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.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Weighing the Benefits of Cover Crops in Almond Orchards

Drive around the farmscape around Madera or Mendota and you’ll likely find green ground cover growing between the rows of almond trees.

Cover crops -- not weeds -- are growing in almond orchards.
Are they weeds? Probably not.

It’s a good chance the vegetation is a cover crop growing on the orchard floor, which is an important sustainable farming practice aimed at improving nut production.

“Growers see quite a few benefits in it,” says almond field scout Jenna Mayfield.

A cover crop can be good for hone bees. (UC IPM photo)
Cover crops have been around for centuries as a way to rejuvenate the soil by adding organic matter and nutrients from legumes or broad leaf plants. They also control soil erosion.  But the emergence of inexpensive commercial fertilizers and herbicides prompted growers to drop the practice in the 20th century.
Today, cover crops are regaining popularity because of growing concerns about the environment. They also are good for the honey bee population.
Here are some of the benefits:

  •      Allows water to soak into the ground and keeps the soil from washing away. Producing less run-off improves water quality downstream.
  •    Controls weeds and keeps the soil from drying out. This creates firmer ground for better access to the orchard in the fall and winter.
Clovers are among the popular selection for cover crops.

Of course, there are challenges for some Valley growers.

Like any plant, cover crops need water to flourish. That can mean a higher water demand for the orchard. It also can reduce soil moisture stored from the winter rains – water that would normally be available for the trees.

Also, a winter cover crop reduces the amount of heat absorbed by the orchard floor, which can increase the risk of frost damage after leaf out in the spring.

The cost to plant a cover crop ranges from$15 to $50 an acre for seeds with the average running around $35 per acre. Soil preparation and planting usually adds another $45 to $65 per acre. Jenna says more education and outreach is needed for growers that are on the fence about the value of cover crops – especially those with orchards in the Valley’s west side, which is drier, windier and more water-challenged than other areas of the region.

“There are a lot of factors they need to consider,” Jenna says.

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.