Boost in Butte County Rice Production

Butte County Rice Growers and Communities Are Optimistic

By Emily McKay Johnson, Associate Editor

Butte County rice growers are all smiles this year as regional filled-to-capacity water allotments have progressed crop production in a very timely manner. Randall Mutters, the county director of the University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension in Butte County, specializes in rice production.

Randall Mutters
Randall Mutters, county director of the UC Cooperative Extension in Butte County (Source: UCCE Butte County)

Butte County, known as the “land of natural wealth and beauty,” hosts the second largest acreage of rice in California and a population of over 220,000 residents as of 2012. Rice production is imperative for supporting local growers and surrounding communities. Mutters reiterated, “When the agricultural base is doing well, the community as a whole prospers.”

As growers continue to cultivate their rice, businesses and communities in the area are incredibly optimistic. Mutters explained, “I fully expect to have close to 500,000 acres of rice planted this year,” a remarkable number compared to last year’s 425,000 planted acres.

Mutters said, “It’s been relatively warm and dry, with just a few sprinkles here and there, but not enough to really slow down operations. The season is progressing very timely.” Also encouraging to Mutters, is pests that are typically an early season problem, have not been troublesome this year.

The UC Cooperative Extension in Butte County monitors and protects the agricultural industry by offering educational resources to promote technology and other strategies for farmers. Though the price of rice is not very strong, the community as a whole is enjoying their success.

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AgVocating in Hawaii

Food Blogger Lorie Farrell AgVocates Conventional Ag

By Laurie Greene, Editor

Lorie Farrell helps farmers and agriculture by amplifying their voices. A freelance blogger and self-described AgVocate for food, farm and public policies that support agriculture and combat misinformation and junk science head-on, Farrell resides on Hawaii’s Big Island, the birthplace of the Rainbow GMO papaya that saved the state’s papaya industry. Having observed, firsthand, many activist groups who have sought to halt progress in conventional agriculture, she has a unique perspective on the issues and shares her views on her website and social media.

Lorie Farrell, Hawaii Food Blogge and self-described AgVocate
Lorie Farrell, Hawaii Food Blogger and self-described AgVocate

And while many food bloggers lean heavily toward organic production, Farrell stays away from it.  “Organic production gets plenty of traction, so I tend to stay away from that part of agriculture production,” Farrell said.

“Some in the organic crowd seem to think that it is all one way or all the other, and it is not,” remarked Farrell. “It is really a mixture of methods. We need all of them at the table, and the table today looks much like what it is going to look like in a few years from now—a mixture of crop production methods and all the technology,” she noted.

Farrell wants to educate her audience to learn more about agriculture and advocate on its behalf. She stressed the importance for all of us to ask more questions, “but at the same time, it is also our job to give them good information and shine the light on good sources of information. It is not their fault they don’t understand. But at a certain point, we can lead a horse to water; they have got to make the choice.

And Farrell said emphatically that food shaming and food fear are intolerable. “Food shaming is when a person makes a judgement call on another person based on their choices of food,” she explained. “This happens very often with females and moms and it is unacceptable. Someone might see a mom buying a food that’s unhealthy and feeding it to their child. They will call the mom out on it. I’ve had moms tell me that people ask them, ‘You are feeding your kids organic food, aren’t you?’ They answer, ‘Well no, I am feeding them balanced meals, or I am feeding my baby formula.'”

“People will shame and bully you into making different food choices based on their perception of food. They will do it in person, but social media is also a very effective way to food shame. The objective of online food shaming is to change your choices of foodto take away your choice of food, actuallyso you purchase organic or non-GMO. I don’t even know what the word ‘natural’ means.”

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Farm employment: Drought impact adds uncertainty to hiring outlook

Source: Ag Alert

Even though reduced crop production caused by water shortages may reduce on-farm employment in California, farmers and farm labor contractors say they expect continued trouble in filling agricultural jobs this spring and summer.

“The drought is still ongoing, which means that there will be a lot of land left uncultivated,” said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. “This will probably soften the blow of the shortage of labor some, but everything I am hearing is that the labor market is still pretty tight.”

Little said most of the farmers with whom he speaks “are finding that labor is still pretty scarce.” He said farmers are expressing increasing interest in the federal H-2A guestworker program—despite its signficant drawbacks—while “relying more and more” on farm labor contractors.

San Luis Obispo County farmer Carlos Castañeda, who is also a farm labor contractor, said the growing season kicked off in his region earlier than usual. So far, he said, he has been able to hire the people he needs but, he added, there isn’t an abundance of workers.

“My growers are cutting plantings back tremendously,” Castañeda said. “Unfortunately, the shortage of water is helping the shortage of labor—but as soon as the water issues are solved, the labor one is going to go into warp speed.”

About a month from now, Castañeda said, he expects several commodities will be ready for harvest at the same time, which will increase the need for on-farm employees and reduce the number of workers available.

Michael Frantz, co-owner of Frantz Wholesale Nursery in Hickman, said he remains concerned about finding enough people to do the highly technical work at his horticultural company, which specializes in landscape trees, shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.

“We have full-time employment that requires learning the skills of a trade that are taught on-farm. There are a lot of technical skills, whether it is grafting or budding and training of trees to be grown to retail-grade specifications, that take years to master,” Frantz said. “For a nursery to grow consistent quality product, we need a workforce that looks at our nursery and our company as a career choice. Our best employees have been here 10 to 30 years.”

Frantz said he has had problems hiring skilled workers for the past several years. In 2013, his nursery supplemented its own hiring with the use of farm labor contractors. Last year, he said, was “the first year that we were unable to fill all of the positions.”

Frantz said his business printed fliers describing the company, its pay rates, benefits and other amenities.

“For the first time, we felt we had to sell ourselves to the community as opposed to expecting people to show up looking for work,” Frantz said. “We set up card tables at the employment office and had human resources people there handing out fliers. That outreach had minimal results.”

As a result, he said he is very concerned about locating reliable workers for this season, adding that many other nurseries share the same concern.

“This year, we are running ads on Spanish radio. We have ramped up our hiring efforts and already, it is early, but it seems that 2015 is going to be more difficult than last year,” Frantz said. “The lack of a dependable ag workforce is preventing us from adding additional jobs and growing our family businesses like we would like to be able to do.”

Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., a farm labor contractor headquartered in Fresno, said he is aware that agriculture faces a shortage of available employees, but says he has avoided shortages by being “real careful” not to expand unless conditions warrant.

“You have to be in this industry for a long time like I’ve been so that you know the trends and what is happening,” said Hall, whose company reaches 50 years in business this year.

Castañeda said more growers are opting to use the federal H-2A program to hire immigrant employees, which he called an “expensive and absolutely bureaucratic nightmare, but it is the only tool available.”

Little said use of the H-2A program among California farmers and ranchers remains relatively slight because of a variety of problems with the program, including its lack of the flexibility agricultural employers need to hire people on a timely basis.

Another factor affecting the availability of potential on-farm employees is reduced migration by Mexicans to the U.S., according to research conducted by Edward Taylor, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and doctoral student Diane Elise Charlton. Their research found fewer potential farm employees migrating to California due to growth in Mexico’s non-farm economy, falling birth rates and an increase in rural education.

Because of this trend, Little said, Farm Bureau and other groups have advocated for a permanent solution to agricultural labor shortages through immigration reform.

Without legislation to address the country’s current labor situation, bills such as the Legal Workforce Act would harm farms and ranches, Little said. The bill, which would require agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system to prove employment eligibility for agricultural workers, was approved last week by the House Judiciary Committee.

“We are absolutely, adamantly opposed to moving forward with mandatory E-Verify until we know we are going to get a workable guestworker program,” Little said.

California agriculture relies on about 400,000 employees during peak season. Some experts estimate that 70 percent or more of hired farm employees responsible for U.S. fruit, vegetable, dairy, livestock, nursery and other production are not authorized to work in the United States, despite presenting apparently legitimate work documents, Little added.

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Water Crisis Reducing Valley Fruit Production

The impact of the worsening drought can be seen in the expected drop in crop production.

Valley fruit production is down on many farms, but the lack of water isn’t the only factor causing the lower expectations.

The grape crop is ready for harvest in many Valley vineyards but there’s not nearly as much of the sweet fruit this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects grape production in California to dip 9 percent.

“We came off two big years in both wine grapes and Thompson seedless, so those vines are taking a little bit of a rest,” said Nat Dibuduo with Allied Grape Growers. “The other factor is obviously the drought. We’ve got growers that lost wells or they’re minimizing their irrigations to stretch out the water they do have.”

Table olives fared even worse with the dry conditions. Production is expected to dip 45 percent statewide but as much as 60 percent in Tulare County. 

“When olive trees go into dormancy they need some good deep soil moisture and they didn’t get it,” said Adin Hester with the Olive Growers Council. “The lack of moisture is something that certainly exacerbated, number one. Number two, we’ve got growers that are just flat out of water.”

Peach production is down 4 percent. We’re seeing peach, olive and grape growers rip out orchards and vineyards to put in more profitable crops like almonds and pistachios.

“I think there’s going to be not only Thompson seedless grapes pulled out after this harvest but also wine grapes throughout the San Joaquin Valley because they’re not making money, and they see their neighbors are making money with any of the various nut crops,” said Dibuduo.

Dibuduo is worried about this year’s outlook. He says winery demand for Valley grapes has taken a big hit because of international competition. Some grapes, he says, might not get sold.

Other crops like pears, apples and rice are also down from a year ago.

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Fresno County Crop Value Drops to $6.43 Billion

For the first time in history, Fresno County has two $1 billion crops, and for the first time in 11 years, grapes are not the #1 crop. Now almonds are the top crop produced in Fresno County with a value of $1.1 billion, with grapes coming in second at $1.03 billion. However, despite these highlights, Fresno County crop value in 2013  was $6.436 billion in gross production—a decrease of 2.28 percent of 2012.

Fresno Ag Commissioner Les Wright
Fresno Ag Commissioner Les Wright

As it stands now, Fresno County loses it’s #1 position as top agricultural county in the nation, dropping behind Tulare County, which recently announced a $7.8 billion 2013 crop year. It could get worse when Kern County releases their report in August.

“Much of the decrease can be attributed to the shortage of water,” said Les Wright, Fresno County Ag Commissioner. “The impacts of drought began to show on our 2012 crop report with decrease of 2.29 percent from 2011. Producers are feeling the affects of the water shortage more in 2014 than in the previous two yeas.”

Water shortages in Fresno County with a large part of the West Side dependent on both state and federal surface water deliveries have meant the annual crop report’s gross value of production has dropped three years in a row.

Details of the 2013 report include an increase of fresh vegetable production in 2013 by 3.8 percent in value led by garlic and fresh market tomatoes, while livestock and poultry decreased in value by more than 16 percent.

Field crops, representing barley, wheat, corn silage, cotton an alfalfa declined nearly 42 percent, while fruit and nut crops increased more than 8 percent.

Wright noted that Fresno County growers exported nearly 26,000 shipments to 99 different countries. “This tells us that we are still feeding the world,” said Wright.

“Once we get water back, we are going to see our ag economy rebound,” said Wright. “Just give the farmers water and they will do the rest.”

 

 

 

 

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