Monday, March 12, 2018

Growers Are Banning Together to Protect Water Quality

Water is always a big subject among farmers, especially during the recent years of drought.
Water quality, though, has been a big topic for decades in farm country.  And in the past decade, the rules have become even more stringent.

Here is what the state Water Board says: “A range of pollutants can be found in runoff from irrigated lands, such as pesticides, fertilizers, salts, pathogens, and sediment. At high enough concentrations, these pollutants can harm aquatic life or make water unusable for drinking water or agricultural uses. The Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program was initiated in 2003 to prevent agricultural runoff from impairing surface waters, and in 2012, groundwater regulations were added to the program.”
Growers are required to monitor irrigation runoff.
Growers that irrigate their crops need to enroll in the state-mandated program. Otherwise, they are subject to hefty fines.What does this all mean? These growers are required to monitor runoff from their land, install monitoring wells and submit reports such as nitrogen management plans.
Meeting these requirements can be an onerous task. Moreover, doing your own groundwater monitoring can be quite expensive.

That’s where water quality coalitions come into play. Farmer-created groups such as the Westside San Joaquin River Watershed Coalition are formed to economically monitor waterways and administer the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. They work with growers to follow best management practices to prevent water pollution from nutrients, pesticides and other crop protection chemicals. The groups also prepare regional plans to address water quality problems.

 Growers follow BMPs to protect the groundwater.
The Westside Coalition was organized under the San Joaquin Valley Drainage Authority. The organization boasts 1,683 growers who farm 460,000 acres between the San Joaquin River and Interstate 5. The group monitors 17 different tributaries, checking monthly for pesticides and toxicity to fish and other aquatic life.

“Growers are doing the best to their ability to protect groundwater. It requires a lot of effort on your part,” Orvil McKinnis, Westside Coalition project manager told a group of growers during a meeting in Firebaugh.

Lawn fertilizers can impact waterways.
McKinnis said nitrates in the groundwater can come from many sources, including homeowners fertilizing their lawns. “Everyone is making an impact on groundwater. Because you use it (nitrogen fertilizers) in large quantities you get picked on.”  (Nitrogen that is not used by crops can convert into nitrates and pollute groundwater.)

On the good news front, McKinnis said diazinon pollution has vanished. The last time diazinon was detected in the local waterways was 2012.  “Chlorpyrifros still shows up. Everyone in the state is looking at this,” he said.

Chlorpyrifos, a broad spectrum pesticide, has become a hot political issue on the federal and state levels. Some states are moving to ban the chemical. At times, growers seem to get caught in the middle of this issue.

“Growers use it,” McKinnis said. However, “some (people) are convinced you are applying it at night by the drum loads. We know that’s not the case.”

FIELD DAY: Almond growers can get off to a good start this season by attending a field day that will focus on disease, fungicide, pest and nutrient management on March 21 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Rushing Ranch, 11599 W. Shaw, Fresno. Speakers are David Doll, a Merced County University of California Cooperative Extension pomologist, and Mae Culumber, UCCE nut crop specialist, in Fresno County. Doll will review bloomtime diseases and chemical choices, including reduced risk choices and proper selection of fungicides. He also will discuss irrigation management in a dry year. Culumber will offer tips about nutrient management to minimize disease and pest outbreaks. For more information, contact San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project Director Marcia Gibbs at (530) 370-5325 or at 

Monday, March 5, 2018

Let It Rain and Snow – For the Sake of Our Local Ag Economy

Look. Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s …. RAIN.

Yes indeed, the skies finally opened up as we welcomed the first couple days of March, dumping a welcome inch of rainfall.  The news is worthy of the opening line of the old 1950s Adventures of Superman TV series in which onlookers on the ground peered skyward to spot an amazing sight – the Man of Steel.
In our case, rain is just as welcome as Superman arriving to save the day. Let’s put some context about how dry it has been in the Valley – the 1.32 inches  of rain accumulated during the first three days of March boosted the region’s rainfall total since November by an amazing 73 percent. That’s right. We saw only 1.53 inches of rain in November, December and January and .26 inches in February.

Of course, we’ll need lots and lots of rain as well as snow in the mountains to bring good water news to growers.

Valley farmers are already disappointed – although not surprised – by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s recent announcement ofthe initial allocation of 20 percent from the Central Valley Project (CVP).

Here's a map of the Central Valley Water Project.
“Despite the historic rainfall last year, California’s lack of sufficient water storage forces us to operate on a year-to-year basis. The amount we can store in our reservoirs is not enough to get us through these very dry years,” said David Murillo, Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Regional Director.

“Given what we know today, and what we see in the forecast, we must be very conservative with our allocation. If this lack of rain and snow continues, we could very well be right back in drought operations. A situation like this really underscores the need for more storage in California.”

As you recall, we came out of five years of drought in 2017 after record rain pelted much of Northern California.  Last year, the CVP allocated 65 percent of water to suppliers such as the Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water provider. Westlands serves cotton growers in western Fresno County.  That compared to 5 percent in 2016 and no water in 2014 and 2015. The Bureau reported growers in the Friant Division will receive a 30 percent allocation.

We’ll have to see how the tight water supplies impact the Valley farming community. During the drought, we saw growers fallow acres and acres of prime farm land. Almond trees were pulled out and cotton acreage dropped. Some alfalfa growers stopped production mid-season, opting to save water for higher value crops.

A drought could impact lots of Valley agricultural workers.
The Westlands Water District (WWD), which supplies water to 700 family farms cultivating 1,000 square miles of ag land, has published a series of economic reports that points out that the lack of water allocations has forced farmers to turn to less labor-intensive crops.  The district estimates its farmers provide nearly 29,000 jobs and $3.6 billion in economic activity.

“The failure to provide the contracted water levels has resulted in an 18 percent loss of economic output within the district,” a September 2017 report stated.

“Consistent and ongoing provision of the full allocation of water to WWD would result in a 19.9 percent increase in employment and more than a 17 percent increase in economic output from WWD alone.”  

The report notes that more than half of agricultural workers have less than a high school education and 95 percent have no college. “Agriculture does provide a path for social mobility with opportunities to advance and earn significantly higher wages, even for these low skilled workers.”

Here’s our wish for March: Let it rain. Let it snow.

FIELD DAY: To help almond growers get off to a good start this season, two leading University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors will outline disease, fungicide, pest and nutrient management tips at a March 21 field day in Fresno County.

The free event will be from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Rushing Ranch, 11599 W. Shaw, Fresno.  David Doll, a Merced County UCCE pomologist, will review bloomtime diseases and chemical choices, including reduced risk choises and proper selection of fungicide choices. He also will cover irrigation management in a dry year.

Mae Culumber, UCCE nut crop in Fresno County, will offer tips about nutrient management to help growers better understand how to management nitrogen applications and avoid over fertilization to minimize disease and pest outbreaks.  For more information contact Project Director Marcia Gibbs at (530) 370-5325 or at

Monday, February 26, 2018

Deep Freeze Means There’s No Time for Growers to Chill Out during the Night

 Weather Watchers issued the chilling news to growers: 

SATURDAY... Sub-freezing temperatures are imminent or highly likely. These conditions will kill crops and other sensitive vegetation.”

That’s what the U.S. National Weather put out over the weekend for the Valley. The low temperatures were dipping down to the mid-20s. Worst yet, forecasters were warning everyone the freezing temperatures would last as long as six hours.

“Long durations of below freezing temperatures will kill unprotected vegetation. Agricultural interests should closely monitor minimum temperature forecasts and make preparations to protect frost and freeze sensitive vegetation,” the Weather Service goes on to add.

It certainly wasn’t the best way to wrap up a week that endured several days of freezing temps last week. Suddenly, this rain-starved winter became even tougher for growers who are forced to spend the bone-chilling nights rushing to protect their valuable crops. 

Almond growers have been out irrigating their crop to raise the temperature, trying to build up humidity to slow the drop in temperature. They fear the subfreezing temperatures will damage the buds during this critical bloom period. It may be a few weeks before growers see if there is an increase in buds dropping off the trees.

It’s not just the overnight frost growers are worried about. The cool daytime temperatures could slow the pollination process. Bees work best when the weather is at least 55 degrees
Our long-time collaborator, David Doll, a Merced County UC Cooperative Extension pomology farm advisor specializing in almonds, has offered freeze warning protection tips on his online Almond Doctor column.

“The point to turn on irrigation is dependent on dew temperature and the expected low temperature. Starting the irrigation too late when the dew temperature is low can increase the risk of damage. Turning off too early can also increase the risk of damage. Techniques utilized to determine when to start and turn off irrigation usually revolve around the use of a ‘wet bulb,’ ” he wrote in his February 17 column.

Irrigating an orchard to protect against the freeze.
He goes on to say: “Irrigation application rates need to be high enough to provide an increase in air temperature. Application rates should exceed 30 gallons per minute per acre. Rates less than 15 gallons per minute per acre may lead to freezing of irrigation lines/spaghetti tubing. The critical temperature of damage will vary by bloom stage and variety. At full bloom, temperatures at or below 27-28F can cause crop loss. As trees leaf out and nuts begin to develop, the sensitivity to cold temperature increases.”

Finally, he adds: “in flood and drip-irrigated orchards it may not be possible to have high enough discharge to have a warming effect of the water, but adding moisture to the soil can increase the warmth of the field – which is why mowing any vegetation is advised within these systems. Mowing may not be as critical in orchards that are able to apply irrigation water over the top of a cover-crop.”
Go to his Almond Doctor website to learn more about frost protection methods for almonds.

Let’s hope March brings warmer temperatures and some much-needed rain.

Monday, February 19, 2018

In a Flash – Almond Trees Suddenly in Bloom

 The calendar says it is winter, but the weather around the Valley makes it seem more like spring.

Certainly spring colors are full force in the almond orchards. “The bloom is super early. We’re at around 70 percent bloom,” says almond field scout Jenna Mayfield.

Almond bloom has come early this season.
Yes, a rainless February with daily temperatures averaging 70 degrees this month has accelerated the almond bloom. For landscape photo buffs, the almond bloom is a spectacular opportunity to capture the breathtaking colors of the almond blossoms. 

In the orchards, millions of bees are pollinating the almonds. Experts estimate more than half of the nation’s bees are brought into the Golden State to do their work in the almond orchards.

“The weather is perfect for the bees,” Jenna says.

Of course, the rain-starved winter once again is creating another buzz among growers. The question circulating is ‘how much water will they have this season?’  It’s a familiar question farmers had been asking during the historic drought a few years ago.

Jenna notes growers already are turning on the spigots to irrigate their almond trees. Of course, last year’s drought-busting rains gave growers a break from irrigating until spring.

“We haven’t had a winter yet. Some trees still have their leaves from last season,” Jenna says.
A dry winter is prompting growers to irrigate their orchards.

Two years ago, bloom came and went very quickly as well. That’s called flash bloom. The concern among growers is whether bees can reach every bloom in time before the trees start greening – meaning pollination could come up short.

Weather forecasters still point out we have one more month of the traditional rainy season. We’ll have to see what Mother Nature has in store for us and how things play out as the season progresses.

For now, Jenna says growers are checking for San Jose scale. The pest will suck plant juices from tree twigs and limbs and inject a toxin that eventually reduces tree growth and can kill limbs. To spot scale, growers should check for a red halo around the feeding area. 

UC IPM says natural enemies such as beetles can keep scale under control. But broad spectrum insecticides used in orchards can impact beetles. 

Here is scale shown on an almond branch. (UC IPM photo)
“These natural enemies are helpful in reducing scale numbers, but insecticides used during the growing season for other pests disrupt this natural control, and scale numbers can increase as a result,” UC IPM says. “Many orchards that have not used broad-spectrum sprays for two or three years do not have San Jose scale problems. Low to moderate numbers of scale can be managed with oil sprays during the dormant season. The best time to spray is during the dormant season, and low to moderate numbers can be managed with oil sprays alone at this time. The scale is monitored as part of the spur sample during the dormant season and with pheromone traps in the spring.”