Monday, January 16, 2017

Farmers Embracing Practices to Sustain Valley Agriculture Well into the Future

You probably have heard the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” bantered about in recent years.

Google “sustainable agriculture” and you’ll discover lots of descriptions and definitions.
Here’s how the University of California, Davis Sustainable Agriculture and Research and Education Program defines it: “The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system -- growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers --  
can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.”

Wow. Academics probably spent a long time coming up with that description.
So how does this play out for real farmers? 

Well, it can mean something as basic as learning to use fewer chemicals on crops, which translates into saving money while keeping our waterways cleaner.

A natural habit can keep provide an alternative home for pests.
It can mean planting hedgerows and natural habitats in fields to attract good bugs that will prey on crop-damaging pests. 

It can mean leaving uncut strips of alfalfa in a field to keep pests from migrating to nearby cotton fields.

Or it can mean knocking off mummy nuts from almond trees after harvest to keep overwintering pests from wreaking havoc on the next season’s crop.

Fortunately, Valley growers don’t have to go very far to learn more about sustainable agriculture.
Leaving a strip of uncut alfalfa helps keeps lygus out of cotton.
For years, there has been a group of local growers that have been following these practices and learning about new innovations. They are doing so by participating in the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project (SJSFP).

The program helps growers broaden sustainable farming practices by providing educational programs and weekly reports about pests in their fields or orchards as well as connecting them with long-time farmers and leading UC agriculture experts.

SJSFP currently is seeking new almond, alfalfa and cotton growers in Merced, Madera and Fresno counties for the 2017 season.

By enrolling in the program, growers learn valuable strategies to improve yields while becoming better environmental stewards in today’s tough economic and regulatory climate. Over the years, the program and its growers have gained recognition nationally and internationally.  Growers will receive these benefits:
·         SCP field scouts who work with growers’ existing pest control advisors to augment field scouting.
·         Field days focusing on pest and crop management issues, crop diseases and management, biological farming and water and regulatory issues.
·         Access to top leading farm advisors and integrated pest management experts, who will help farmers deal with current issues ranging from pest and disease management to irrigation.
·         Best Management Practices implementation planning and annual hedgerow seeds and beneficial insects, when needed.
·         Access to veteran growers who have integrated sustainable farming practices into their operations.
UCCE Fresno County farm advisor Dan Munk talks at field day.
 Here what a couple of growers say about the program:

“They are at the cutting edge of what is going on. It has been a great experience.”

“You get together with other growers and find out about different things. It’s outstanding to have access to that kind of expert knowledge.”

For more information or to inquire about enrolling, you can contact SCP Director Marcia Gibbs at (530) 370-5325 or

SJSFP operates under the direction of the Sustainable Cotton Project, a California nonprofit that has worked with San Joaquin Valley growers for more than a decade to produce an environmentally friendly Cleaner Cotton™ for the consumer market.

Drought update:
We want to follow up on last week’s post about the storms and the No. 1 topic among farmers: Water.
The heavy rain and snow that slammed the Sacramento Valley and Sierra last week brought good news for Northern California. Last Thursday, federal officials declared the five-year drought all but over for the North State. "Bye bye drought ... Don't let the door hit you on the way out," the National Weather Service's office in Reno tweeted. That’s good news for Northern California growers.

But it’s too early to celebrate around here. The Central Valley and Southern California still aren’t out of the woods. The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor reported nearly 60 percent of the state remains in a drought – compared to 97 percent last year. The Weather Service still lists the Central Valley in a severe drought.

Well, there’s still a month and a half left in the wet season. Let’s see if Mother Nature sends those big storms further south and says “Bye bye” to the drought the state’s farm basket.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Rain, Snow, Drought and the Economic Impact on Valley Ag

It’s a New Year and Valley farmers are busy preparing for the 2017 season.

Some might have been looking toward the sky for some insights.

In fact, many probably were following the series of storms that swept across the North State, dumping lots of snow.

As we mentioned last month, the burning question around these parts remains water. As in how much water will be available and how much the water will cost.

This has been the most critical issue this decade because of the prolonged five-year drought that has had a stronghold on the Golden State. For Valley agriculture, the water crisis has had a dramatic economic impact.

The five-year drought forced farmers to leave fields fallow.
In an economic report released last fall by the Westlands Water District – the big water provider in our area – the lack of water allocations has forced farmers to resort to more expensive groundwater to cover the shortfall, take prime ag land out of production and switch their crop mix, often to those that command higher prices such as almonds. The increased use of groundwater also has boosted salinity levels in the soil, which in turn affects the crops.

The loss in acreage has cost 5,200 farm jobs and an overall loss of $650 million in economic output, according to the report called “The Economic Impact of the Westlands Water District on the Regional and Local Economy.”

While a drought-busting rainy season is unlikely under La Niña, everyone is hoping for Mother Nature to deliver some relief with a wet winter.

State Water surveyors check water content. (DWR photo)
However, the news was less than encouraging last Tuesday after crews from the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) traveled up the Sierra Nevada range near Echo Summit and checked the water content of the snowpack.

Surveyors reported the snow water equivalent of 6 inches, some 5.3 inches less than the averageearly-January measurements taken since 1964. January and February are the state’s wettest months. Frank Gehrke, the state’s snow survey chief, described the results as “a little gloomy.”

Shasta Lake is brimming with water from the rains and snows.
More telling is DWR’s electronic readings of 105recording stations across the Sierra. Those measurements indicated the water content was 68 percent of the average for this time of year.On the positive side, officials do point out that Shasta Lake , the state’s largest reservoir, currently is at 118 percent of its average.

Weekend rains and more wet weather predicted for the coming week are positive signs and could bolster the snowpack by the end of this month.

“Precipitation and storage are doing quite well compared to the past 5 years of historic drought conditions,” acting DWR Director Bill Croyle said in a statement. “That makes us cautiously optimistic about water conditions.”

We certainly hope so.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Twas Time for Farmers to Take a Much Needed Holiday Break Before Planning for New Year

Twas the week before New Year’s and all through the Valley
Not a farmer was stirring, not even a field hand.
The tractor keys were hung by the door with care
In hopes that rainfall would soon be here.
The crops were nestled safely in the warehouses
While visions of good prices danced in their heads
And farmer ma in her shawl and farmer pa in his cap
Had settled themselves for a long winter break…

 Yes indeed, winter arrived last week with a nice pre-holiday gift – around a half-inch of rain on Friday. Californians – particularly farmers – probably had on this year’s St. Nick list – a drought-busting rain season. Ideally, they would have liked to have an encouraging rain forecast wrapped with a bow under the tree on Sunday.

Farmers say bring on the rain this season,
It may sound like the same broken record spinning the past five years, but the song sung by farmers once again is probably B.J. Thomas’s  “Rain Drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” 

Field scout Carlos Silva spoke with a group of farmers at a San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project gathering in Firebaugh last week and says their top-of-mind issue for 2017 remains water and its availability to irrigate their crops.

“There is always the question ‘How much water are we going to get?’ ” Carlos says.

After taking a break for the holidays, growers will be sticking mostly indoors and dealing with paperwork, including planning for next season’s crops. Those plans will have to take into account the possible water allocation and costs.
Knocking off mummy nuts is a priority.

Paperwork is a necessary evil for growers – who prefer working outdoors rather than indoors.  They need to decide on issues such crop rotations, land leases, new crops to farm or drop in the coming season. Business plans and other paperwork need to be filed with the county agricultural commissioner.

“There is a lot of work that goes behind the scenes,” Carlos says.

Before taking the holiday, growers did plenty of work outdoors to prepare for winter.

Almond growers, for example, were rushing to finish their orchard sanitation before the storm and holidays.  Field scout Jenna Mayfield says orchard sanitation should be one of the growers top New Year’s resolutions for 2017 – keep those orchard trees free of mummy nuts.

Jenna notes some growers embraced that resolution early and went back into the orchards with shakers to knock off remaining mummies. While this is labor intensive, the investment of time and energy will pay off in the long run. The reason is simple: a clean orchard leads to fewer pest problems, which translates into money savings through reduced chemical pest control use.
Before calling 2016 a wrap, growers rushed to finish work before the holidays and Friday’s storm, performing tasks such as fixing broken irrigation lines,  plowing under fallen mummy nuts, covering equipment kept outdoors and checking for tree diseases.

“It’s good to get the outdoor work done before the end of the year,” Jenna says. “Before you know it, the trees could start developing buds by January.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Learn the ABCs on Planting Successful Cover Crops

So we piqued your interest about planting cover crops in almonds orchards in last week’s post.

Then let’s cover some of the basics.

The best time to plant is right after the harvest concludes in the fall. Unfortunately, winter is just a couple days away, making the soil temperatures too low to provide consistent and quick germination. That’s especially true with the freezing low temperatures we experienced over the weekend.

Still, we want to offer almond growers a primer so they can be prepared for planting a fall-seeded cover crop.

Crimson clover is a popular cover crop seed.
It’s best to line up the seed and equipment before the harvest wraps up. By doing so, you can be prepared for a possible early rain, which can slow or stop the seeding process. If rain falls after ground preparation but before seeding, weeds can get a head start on the cover crop and the ground can seal up. This could make it hard to bury the cover crop seed with a roller or grain drill.

Clover mixes are good seed choices. Crimson clover is the most common. It matures earlier and produces more nitrogen and dry matter than many other clovers. This type of cover crop can take care of much of the trees’ nitrogen needs.Legume mixes are typically seeded at 25 to 30 pounds per planted acre. 

Standard grain drill for planting the seeds.
The seeding equipment you use will determine the ground preparation.  You might apply a contact herbicide before seeding to prevent weed competition.  Essentially, there are two equipment choices:

   *  A no-till drill or standard grain drill. This piece of equipment lets you plant directly on most type of surfaces, which means you can do little or no ground prep work. On soft ground, a single pass with a ring roller should move the seed and soil around enough to cover the seed.   

* Broadcast seeders need a soft surface. Work up the top two inches of the soil with a disk or harrow until the surface is fairly fine. Plant immediately with the seed buried in the top quarter inch of soil.

           Usually, the late fall and winter rains are adequate for seed germination and growth during the winter. Of course, if the drought continues, some winter irrigation may be necessary.
Late winter is a good time to mow the cover crop.

           The cover crop should be mowed at ½ to 1 inch above ground in late February or early March. When the dense cover crop dies back in the spring, it will leave a thick mulch layer on the ground and should control summer weeds. A final mowing should come in early to mid-June after the seed matures.

Following good management practices will allow the crop to reseed annually and re-establish itself in the winter. This should cover the basics. Happy planting.