Monday, March 31, 2014

Wishing the Valley’s May Crops Will Benefit from April Showers

Will there be April showers for May crops?

After the rain over the weekend, the weather forecasters are predicting the start of April tomorrow could be another wet one – albeit far from a gully washer.

Still, farmers around here will take any rain they can get during this drought. It helps the season’s first alfalfa crop. It helps keep dust down around almond orchards – remember dusty roads can lead to future mite woes.

In the greater scheme of things though, Mother Nature isn’t likely going to bring an end to another dry year. March is traditionally the last big month for rain to come down, according to state water officials. The snowpack is a mere 15 percent of normal in the Northern California mountains and 32 percent in Central California ranges.

Some growers are still uncertain about planting cotton.
Indeed, field scout Carlos Silva reminds us that the first week of April last year saw the first cotton seeds planted in the Valley. Usually, pre-irrigation is occurring as growers prepare the fields for the coming year’s crop. Right now, you can hear crickets rather than tractors.
A number of growers are on the fence right now – still deciding whether to go ahead and plant cotton this year, Carlos notes. During a recent water meeting sponsored by the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, experts predicted cotton acreage could be the lowest since the 1920s. Their forecast put pima cotton at 130,000 acres and upland/acala at 58,000 acres.

There was a lot of pessimism in the air during the meeting, Carlos says. One farmer, for example, indicated he won’t be farming 9,000 acres this season. In the Valley, cotton farming crosses generations of families. Over the years, some continued to plant some cotton just to keep with tradition. The drought could break many traditions this year.

Meanwhile in alfalfa, Carlos says weevils continue to be a concern in some fields. He’s keeping an eye on them. Right now, the pests aren’t at the UC IPM threshold for treatment. Carlos is finding some aphids, but the populations are still in check. A good sign is parasitic wasps – natural predators – are in the fields to keep the aphid populations under control.

NOW eggs are found in trap in almond orchard.
In almonds, field scout Jenna Horine reports some worrisome navel orangeworm (NOW) activity in a few orchards on the Valley’s Westside. She is finding NOW eggs in the traps. Poor orchard sanitation – those orchards with mummy nuts left in the tree – is the culprit in many cases. Watch for NOW problems later this season. In one instance, though, Jenna found NOW eggs in traps in an orchard in which the grower followed good mummy nut removal practices over the winter. His neighbor, though, didn’t clear the mummies in his orchard. Too bad there isn’t a NOW border patrol.

Field Day Alert: Monitoring Practices, Irrigation Tips, Pest and Disease Management headlines an Almond Field Day on Thursday, April 17 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Rushing Ranch, 11599 W. Shaw Avenue in Fresno. Speakers are David Doll of UCCE Merced, Gene Brandi of the American Beekeeping Federation, Geurreet Brar of UCCE Fresno and Matthew Danielczyk, restoration project manager for Audubon California. As always, the event is free and 2 hours of continuing education and 2.5 hours of CCA CEU credits will be available. More details are at the Sustainable Cotton Project website. The event promises to be full of helpful information, especially during a drought year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Leftover Mummies Will Come Back to Haunt Lax Almond Growers in the Valley

“You can pay me now, or pay me later.”

Some might recall that as the Frame oil filter’s old marketing slogan, advising you to do regular maintenance now or risk running into costly repairs down the road.

That was the refrain by field scout Jenna Horine last week after placing pest traps around almond orchards in the western San Joaquin Valley. 

A number of mummy nuts are left on a single branch.
The reason: In one orchard, she found a tree with 10 mummy nuts – on a single branch! There were sure to be more hidden in other parts of the green leaves. In another orchard, she found about six mummy nuts per branch in four different trees – in a single row!

Jenna envisions these orchards facing some pesky problems with navel orangeworm later this season because of lax orchard sanitation over the winter. These growers face the prospects of shelling out lots of money to treat for NOW to protect their crop. Jenna points out her find of an inch-long navel orangeworm in an orchard.

“It’s way cheaper to follow preventative practices,” Jenna says. Indeed, our long-time friend, retired UC IPM entomologist Walt Bentley has tirelessly and repeatedly stressed to almond growers over the years the value of knocking off mummy nuts from the trees during the slow winter months.

The lesson here: It’s better to invest a little early to save a lot later.

Jenna reports almonds are quite large for this time of year.
Meanwhile, Jenna is finishing up placing pest traps in orchards, strategically setting up three traps? to snag NOW and a trio to trap peach twig borer in every orchard she will be scouting during the year. She usually places trap in the same area as in the past or known pest hot spots. This allows her to compare current findings with past results.

Jenna has been splitting some of the nuts to check on the development of the meat. So far, things are looking good. The only unusual thing is the size of the hulls, which are larger than normal for this time of the year. You often won’t see them this big until June.

In the fields, field scout Carlos Silva has been scouting alfalfa. Aphid populations are relatively low again this past week.

However, Carlos is concerned about weevils.  In some fields, he has snagged 14-15 weevils per sweep in his net. UC IPM recommends growers consider an early harvest or treatment at 20 lavae per sweep. Carlos anticipates seeing the first harvest starting this week. 

With water supplies tight due to the drought, some growers are looking at doing just two harvests before calling it a season and diverting water to other crops such as almonds.
Alfalfa weevil larvae found in a sweep net.
Typical damage weevils can cause in the field.
On the water front, area rallies are continuing with local political leaders and water district officials raising awareness about the importance of water to the farm economy. Events at the Firebaugh rodeo grounds and in Fresno drew big crowds.

For well drilling and irrigation pipe companies, the drought has created a financial boom. Some companies report three- to six-week backlogs for filling orders for well pumps.

Carlos also notes many growers are looking at drilling wells. But that route is costly and usually out of the price range for small farmers. Drilling a new well easily tops $100,000. Even if you can afford the price tag, it can still take up to six months to hire a drilling company. Companies are that busy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Almond, Alfalfa Field Scouting Springs in Action for 2014

Spring arrives Thursday with warm temperatures and blue skies.

We’re gearing up for another, albeit unusual, growing season in the San Joaquin Valley.
Alfalfa growers trying to get as many harvests as possible.

Field scouts Jenna Horine and Carlos Silva are ready. This week, Jenna starts setting and monitoring traps in almond orchards, providing growers a second set of eyes for pests prowling around the trees. Carlos is starting to check for pests in the enrolled alfalfa fields.

While water remains topic No. 1 in farm country, growers are pressing ahead as best as they can during the drought. 

The first cutting is expected to occur at the end of the month.
Alfalfa growers, for example, are continuing to irrigate their fields as long as they have water available. The goal, Carlos says, is to get as many harvests, or cuttings, before their water supplies run dry. Studies indicate growers can achieve as much as 10 harvests a year. Tight water supplies certainly will undercut the harvest this season.

California’s dairy and cattle ranchers rely on the state’s high quality alfalfa. Alfalfa growers will be doing their best to keep supplying hay for those important industries.

Almond trees are showing their green leaves.
One bit of good news for alfalfa: The early winter aphid problem appears to have moderated, Carlos reports. As you may recall, there was an early emergence of blue alfalfa and cow pea aphids on the plant stems in the region, threatening the crop and forcing growers to think about early treatments. Right now, he’s finding low aphid populations in the enrolled fields. 

Carlos says alfalfa is 13 to 14 inches tall in some fields. If the 80-degree temperatures hold up, these fields should be ready to harvest by the end of this month. Usually, growers will harvest their crop at 24 to 25 inches.

In the almonds orchards, the colorful blossoms are giving way to young, green leaves. Jenna will be visiting orchards and we’ll start letting everyone what she finds in her scouting reports.

The nuts already are a good size for this time of year.
On the westside of the Valley, some trees are already loaded with young fruit. Jenna says the emerging nuts already are sizable for this time of year.
Could that be a sign that the 2014 season may turn out OK despite the drought? We’ll see.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Drought Can Cause Headaches, Hangover for Almond Growers

It’s called the hangover effect in the almond industry: Providing less irrigation water will reduce vegetative growth and yield not only this season but the following year.
The drought will impact orchards in 2013 and 2014.

“Even if we go into 2015 irrigating at full water demand for a tree, we still have a hangover effect and the loss of yield,” explains David Doll, a farm advisor and pomologist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Merced County.

Doll tells growers that severe water stress will result in a reduction in kernel size. If the drought worsens and trees receive even less water, growers can anticipate an even gloomier picture: A textured, smaller and more shriveled kernel as well as a lower yield per acre.

Indeed, it’s going to be a challenging year for the $4 billion a year almond industry and state’s No. 1 export crop. In recent years, almond production has been around 2 billion pounds a year.

Bee pollination still going on.
With a third straight dry year and tight water supplies looming, farm advisors are spreading the word to growers about how they can protect the 800,000 acres of fruit-bearing almond trees. They should brace for a tough year on the production side – something that could translate into higher prices for consumers.
It's best to avoid feast or famine irrigation.
Normally, almond orchards need 42 to 48 inches of water each season. A lot of growers this year expect to receive six to 12 inches of water for their trees. Remember the federal Bureau of Reclamation anticipates no water allocation for some farmers, especially those served by the Westlands Water District.

Doll points out studies which indicate trees can survive with as little as 7.6 inches of water in a season as long as the trees maintain their leaves through the fall. Growers, though, shouldn’t worry about partial pre-harvest defoliation. His advice: Growers should stretch their water supplies as much as they can over the season and in proportion to evapotranspiration (ET).  For example, if growers have 30 percent of their water allocation, then they should 30 percent of the calculated ET. It is best to avoid a feast or famine irrigation practice – over watering and then under watering.  

Using a pressure chamber to measure water stress in trees.
Other almond experts say growers should save enough water for post-harvest during bud differentiation from late August to early September. This preserves next season’s crop production. Also, they should check moisture status, track ET and use a pressure bomb to schedule irrigations according to water potential and stress on the tree.

During the early season, Doll adds: “Make sure you stress your trees a little bit before you apply your first irrigation.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Doomsday Headlines Aren't Stopping Central Valley Farmers From Farming This Year

 We all have seen the chilling headlines: “California farmers brace for drought, unemployment;”  “California drought: farmers, ranchers face uncertain future;” and “Farmer loses 1,000 acres of almond trees.”

It reminds us of a tale almost 25 years ago when the San Francisco Bay Area was hit by a devastating earthquake. A stretch of elevated freeway in Oakland had collapsed. A section of the Bay Bridge had fallen. The million-dollar homes in San Francisco’s Marina District had caught fire. And the Bay Bridge World Series was suddenly interrupted.

In the days that followed, Bay Area residents were bombarded by frantic telephone calls from worried friends and relatives across the globe, asking them if they were OK and how much of San Francisco has slid into the Pacific Ocean. Yes, there was devastation. No, the quake didn’t wipe out the Bay Area.

Growers are starting the season irrigating their alfalfa fields.
Like the Loma Prieta temblor of ’89, the Great Drought of 2014 is big news. Yes, farmers are going to be impacted. Water is going to be a precious commodity. Fields are going to be fallow. 

Aphid damage on alfalfa.
Yet contrary to what the headlines may lead folks to believe, the Valley’s agriculture isn’t going to vanish overnight. Crops are going to be planted and harvested. Farmers are farming.

Last week, for example, some growers were irrigating their alfalfa fields, reports field scout Carlos Silva. They could start doing their first cutting, or harvest, of the season in the middle to the later part of this month. Remember, there are still dairy cows and cattle to feed. With acreage expected to be lower this season, growers could be fetching more money for their crop because of less supply. 

Recent rains were a welcome sight for Valley farmers.
The early-year aphid problem we discussed in recent weeks appears to have moderated in the alfalfa. Carlos has found fewer pests on the stems and a lot more lady bugs in the field. Perhaps the rain and cooler weather is helping with natural pest control. We’ll continue to monitor the fields and keep everyone updated.

We all welcomed the arrival of more rain last week. Areas around the Valley recorded up to an inch of rain through the weekend. That will help some growers stretch their water supplies a bit.

In the meantime, let’s remember that growers are still farming and working hard to keep local agriculture going in spite of the drought.