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Despite markets, cropping plans depend on water

Issue Date: February 23, 2022
By Ching Lee

With commodity prices higher across the board, markets are telling farmers to plant, plant, plant. But for California growers, who face another potential dry year, water remains a major driver of what crops will go in the ground and their quantity.

Kern County farmer Travis Fugitt said he's evaluating which crops use less water because he isn't counting on any surface water deliveries this year and will likely rely on his wells for irrigation. One priority is keeping his family's almond trees alive. Because of his vertically integrated business in hemp—including growing, processing and marketing—he said he has "no choice" but to stay the course on that crop.

On top of winter wheat, garlic, potatoes and carrots that are already in the ground, Fugitt said he plans to grow a spring crop, but putting in a summer crop after that may not be possible this year. Even with higher commodity prices, he said production costs, especially for chemicals, have skyrocketed. He said glyphosate has shot up 300% and is "tough to get ahold of." He is considering growing crops that can handle alternative weed suppression methods.

"Instead of getting excited and saying, 'Full throttle, let's plant everything we can as much of it as possible,' now we're actually looking at our input costs and (asking) can you afford to do it? And is it worth the risk?" he said.

For Fugitt at least, field crops such as cotton have been relegated to "the bottom of the list" this year due to water shortages. This is despite current strong demand for the fiber, particularly for the pima variety, most of which is grown in California, said Harry Peck, sales representative for PhytoGen Seed Co., which produces and markets cottonseed.

Peck acknowledged that early expectations that cotton acreage in the West would increase by 40,000 acres this year may have been premature. Even with a bullish outlook on the pima market and incentives to plant more, "the bigger driver is going to be water," he said.

Sutter County farmer Chris Capaul said his planting decisions are based on "a leap of faith," knowing he will need to farm most of it as dryland crops, with limited surface water. He's planting more baby lima beans and some rice for seed, both to fulfill contracts. Baby limas don't require fertilizer, he noted, which will be a cost savings.

Capaul plans to claim prevented-planting insurance on the rest of his acreage, same as he did last year due to a lack of water. The hard part is figuring out how many acres to leave unplanted. He said one option is to risk growing uncontracted beans.

"I worry every day what I'm going to do and whether I'm making the right decision," Capaul said.

Aside from paying more for water this year, Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere said his crop mix won't necessarily be too different from last year—though he will grow fewer acres. Despite higher prices for crops such as processing tomatoes, garlic, cotton and garbanzo beans, he can grow only a "minimal" amount, due to water shortages.

"It doesn't matter how high the commodity prices are. If you don't have the water, you're not planting anything," he said.

With no access to surface water and relying 100% on groundwater, Sacramento County farmer Kolton Clothier said his cropping decisions are weighed more heavily on other factors such as markets, cost and whether he can double-crop. For example, planting shorter-season winter hay in the fall allows him time to follow it with corn silage in the summer. He plans to grow a wheat, oat and rye hay blend for the horse market, which pays the highest return on feed.

Because chemical and fertilizer prices have soared, Clothier said he's trying a new system this year by injecting liquid fertilizer straight into the soil.

"It's a little bit cheaper, and it's supposed to give me a higher return," he said.

Considering higher commodity prices this year, Thorsten Schwindt of Bayer's Seminis and De Ruiter vegetable seeds operations in St. Louis, Mo., said vegetable acreage in California may lose ground to field crops such as cotton and corn silage, as they are "a little less risky from the input side." Even though potential payout for vegetables such as processing tomatoes remains good, he said, "you run a much higher input cost bill." For this reason, he said he expects vegetable growers will look to higher-yielding varieties, "probably more so than in the past."

"It comes down to water again. Do you expect to get the volume that you need and the quality that you need to really play the game?" Schwindt said.

Return of food service to pre-pandemic levels will be key to a more positive vegetable market outlook, he said, as growers can "react much quicker" to these trends. Although restaurants are definitely coming back, he said, corporate cafeterias may not be "because of hybrid work models."

Robbie Johnson, general manager of California Transplants, said the Stanislaus County company will begin shipping product to farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley this week. Even with water shortages, he said the nursery expects to sell about the same volume of tomato transplants as last year, with projections of overall state acreage being "flat or slightly down."

Late May and June plantings in the southern valley will definitely be down, Johnson said, because growers there don't have enough water to make a second late crop. But reduced plantings in that region will be offset by increased acreage in the central and northern valley, he added.

Though water continues to dominate conversations with growers and his sales staff, Johnson said issues such as labor and state regulations also loom large. He noted farmers and nursery producers are looking to adopt automation "as fast as we can" due to labor shortages and requirements for shorter workweeks for farmworkers. For farmers, automated planting systems remain a key area of interest, he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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