Fine Tuning Almond Irrigation

New technology helps farmers use water to maximum effectiveness

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

At the recent big Almond Conference in Sacramento, there were a lot of discussions on water use in almonds. And while growers are doing a great job in conserving, there’s always ways to improve, according to Larry Schwankl, UC Cooperative Extension Irrigation Specialist Emeritus. He shared with California Ag Today the take-home points of his talk in front of several hundred growers.

larry_schwankl
Irrigation Specialist Larry Schwankl

“We have been researching, ‘How much do growers need to irrigate?’ We want to make sure that their irrigation system are effective and that they know how long to operate it and then ways of checking to make sure that they’re doing a good job and utilizing soil moisture sensors and devices,” Schwankl said.

Schwankl also suggested that growers use pressure bomb to accurately measure the pressure of water inside a leaf. When used, it’s possible to measure the approximate water status of plant tissues.

In using a pressure bomb, the stem of a leaf is placed in a sealed chamber, and pressurized gas is added to the chamber slowly. The device has been calibrated to indicate whether or not that leaf is stressed for water.

“We can predict how much water the tree’s going to need, and we can predict how much an irrigation system is going to put on, but there’s errors in all predictions,” Schwankl said.   “We need to go back and check and make sure that we’re staying on target. That’s where knowing the soil moisture and the plant water status really helps.”

Ciatti Co. Hoping for a Smaller Winegrapes Crop in 2017

Brexit Also A Concern for California Sellers

By Joanne Lui, Associate Editor

The Ciatti Company – a worldwide company headquartered in San Rafael, CA – has been in the wine, grape concentrate and spirit brokerage business since 1971. They are experts in the industry, and President Greg Livengood spoke to California Ag Today recently to give an update on this year’s harvest and prices around the globe.

Ciatti Co. President Greg Livengood
Ciatti Co. President Greg Livengood

“World supply is down a little bit this year from last. We saw some major weather events in the southern hemisphere to start out the year. … Starting in January in Argentina, we saw a fair amount of rain throughout the harvest. They were down a little over 30 percent from their three-million-ton average harvest and that really set the tone for South America,” Livengood said.

“Right behind that, the Chileans got going. They hit about the halfway point of their harvest when El Nino came and slapped them around a little bit. It rained very hard there – five major weather events – and their crop was down at least 20 percent, but in addition to that, they probably would have been down more, but they tried to salvage some of that fruit that suffered a lot of damage from the rain.”

According to Livengood, all of this may not affect pricing in California.

“It certainly helps to set a floor, a pricing floor, and that floor has come up,” Livengood said. “I don’t know that pricing necessarily will go in any direction here based on what happened down there, but … it’s a much more shallow dive that pricing could potentially take here if things go the wrong way.”

A real concern for California winemakers is actually Brexit – Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“ U.K.’s been a very good … market for wine. It is. They don’t grow a lot of their own so they’re buying it from everywhere else. It’s been a very good market for the U.S. The problem with Brexit is the economy. It’s the value of the pound, so the pound took a big hit when Brexit was announced. There’s concern it will take more of a hit. That decreases their buying power and that’s a concern for us here in the U.S. because our prices are generally a little bit higher than all of our competitors around the world,” Livengood said.

“We’re selling on the California name and we’re selling on quality and so as that consumer and as that retail buyer in the U.K. has less buying power, we do have concern that they may look for alternatives to California.”

Overall, Livengood actually hopes for a smaller crop worldwide because high crop yields in multiple years isn’t necessarily a good thing for the industry.

“You never want really long oversupply.  2013, worldwide, it was a bumper crop just about everywhere.  We had too much wine in ‘14 and ’15 … and it’s taken us almost three years to really eat through a lot of that inventory.  A shorter worldwide crop here in 16 is certainly something that we would welcome.”

Brochures Provide Nitrogen Fertilization Guidelines

Over the past 20-plus years, California farmers have come to know CDFA’s Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) office as a respected resource for the science of crop nutrients. Recently, through a joint project with UC Davis, FREP has completed its most ambitious effort yet – synthesizing years of research into an accessible online database and online crop fertilization guidelines designed for growers. That project is getting a boost from a new series of brochures debuting in 2015, each summarizing the online nitrogen fertilization guidelines for an important California crop.

The brochures lead growers through nitrogen fertilization needs for each of the major annual stages, from bloom in the spring to fruit development in the summer, and then post-harvest in the fall. Guidelines are also provided for fertilization of young trees. The brochures cover application timing and rates as well as guidance on uptake, leaf analyses and fertilizer types. Growers looking for additional details will find easy links in the brochures to supporting data and references online. The web site also includes guidelines for other essential nutrients including phosphorus and potassium.

These guidelines, both in the brochure format and on the web site, can give farmers important information to help with on-farm decisions. However, they are not intended to be a replacement for in-depth discussions with local farm advisors or fertilization experts about site-specific adjustments based on soil type, climate and crop management.

For more information, contact the CDFA Fertilizer Research and Education Program at (916) 900-5022 or frep@cdfa.ca.gov.

Greater Crop Insurance Protection Now Offered for Fruit, Vegetable and Specialty Crop Growers

Greater crop insurance protection is now available for crops that traditionally have been ineligible for federal crop insurance. New provisions under Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program will provide greater coverage for losses when natural disasters affect specialty crops such as vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, floriculture, ornamental nursery, aquaculture, turf grass, ginseng, honey, syrup and energy crops.

“For years, commodity crop farmers have had the ability to purchase insurance to keep their crops protected, and it only makes sense that fruit and vegetable, and other specialty crop growers, should be able to purchase similar levels of protection,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Previously, the program offered coverage at 55 percent of the average market price for crop losses that exceed 50 percent of expected production. Producers can now choose higher levels of crop insurance coverage, up to 65 percent of their expected production at 100 percent of the average market price.

Drought’s impact on crops

Source: Dale Kasler; The Sacramento Bee

It’s harvest time in much of California, and the signs of drought are almost as abundant as the fruits and nuts and vegetables.

One commodity after another is feeling the impact of the state’s epic water shortage. The great Sacramento Valley rice crop, served in sushi restaurants nationwide and exported to Asia, will be smaller than usual. Fewer grapes will be available to produce California’s world-class wines, and the citrus groves of the San Joaquin Valley are producing fewer oranges. There is less hay and corn for the state’s dairy cows, and the pistachio harvest is expected to shrink.

Even the state’s mighty almond business, which has become a powerhouse in recent years, is coming in smaller than expected. That’s particularly troubling to the thousands of farmers who sacrificed other crops in order to keep their almond orchards watered.

While many crops have yet to be harvested, it’s clear that the drought has carved a significant hole in the economy of rural California. Farm income is down, so is employment, and Thursday’s rain showers did little to change the equation.

An estimated 420,000 acres of farmland went unplanted this year, or about 5 percent of the total. Economists at UC Davis say agriculture, which has been a $44 billion-a-year business in California, will suffer revenue losses and higher water costs – a financial hit totaling $2.2 billion this year.

Rising commodity prices have helped cushion at least some of the pain, but more hurt could be on the way. With rivers running low and groundwater overtaxed, the situation could get far worse if heavy rains don’t come this winter.

“Nobody has any idea how disastrous it’s going to be,” said Mike Wade of Modesto, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, an advocacy group based in Sacramento. “Is it going to create more fallowed land? Absolutely. Is it going to create more groundwater problems? Absolutely.

“Another dry year, we don’t know what the result is going to be, but it’s not going to be good,” Wade said.

Central Valley residents don’t have to look far to see the effects. Roughly one-fourth of California’s rice fields went fallow this year, about 140,000 acres worth, according to the California Rice Commission, leaving vast stretches of the Sacramento Valley brown instead of their customary green.

“We’d all rather be farming, as would everybody who depends on us – the truck drivers, the parts stores, the mills,” said Mike Daddow, a fourth-generation rice grower in the Nicolaus area of southern Sutter County.

Daddow opted to fallow 150 of his family’s 800 acres this year and counts himself lucky. “We did better than a lot of people,” he said.

Last week, Daddow was gearing up for the harvest, which begins Monday. It was pleasantly warm, but the faint smoky smell from the King fire was another unwelcome reminder of the parched season of discontent.

“It affects me, yes, I will have less profit,” he said. “It affects hourly workers. If there’s no ground to till, I can’t hire them to do anything.”

Daddow hired just six workers during spring planting, instead of the usual nine or 10.

Calculating total job losses related to the drought is difficult, especially in an industry in which many workers are transient and much of the work is part time. The state Employment Development Department, drawing from payroll data, said farm employment has dropped by just 2,700 jobs from a year ago, a decline of less than 1 percent.

But experts at UC Davis say they believe the impact is more severe. Richard Howitt, professor emeritus of agricultural economics, said he believes the drought ultimately will erase 17,000 jobs. He bases that, in part, on the increased number of families seeking social services.

The human cost shows up at rural food banks, which are reporting higher demand for assistance from farmworkers and their families. At the Bethel Spanish Assembly of God, a church in the Tulare County city of Farmersville, the number of families receiving food aid every two weeks has jumped from about 40 last year to more than 200. Farmersville, a city of 10,000, is at the heart of a region that grows an array of crops, from lemons to pistachios to grapes.

“Some of them are working … but they’re not putting in the hours,” said the Rev. Leonel Benavides, who is also Farmersville’s mayor. Thanks to state-funded drought relief, the church has been able to meet the increased demand – and then some.

“Instead of just two boxes, we give them three,” Benavides said.

The effect goes beyond the farm fields. N&S Tractor, which sells Case IH brand farm equipment throughout the Central Valley, has seen business tail off as farmers conserve cash.

“It’s not just our dealership,” said N&S marketing director Tim McConiga Jr., who works out of the company’s sales office in Glenn County. “You talk to John Deere, you talk to Caterpillar, everyone is going to tell you their numbers are down.”

The drought has had varying impacts on different areas of the state, depending in part on who has first dibs on the dwindling water supply. Some growers have stronger water rights than others. Generally speaking, Sacramento Valley farmers have had it easier than their counterparts south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the cutbacks have been more severe.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts are delivering about 40 percent of their usual amounts. The Merced Irrigation District is far worse off, as are many of the West Side areas supplied by the federal Central Valley Project. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts have not had large cutbacks, but leaders worry about a dry 2015.

Regardless of geography, many growers have had to make difficult choices about which fields to water, leaving portions of their farms idle.

Bruce Rominger of Winters, chairman of the California Tomato Growers Association, made the decision to push ahead with his tomato crop at the expense of other commodities. With tomatoes selling for a robust $83 a ton, vs. about $70 a year ago, it was a matter of simple economics.

“Other crops are not getting the water,” said Rominger, who owns and leases a total of about 5,000 acres. “We sacrificed some alfalfa, we sacrified some sunflowers, we sacrificed quite a bit of rice. We fallowed 25 percent of our farm.”

Much of the processing tomato crop goes to canneries in Modesto, Oakdale, Escalon and Los Banos.

Choosing to focus on one crop doesn’t guarantee victory. Even the $4 billion almond industry – the great success story of California agriculture in recent years – could not be shielded from the drought’s effects.

As worldwide demand for almonds has boomed, prices have soared past $4 a pound and farmers have responded with more supply. Orchard plantings have continued unabated, even this year. With water supplies running low, many almond growers set aside other commodities to keep their orchards going.

Even so, the almond yield declined. Blue Diamond Growers, the big farmer-owner almond cooperative based in Sacramento, predicts that production in California will fall this year to around 1.9 billion pounds when the harvest is complete in a few weeks. That compares with the 2 billion pounds harvested last year and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s forecast, released in late June, that this year’s crop would total 2.1 billion pounds.

What went wrong? Almonds are one of the thirstiest crops around, and there wasn’t enough water to generate big yields.

“I don’t think there was anyone who used as much (water) as they normally do,” said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond. The hot spells in June and July “stressed the trees even further” and curtailed production, he said.

With California accounting for 80 percent of global almond supply, Baker said he’s worried about being able to meet demand. “We have a growth industry,” he said.

Blue Diamond has plants also in Salida and Turlock, and several smaller processors are in or near Stanislaus County.

The lack of water last spring likely also has stunted navel orange production in the San Joaquin Valley, where harvest is expected to begin in a few weeks.

“We’re expecting some kind of damage to the crop,” said Alyssa Houtby, spokeswoman for California Citrus Mutual, a grower-owned association based in Tulare County. “We didn’t have the water in those key months.”

Economist Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president with agricultural lender Rabobank, said farmers went into this difficult season with a couple of advantages: Most commodity prices have risen in recent years, and most growers are in pretty good financial shape as a result. But another dry year could bring more serious hardship, he said.

“They have a little bit of cash to withstand this,” Crowder said. “They’re going to get through it. The real question is what is going to happen next year.”

Similar questions are being raised in the California wine industry, which produces much of its volume in the Modesto area. The last two grape harvests were extraordinarily strong, leaving an overhang of product that should help offset the slight declines in this year’s harvest. “Pricing should be steady,” said industry consultant Robert Smiley, a professor emeritus of business at UC Davis.

That doesn’t eliminate fears that next season’s crop could shrink substantially. Craig Ledbetter of Vino Farms, a Lodi grape producer, had enough water this year but said he’s afraid he’ll receive “curtailment notices” from the state signaling significant cutbacks in next season’s water supply.

“I’m very nervous about water,” said Ledbetter, who also raises wine grapes in Sonoma County. “If we don’t have a rainy winter, I can pretty much guarantee we’re all going to be receiving curtailment notices. If that happens, we’re going to be concerned about keeping the vine alive rather than harvesting it.”