Monday, November 25, 2013

Giving Thanks to an Uneventful Year for Valley Cotton, Alfalfa

 Valley cotton and alfalfa growers can sit down to turkey dinner on Thursday and be thankful that another season is under their belt.

Water availability remains a major issue for Valley farmers.
They will thankful that the year – while not spectacular – was rather uneventful. While water remained a major issue (and will continue to be entering 2014 unless we experience a very wet year), there were no major pest or disease problems that threatened their crops, notes cotton field scout Carlos Silva. For the most part, lygus and aphids were under control. Some growers grappled with whitefly infestations and some dealt with Race 4 Fusarium invading parts of their fields.

Cotton fields are being plowed down.
The last chore for the season has been plowing down the harvested cotton fields to meet cotton plowdown rules aimed at preventing pink bollworm infestation. Some growers have already prepared their rows for next season. How much cotton we’ll see planted next year depends on how much water will be available in 2014. We’ll know more as the winter progresses. At least the rain that buffeted the Valley – a half inch around these parts – and Northern California last week is an encouraging sign.

Low water allocations, especially in the west side of the Valley, played a role in the drop in cotton acreage this year. Last Tuesday’s report by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sacramento estimated the 2013 acala/upland cotton production at 310,000 480-pound bales, down 39 percent from last year. Nationally, upland production is predicted to be down 25 percent. California pima production is forecast at 600,000 bales, down 20 percent. The bulk of U.S. pima fiber is grown in California.

Perhaps, growers will work off some of their Thanksgiving meal by doing a little rain dance.

Meanwhile, Carlos points out alfalfa producers finished their final cut of the season as temperatures started dropping. Alfalfa production, too, suffered a down year, the USDA says. Acreage is forecast to drop 5.3 percent to 90,000 acres in 2013 while yield is predicted to dip 3.9 percent to 630,000 tons.

The number of cotton bales produced expected to drop.
Alfalfa growers completed their final cutting for 2013.
Early in the season, many growers had to deal with blue alfalfa aphids, which stunted growth during the spring. Other pests, though, remained fairly in check throughout the season, Carlos says.

 Overall, it was a pretty average year for cotton and alfalfa growers. No one seems to be complaining.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Winter Orchard Maintenance, Water Supplies Top of Mind for SJ Valley Almond Growers

The almond harvest has been over for a while, but you wouldn’t know it given the flurry of activity in the orchards.

Farm workers replace damaged drip lines in an orchard.
There are weeds to take care of. There are drip lines to repair. There are pre-emergent sprays to apply. There are mummy nuts to knock off the trees…and more.

Almond field scout Jenna Horine calls it winterizing – a time to prepare the orchards for the winter. Growers want to take care of these late-fall chores before wet weather arrives. Check out UC IPM’s year-round plan for almonds for more information. UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors are available to answers about almond production and practices. In Merced County, contact David Doll at (209) 385-703 and in Fresno and Madera counties, contact Gureet Barr at (559) 241-7526.

Before we call 2013 a wrap, though, let’s take a look back at the season. Jenna, who finally finished cracking all those nuts collected orchards around the valley this summer, estimates finding less pest damage this year than in 2012. That’s a good sign that growers did a good job in their pest management practices.

Winter chores include tilling the rows between trees.
Her results are being compiled and the information will be passed along to growers that participated in the San Joaquin Sustainable Farming Project, a program that helps growers implement best management practices and provides field day educational programs featuring leading almond experts in the Central Valley.

Meanwhile, many growers are telling Jenna that 2013 turned out to be a pretty good, yet relatively average year. That comes amid a dry winter, reduced water allocations and a late bloom. Don’t forget the high winds in April that toppled trees and knocked limbs and nuts off the trees.

Growers are concerned about future water availability.
Overall, the USDA predicted this year’s almond production to weigh in at 1.85 billion pounds, about a 2 percent drop from 2012. The forecast is based on 810,000 acres of nut-bearing trees.

Like other farmers, almond growers also are worried about water after facing a dry winter and reduced water allocations in 2013. During the summer, the USDA found the nut set per tree was down 5 percent from 2012 while kernel weight – 1.36 grams – was the lowest in four decades.

That may explain the heavy springtime nut drop and reduced yield experienced in the Butte and Padre varieties grown by one local grower.

Lack of water can affect almond kernels.
University of California researchers have conducted a number of studies about water deficits and the impact on almonds and trees, especially during drought years. Here’s what UC experts say:Generally, nut size is reduced in the first season of significant water stress. Because water stress also reduces vegetative growth and potentially decreases productivity per unit canopy volume, nut load can be reduced in subsequent years.”

 Jenna plans to bring up the issue during an Almond Field Day being planned for December. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A San Joaquin Valley Hedgerow Creates a ‘Natural Insectary’

Heading down a dirt road west of Interstate 5, you pass rows and rows of almond trees and a small plot of cotton.

Suddenly, you come upon an oasis-like stand of lush vegetation in the midst of dry, open fields. There’s no creek nearby – but rather some black drip tape.

Dr. Pete Goodell says hedgerows are complex habitats.
Welcome to what is the southern-most perennial hedgerow in California’s Central Valley. Tended by the owners of Windfall Farms, the hedgerow is a half-mile long and is located on the western end of Fresno County.

Grower Mark Fickett describes the benefits of hedgerows.
What are hedgerows? They are rows of trees, shrubs and perennial grasses that surround farm fields. Their benefits include air and water quality protection, weed control, protection against soil erosion, increased biodiversity and beneficial insect activity. Hedgerows provide shelter and nectar for insects, mammals and birds.

“It is a very fascinating, complicated thing,” Dr. Pete Goodell told a gathering during the recent Cotton Tour sponsored by the Sustainable Cotton Project. By providing a haven for pests, the bad bugs “don’t bother the crops nearby,” he added while surveying the row of native plants, including California lilac, sugar bush, valley oak, coyote bush and coffee berry.

Hedgerows are more common on farms in the Sacramento Valley, Central Coast and Bay Area. Experts say more research is needed to prove the absolute benefits of hedgerows. 

However, a University of California study in 2011 found hedgerows attracted more beneficial insects than pests and suggested growers replace weedy areas at the crop field edges. The idea is to enhance natural pest management and reduce the need for pesticides.
Getting a shot of bugs found at the hedgerow.

“The idea is to have a natural insectary,” Mark Fickett of Windfall Farms told the tour group. “It can reduce the amount of chemicals we use on a given crop>” Plus, it’s aesthetically pleasing.

Indeed, neighbors and farm employees will stop by to enjoy the greenery amid the bare landscape. Fickett and business partner Frank Williams are constantly adding plants to the hedgerow. “We are always looking for things to plant here. It keeps evolving and being more diverse all the time."

“Are there any plants that you don’t want?” one tour participant asked.

“Weeds and morning glory,” Mark replied quickly. He then pointed his foot toward the unwanted plant, adding “they are an invasive plant.”

Another asked why more local growers aren’t planting perennial hedgerows.

Mark paused and then said, “Maybe people aren’t thinking about it. Farmers here aren’t thinking about it. Farmers usually need to be exposed to the concept.” He then added, “We always tell people about what it means to us. It’s a good thing.”

Well, someday neighbors may follow his lead.