Pear harvest is getting started in Mendocino County and by this week, everybody will be harvesting in the county. People are concerned about water and trying to ration and use any water that they have wisely. Some people are not going to have any more water due to curtailments. That is definitely something different. I think people are just hoping to be able to finish out the year successfully.

We have Bartlett pears, but there's other varieties, some specialty pears, that people are harvesting. People have already harvested their Starkrimsons, a red variety, and then comes Bartletts, followed by Bosc pears. We're just getting started, so it's hard to say how things are really going to turn out in the end. The harvest usually goes through the month of August.

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