Sharing Secrets to a Successful Bowl of Cherries

Weather and Pruning Make Life a Bowl of Cherries

By Laurie Greene, Founding Editor

Clark Goehring, a third generation Kern County farmer, produces cherries and almonds. He summarized his cherry harvested as “good compared to the other years when we have had rain. Some people in our area still had rain during harvest, but we were able to harvest and bring our cherries to market in good condition.”cherry tree

“Of course, it rained a lot this winter and spring, but you do not want rain when cherries are maturing on the tree; they don’t like rain.”

Goehring explained that when it rains beyond the point when cherries start coloring, they split, making them unmarketable. “But while it may take some rained-on cherries off the market, the price of the marketable fruit goes up,” he said, benefiting those growers who had a quality crop, like him.

Goehring’s farm workers train the cherry trees to keep them low—approximately 8 feet tall. “We have tried to have them bush out instead of being more of a central leader. Actually, it’s called Spanish Bush style or, in modified form, KGB.”

Kym Green Bush designed the KGB training method in Australia to use multiple leaders and have them fruit on the leaders themselves. KGB simplifies pruning so less experienced farm workers can learn the skill more easily. The trees are replenished every five years.

Goehring said the method saves money on the farm, cuts labor and increases workers’ safety because it requires no ladders and the harvest is quicker. Harvesting without ladders also gives Goehring an advantage of attracting farm labor over other orchards that require ladders.

“In California, if farm workers have their choice of picking your cherries without using ladders, which is usually piecework, or someone else’s crop with ladders, they are going to want to come to you,” he explained.

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Interesting Forecast: Wetter Winter, with Possible Deep Frost?

Weather Pattern in California Could Hurt Citrus, Predictions Say

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

 

Some meteorologists are seeing evidence of  weather data on the North Pole that could point to more rain and snow this winter. However it could come with several freeze events, which could hurt crops, especially citrus.

The Global Forecast Center is a group of meteorologists in Northern Idaho that conducts weather forecasting for agricultural interests throughout  Florida, California and portions of Texas. In fact, they work closely with California Citrus Mutual.

Tom Dunklee, president and chief atmospheric scientist, Global Forecast Center and its associated “WeatherWatch” service, said, “What we see in our frost outlook is a cold year coming up and a bit of an increase in rainfall, which will make everybody happy. But we may have to pay the price with some very cold temperatures following these fronts.”

meteorologist Tom Dunklee of the Global Forecast Center
Tom Dunklee, president and chief atmospheric scientist, Global Forecast Center

“The rains may be more frequent, but they will not be real big rain producers. They won’t be like El Niño years, where you get an inch and a half of rain or more. They will be cold, wet weather systems that come through, one half inch of rain at a time, followed by a possibility of frost,” Dunklee said.

Dunklee predicts the rain events may be followed by some dry weather for three or four days, then by another front coming through, doing the same thing. “What we are seeing is the type of weather pattern we saw in the late 1960s. It’s been quite a while since we’ve had one of these years shape up,” he said.

“I don’t think we are going to have a “Miracle March.” Instead, we are going to have a warm and drier than average spring. Most of the moisture is going to come in December, January and February, comprising those frequent frontal systems. Most of them will be followed by cool air and showery weather. Then the weather will dry out for three or four days, and the wet weather will return.”

Dunklee spoke of the intrusions of the cold arctic air that could arrive. “We think the intrusions will be from the North and Northeast—from Montana coming down through Nevada, then through the San Joaquin river drainage bringing quite a bit of cold air filtering into the [Central] Valley, and we’ll get the possibility of a hard frost, and maybe a freeze sometime in late December,” Dunklee said.

Dunklee also spoke about an increase in snowpack. “At the 7,000 foot level this year we may see higher than average, about 120% to 130% of average snow fall. It will be on the average of about six or seven feet. It may not actually get that deep at one time, but the potential is there for that,” he said.

“Most of the time it’s going to be about two, three feet of snowfall during the real cold months. Then in the spring it will melt fairly quickly, but it potentially is  going to be a good snow pack, a little bit higher than average,” Dunklee said.

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Replanting Trees as Harvest Ends

David Doll on Replanting Trees

By Laurie Greene, Editor

As harvest comes to a close for many tree crops, the time for replanting trees is swiftly approaching. David Doll, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Merced County, said that if California receives significant rain this year, the replanting process in orchards would be more difficult.

“If we are potentially coming into a wet winter, it’s going to provide challenges in establishing new orchards,” Doll said. “In the case of heavy rainfall, it’s important to keep a few things in mind and plan accordingly. First, if we’re doing any type of soil modification, we need to get a little bit of moisture to help the soil settle.”

Doll said second step is ‘pulling’ berms—the small hills or walls of dirt or sand in an orchard created to divert rain and irrigation water from the tree trunk. He explained, “We want to pull them before the soil gets too wet. We don’t want to walk into a heavy soil field, such as clay or clay loam, and pull berms because in doing so do, we would actually slick that soil over and have to deal with compaction and future issues with the orchard.”

“Third, when we start planting our trees,” Doll said, “it’s important to make sure that we dig a proper hole with wet soils.” Doll warned if you don’t spend the time to dig a hole,  you can ‘glaze’ the soil or form a crust on the sides of the holes, particularly in clay soils, leaving a hard, compact surface that is impenetrable to young roots. He advised to fracture or scratch glazed soil on the sides of the hole with a shovel or rake before filling in to ensure proper root growth.

Doll also said that when planting, the graft union—the point on a plant where the graft is joined to the rootstock—needs to be kept aboveground. “Countless times I’ve seen people plant the graft union below the ground,” said Doll. “Or they’ll plant the tree, pull up a berm, and actually put the graft union below the ground. Keeping the graft union about one hand’s width above the soil line will ensure the graft union remains aboveground as the tree settles.”

“Lastly, if machine planting in very wet clay loam soil, clods [lumps] and air pockets may form,” Doll said. “That’s problematic. The same thing also may occur with hand planting. It’s important to make sure the planters are digging a properly-sized hole and the roots need to be sufficiently covered. The soil needs to be broken down and then replaced around the tree. Finally, to ‘tank’ the tree, apply about 4-5 gallons of water after replacing the dirt to reduce the air pockets and allow the tree to get a good, solid start.”

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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.”

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