Monday, February 23, 2015

Another Dry Year Could Put a Damper on Alfalfa Acreage

Once again, Valley farmers are being forced to make some tough decisions with the prospects that the devastating drought will head into a fourth year in our Golden (Brown) State.

We are seeing alfalfa growers deciding to make hay on other commodities this season, reports field scout Carlos Silva. He says some growers plowing under older, lesser quality alfalfa fields to make way for other crops, including cotton.

Some growers are plowing under alfalfa fields to save water.
“Alfalfa acreage may take a hit this year,” Carlos says. Generally, growers can get about five years of production out of an alfalfa field. But older fields can yield a lower grade of alfalfa, which will fetch fewer dollars on the market.

It’s easy to understand the rationale. Water is like liquid gold in farm country. It takes lots of water to irrigate alfalfa.

Alfalfa is California’s largest agricultural water user because of its long growing season and vast acreage, which has hovered around the 1 million acre range in recent years.  University of California farm experts estimate alfalfa uses anywhere from 4 million to 5.5 million acre feet of water each season. Cotton and almonds use about half that amount annually. Remember, an acre foot of water is 325,851 gallons – or enough to fill 65,170 five-gallon office coolers.

Of course, we’ve seen this plow down before. Some almond growers last year uprooted aging orchards as a water conservation measure. 
One cotton grower already is pre-irrigating his field.

Carlos says growers are feeling a little more optimistic that they will have access to some water. Remember last year at this time, they were facing the prospects of a zero water allocation. Spring rains eventually boosted that up to 5 percent.

For 2015, the State Water Project’s initial allocation was raised last month from 10 to 15 percent because of the above-average December rainfall. We’ll see how that number plays out after a dry January and mild February so far. Moreover, no one will be surprised when state surveyors come up short during their monthly measurement of the Sierra snowpack in the coming week. For now, everyone is hoping for that March Miracle rain- and snowfall.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Almond Orchards Soon to Be Abuzz with Activity

While America’s favorite groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, may have predicted six more weeks of winter, you wouldn’t know it around the San Joaquin Valley.

Groundhog misses mark in the Valley.
First, the major rainstorm that dropped up to 12 inches of rain in remote parts of Northern California a week ago bypassed some parts of our region. Folks in Firebaugh and Mendota reported few, if any, sprinkles from the sky. At most, a few areas of Fresno County recorded less than a half inch of rain, bringing the 2015 total to about three quarters of an inch.
With weather like that, it’s not surprising to see farms abuzz with lots of activity. 
 In almonds, field scout Jenna Horrine spotted some of the first bee boxes to arrive in an orchard located in the northwest section of the Valley. Jenna notes this area near Interstate 5 is normally the warmest part of the Valley. We can expect more beekeepers arrive with their precious cargo in the next couple weeks.

The near-record high temperatures over the weekend certainly will speed things up in the orchards. Temperatures hit the mid-70s, just a few degrees shy of the all-time record. Do you call this winter? Take that Punxsutawney Phil.

First bee boxes were delivered in the west area.

Indeed, “we’re starting to get that push toward bloom,” Jenna says.
Yes, this is a picturesque time in almonds. Right now, orchards resemble an early morning sunrise with trees first lit up with pink buds dotting the limbs. Then orchards become aglow with bright pink pop corn buds. Finally, trees suddenly go into full bloom. That’s when bees go to work.

The pink bud stage. -- UC IPM Photo
Jenna reminds growers to be mindful of spraying their nearby fields during the pollination period. We need to keep bees healthy.

Pop corn bud stage.
Growers should refrain from treating their trees in the morning hours as bees prepare to go to work in the orchard. It’s best to spray in the late afternoon after bees return to the hive.
Anyone who keeps bees in California must register with the local County Agricultural Commissioner annually. This information will help beekeepers deal with neighbors and be notified about local pesticide and herbicide applications. It’s important we keep that healthy relationship between bees and almonds.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How Dry We Were in January: An Early Year in the Offing for Almonds?

Déjà vu – again. Another dry January has come and gone in the Valley and across the Golden (soon-to-be brown) State.

That’s not a good sign for Valley growers. We’re sure to hear more on that in the weeks to come.
In the meantime, the rain-stingy January prompted almond growers to prepare for possible early season. Field scout Jenna Horine reports growers have been moving quickly to apply dormant sprays in the past week.

Growers have been applied dormant sprays in their orchards.
Many orchards are starting to give off a pink hue on the upper section of the tree. It won’t be long – especially if this dry weather continues – before we start seeing buds develop and then burst into colorful blossoms, creating acres and acres of breath-taking Kodak moments.
 “It looks like we’re going to have an early year,” Jenna says. That means it’s full speed ahead for almond growers.

 For almond growers, it’s a Catch-22. Everyone agrees we need the rain – we had a measly two-tenths of an inch last month – compared to average of 2-plus inches for January. It may be one of the driest Januarys on record for the region. It certainly was for many locales. In fact, San Francisco recorded no rain for the entire month.

The hitch is if we have late-winter or early spring rains, they can be troublesome for almond trees, which could cause problems with scale or other plant diseases. Ah yes, the irony and beauty of farming.

 Meanwhile, Jenna reminds growers that they should have taken care of remaining mummy nuts in their trees by Sunday. That’s the best safeguard against navel orangeworms (NOW), the scourge of the almond industry.
Mummy nuts can host overwintering navel orangeworms.
Remember, NOW overwinter in mummy nuts. Sprays shouldn’t be necessary in orchards where there are two or fewer mummies per tree and the trees were harvested early, according to UC Integrated Pest Management. Growers want to tackle the mummies to provide enough time to cut back on the NOW population.