Monday, December 5, 2016

Late Fall Frosty Weather Gets You into the Holiday Spirit to Hand Pick Cotton in Valley

Cotton fiber resting on an open boll.
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Yuletide buzzing being sung by a bee.
And field scouts dressed up like harvesters.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the cotton picking season bright.

Cotton picking? In December?

Yes, after a brief Thanksgiving hiatus, field scouts Jenna Mayfield and Carlos Silva returned to the fields last week to hand pick colored cotton fiber grown by Windfall Farms on the westside of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
It was frosty, not snowy weather for hand harvesting cotton.

 As we mentioned earlier, they are hand harvesting two small fields of colored cotton fiber planted by Windfall Farms. They finished picking the smaller field before Thanksgiving.

Last week, they were back picking on the larger field, which Jenna estimates is six rows wide and about 150 feet or so long. They have finished one row and have five more to go and anticipate wrapping up their harvest before Christmas, weather permitting. The fiber has all been sold to a small specialty yarn company, Quince and Co. who produce cotton, wool and other natural yarns.

“We have been lucky with the weather,” Jenna says about the absence of major storms putting a damper on their harvesting. “It is a lot of work picking by hand.”

It’s probably safe to say they are working the last standing cotton field in the Valley – if not the entire state. Growers have pretty much finished harvesting the 218,000 acres of traditional upland/acala and pima cotton planted this season in California.

Field scouts Carlos Silva and Jenna Mayfield picking cotton.
The last of the harvested fields are being plowed under to prevent pink bollworm infestation. Other crops such as alfalfa and almonds are buttoned up for the year, too. Jenna points out there is a buzz of activity in almond orchards with farm crews preparing for next year by pruning trees, clearing leaves from the ground and knocking off mummy nuts.

Workers driving by and spotting Jenna and Carlos sitting on buckets picking cotton by hand are doing double-takes. “They’re probably thinking what’s going on. There’s still cotton around,” Jenna chuckles.

Bugs, too, are probably wondering the same thing. Jenna and Carlos are getting a close-up look at the wonders of nature as bugs search out what food sources remain as winter approaches in a couple weeks.

“There are still flowers on some of the plants,” Jenna says. The sweet fragrance is attracting plenty of bugs, including bees. You might say the little cotton field is no food desert for bugs. More appropriately, we should call the small cotton field a food dessert. The field is also next to the extensive perennial hedgerow at Windfall Farms which adds to the diversity of insects, birds and plant life in the remote area. 
Naturally brown cotton fiber from Windfall Farms.

While most farmers start their day before sunrise, our two cotton pickers are waiting to start harvesting around mid-morning because of the cooler pre-winter temperatures. There has been lots of frosty weather in the past week with overnight lows hovering in the 30s.

Indeed, frozen cotton bolls are hard to pick. Moreover, the cotton fiber needs to thaw out and dry out a bit before picking. “You don’t want the cotton to get mold during storage,” Jenna says.
Weather forecasters call for more Jack Frost-like nighttime temperatures this week. That’s one way to help Jenna and Carlos to get into the holiday spirit while working the field this week.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Get Cracking on a Second Look at Harvested Almonds

You can’t beat second opinions.
 That’s what field scout Jenna Mayfield offers every fall when she spends countless hours cracking hundreds of almond samples plucked from orchard floors at harvest time.

We call it crack-out.

Yes, this task calls for Jenna to meticulously crackone nut at a time as the pile of shells pile up.
She then carefully inspects each one, making a few notes from time to time. Jenna is looking for signs of pest damage to the kernels. These pests include navel orangeworm, ants and peach twig borer. The information is then passed along to almond growers participating in the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project.  Growers then can check the results against the grade sheetreceived from the huller.

Jenna lays out the almonds before cracking..
Ant damage to kernel. (UC IPM photos)
“It’s good for growers to have both reports. It’s like having a second opinion,” Jenna says.
For growers, it’s a good practice to inspect nut samples taken from the late summer harvest. This helps them map out pest management activities for the next season.

Navel orangeworm damage.
At harvest time, Jenna collects about 200 nuts from each variety in each orchard that she scouts during the season. She takes samples from three different blocks, usually where pest traps are placed during the season. The nuts are stored in a freezer and later taken out for crack-out in the fall.

Damage caused by peach twig borer.
By examining the kernel, you can determine what kind of pest damage you have, UC IPM advisors say. “Peach twig borer and navel orangeworm often infest the same nut, but navel orangeworm bores into the nut and peach twig borer does not. Therefore, navel orangeworm feeding masks that of peach twig borer,” according to UC IPM.

Here’s what to look for:
·         Naveloranageworm: Deep chewing into nut.
·         Ants: Scraping or peeling of kernel skin, deep hollowing of nut, "sawdust" present.
·         Shallow channels and surface grooves on the kernels

Jenna says her samples aren’t showing a lot of damage. “Everyone did a good job of pest management.” So far, she’s inspected more than half of her 5,000 samples. 

If the trend continues with the rest of Jenna’s crack-out, that will bode well on the pest front for growers next season.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Growers Thankful Another Cotton Season in the Books

Cotton growers will be giving thanks and counting their blessings this coming Thanksgiving Day.

With the last fields being harvested, growers can close the books on another season – a relatively uneventful year that started more than six months ago. Oh, that doesn’t mean there weren’t lots of worry -free days and nights over the 180 to 200 days – that comes with the job.

It's hard to remember how small cotton plants were in April.
Yes, there continued (and continues) to be worries about another year of drought in California and how much water is available for farming. Yes, there continue to be worries about yo-yoing commodity prices. And yes, there were continuing worries about bugs, plant diseases and the weather.

Yet, Carlos Silva points out there were no major pest issues during the year. And the harvest went well despite a few days of wet weather that slowed cotton picking.

A grower cuts down cotton stalks before plowing them under.
“Everybody is wrapping things up. They’re plowing down their fields,” Carlos says.

 County agricultural departments require cotton growers to shred, uproot and plow under cotton stalks after harvest to combat the spread of pink bollworm (PWB), a global cotton pest. Plow down kills any overwintering PBW larvae.
The practice has proved effective.
Pink bollworm larvae has been under control. (UC IPM photo)
The Fresno County Ag Department reported this month that 48,280 acres were trapped for pink bollworm but all came up empty as of October 20. That’s the fourth straight year no PBW has been discovered in the county. As a result, growers in specified areas can obtain a permit for a reduced tillage system for cotton destruction for the following season. Growers can call the department at (559) 600-7510 for more information about reduced tillage permits.
Right now, cotton gins are going full bore. “This is their time of year. They’re going 24 hours a day,” Carlos says. “You see lots of cotton bales being moved out.”
For growers now, it’s a matter of waiting for the report back from the gin about the quality of their crop. And of course, it’s watching the prices on the commodities market.
Meanwhile, Carlos points out the alfalfa harvest also has wrapped up for the most part. He reports a few fields completed their final cutting last week. It’s been quite a year for growers who seemed to have enough water available to stretch their season from March to November. “I started scouting alfalfa for pests in February,” Carlos says.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Cotton Pickin’ by Hand No Easy Task for These Novices

A steady procession of big rigs, cars, SUVs, pick-ups and other vehicles zipped by on one of California’s busy rural interstate freeways. 

Colored cotton fiber has found a niche.
Nearby, two hand harvesters worked a small cotton field. One boll at a time, the pair plucked a variety of dark brown and light brown cotton fibers and stuffed their bounty into black trash bags. The workeda single cotton plant from bottom to top before moving to the next one.
Overhead, bees buzz around. Ouch. A bee sting.

“It’s a lot of work,” field scout Carlos Silva says about hand harvesting a small field of unique colored cotton fiber. “We have been working about four hours a day.”

Carlos and fellow field scout Jenna Mayfield switched hats last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and began working as cotton pickers. They were hand harvesting one of two small fields of colored cotton fiber planted by Windfall Farms. They return this week to finish picking the field along Interstate 5 on the Westside of the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Mark Fickett, left, and Frank Williams inspect their crop.
Carlos estimates they picked more than 30 pounds of cotton daily from the field, which is about six rows wide and some 100 feet long. 

Windfall Farms is operated by long-time cotton growers Frank Williams and Mark Fickett. The two business partners have dabbled in colored cotton on the side for years. Their green and brown cotton fibers have been used in color blending to reduce the impact from bleaching and dying cotton.

The two innovative growers have been active participants with the Sustainable Cotton Project and San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project andthe programs’ efforts to reduce chemical use in farming. Their colored fiber has attracted interested from a niche market of spinners and brands interested in producing sustainable products. This year’s crop is being sold to Quince and Co. a specialty yarn company based in Maine.

A brown cotton boll ready for harvest.
Wearing a floppy hat and long-sleeved shirt, Carlos’ hand-harvesting routine is to sit on a bucket while picking bolls one plant at a time. The weather, with temperatures in the mid- to high-70s, was slightly above normal for this time of year. Besides the weather, Carlos and Jenna had to fend off bees flying around the field in search of nectar.

It’s likely they are one of the few – if not only – hand-harvesters working the cotton fields in California or even the United States.  We’re used to seeing large harvesters rumbling through the cotton fields. The mechanical harvesters can work four or more rows at a time, picking around 1,200 plants in 30 seconds. In one day, a harvester can pick 100,000 to 190,000 pounds of cotton.

Hand harvesting cotton in Turkey. (Janice Person photo)
Overseas, though,handpicking is a common sight in some countries. You’ll see it in different areas of Turkey, India, China and Africa. These field workers can pick 20 plants in around nine minutes during their eight- to 10-hour day. That’s about one-ninth of a pound per minute.

 We’ll see how Carlos and Jenna do as they gain more experience. “We’ll be back again to pick more cotton,” Carlos promises.