BY CRAIG W. ANDERSON
Farmers have been busy the past few months harvesting the diverse crops in San Joaquin County, and the news has been good.
Photo by Goff Photography
This year is good enough to challenge the all-time record-high gross ag production in San Joaquin County of more than $2.2 billion once the final results for the walnut, almond and grape crops are known.
"We’ve had good growing conditions with not too many swings in the weather,” said Agricultural Commissioner Scott Hudson. “No rain during harvests and most of our crops look to be over and above 2011 yields and most prices held up well."
Dairy industry struggles
However, the dairy industry continued to be challenged, and not in a good way, as input costs pushed many California dairies to the brink of insolvency.
SJFB first vice president and Lodi dairyman Jack Hamm said the dairy industry "is in dire straights. So far this year the state has lost 60 of 1,600 dairies in the state and 100 could go under by the end of the year."
Despite milk having a value of $452.8 million in 2011 reasonably good milk prices to producers weren’t enough of offset high production costs. “Demand wasn’t there for production,” Hudson said.
The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service and Economic Research Service noted in a September report that earnings for dairy producers was up 30 percent in 2011 as average milk prices increased to $18.54 per hundredweight from 2010’s $14.69. However, the report also said, "Dairies continue to struggle financially as the cost of milk production increased nearly 18 percent during the same period."
Reports of dairies losing $50,000 to $70,000 a month "represent conservative numbers," said Hamm.
"People are seeing what they can salvage and whether they should close their doors, file for bankruptcy, or find a way to somehow carry on," said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen. "I won’t be surprised if 10 percent of California’s dairies are out of business by the end of the year."
The CDFA has established a task force to research and make recommendations in the first quarter of how the industry can right itself.
California’s dairies are popular outside of the state and Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and South Dakota have been encouraging dairies to leave California and relocate to these states. Marsh said, "They have been doing this for quite a few years. They want what big dairy operations bring to their economies and their inducement is: ‘We’re business friendly, so come here.’"
"Even Wisconsin, the big dairy state, is recruiting. I received a personal phone call from a dairy industry representative asking me about moving there," said Hamm.
Winegrape yields up
With the winegrape harvest nearing its end the final facts and figures have yet to be determined but it looks like another very successful year will be the end result, according to Stewart Spencer, program director for the Lodi Winegrape Commission. "Quality is very good and yields are up across the board."
The fall has been warm and this has allowed grapes to ripen slowly but "the crop came in all at once” and while a brief rainfall hit he said “the majority of Lodi grapes had already been picked."
"This is the best harvest I’ve seen in the last three years," Spencer said.
Everything’s good as far as SJFB President Bruce Fry is concerned. "We’re not quite done but the yield is above average, quality’s good, overall it’s a good harvest."
He said some cabernet and zinfandel remained to be harvested and could take “another week” but weather wouldn’t be a factor despite a delay of a "couple of days caused by the brief rain event that delivered nearly an inch" and Fry anticipated a good finish to the harvest.
The walnut harvest went smoothly with a brief heat wave just before harvest delaying it a bit, said David Taylor, CEO of Anderson-Barngrover Ranch which grows 400 acres of walnuts and cherries near Linden. "The harvest was efficient and went well."
"This wasn’t a bumper crop but the Tulare’s and Chandlers did quite well," he said. "The crop estimate was correct and there were some early varieties that had yields less than had been estimated."
There was some concern from buyers that "what little rain we had may have affected the quality but that wasn’t the case," Taylor said. "Also, there were some problems with husk fly and mold but nothing serious."
He said the walnut export market "is on fire, interest is very high. But we could end up with carryout if China pulls out and Turkey’s not looking to be as active as it was last year."
Almonds may not hit estimates
Dave Phippen, grower and processor with Travaille and Phippen, Inc. near Manteca said, "The first noteworthy item about this year’s almond crop is that the estimate of 2.1 billion pounds may not be met. At this point, it looks like the crop will be less than 2 billion pounds."
Phippen said, "The further south you go, the more the NASS estimates were off. Two-thirds of the crop comes from the south. Who knows why the estimates were off? The objective and subjective estimates could have been a bit off but they are, after all, estimates."
He said the second noteworthy item is that he saw more worm damage to the crop which "wasn’t as clean as it was last year." Naval Orange Worm and Peach Twig Borer were the primary culprits.
Despite those two crop caveats Phippen said, "This was the most beautiful growing season I can remember. The weather was perfect, the shake was clean, and very little drying was needed."
Cherry harvest good
The 2012 cherry crop faced challenges from rain, hot weather and a diminished labor force available for harvest but a "good crop emerged and everything about it was good: the quality, the size, the yield. It was the first good overall harvest in three years," said Hudson.
The final tally for 2012 was 8.5 million boxes shipped and, for the most part it was a good season "with the most productive areas being Linden, Lodi and Stockton," said Chris Zanobini, executive director of the California Advisory Cherry Board in Sacramento. "The Bings kept coming and the volume and quality were good."
He said retail prices remained fairly high but that "it was a little rough during the last 10 days of our season as the Washington crop came onto the market and prices declined somewhat."
San Joaquin County’s cherry crop accounted for more than 5 million boxes of the state’s 8.5 million boxes.
"Overall, everything about this harvest tracked on the positive side with clean fruit and a good market that we hit before Washington got in," said Tom Gotelli of OG Packing in Stockton.
Bings accounted for more than 5.2 million boxes with other varieties doing well, including Tulare (914,541 boxes), Brooks (683,478), Coral Champagne (568,829), Rainier (278,971), Garnet (219,264), Sequoia (188,171) and Chelan (129,897).
Tomatoes may exceed 2011
Contracted production for processing tomatoes was forecast for 12.9 million tons, an average of 50 tons per acre, more than 8 percent above the 2011 crop.
The contracted planted acreage forecast was 8,000 acres more than the reported contracted acreage in 2011.
The very dry winter months caused water concerns by grower but a reasonably wet spring improved the weather situation somewhat.
Growers applied fungicides to minimize bacterial spec damage and by August harvest was underway.
The final numbers aren’t in yet as to how the crop fared overall.
Other crops add good value
"Other" crops add up to more than $553.4 million of ag value in San Joaquin County, more than the No. 1 commodity, milk ($452.8 million).
"We grow more than 70 crops in this county that are on just out of sight," said Hudson. This is a very diverse and successful county because of its micro-climates, the Delta’s crops, and the climate difference in the North and South regions. That’s a lot going on for such a small county."
Among the "other" crops are carrots, onions, olives, apples, blueberries, pomegranates, asparagus, potatoes, pumpkins, turkeys, wheat, peaches, sweet corn, melons, rice, nursery products and peppers.
Farmers in a 97-square-mile area quarantine in the Lodi area – caused by the European Grapevine Moth – received good news in early March: the 18-month quarantine had been lifted. About 661,000 acres were released.
The USDA then announced that $8 million in additional emergency funding would be available to help control the moth in the counties affected by quarantines.
Hudson said, "We continued to trap this year to be sure the moth was eradicated."
Labor situation bad
"This has been the worst year for labor, ever," said Brad Goehring, winegrape grower, farm labor contractor, and SJFB board member. "Our labor contracting business was 40 percent below our needs this summer and by the time we reached the end of seasons during the year, our costs were up 300 percent."
He said misguided immigration enforcement policies and political gridlock in Congress on comprehensive immigration reform has pushed ag to the brink of crop disaster.
"We need a program for guest workers who will do the jobs American citizens are unwilling to do," said Jeff Colombini of Lodi Farming. "And as a hedge against problems with labor availability, I’ve noticed a great emphasis on mechanical harvesting and making employees more efficient. I think we’ll see some real breakthroughs in the near future and growers looking at crops that don’t need as much labor.
Water fight heats up in 2012
The debate about how to "save" the Delta rolled on with dueling economists facing off over the cost vs. reward of constructing a pair of tunnels to convey water from the Delta to Southern California.
University of the Pacific economist Jeff Michael said that when the construction, operation, and maintenance costs of the tunnels are contrasted with the damage done to agriculture and other areas, the tunnel’s cost is 2.5 times greater than any benefits it could provide.
Gov. Brown subsequently said the tunnel plan was "a big deal for a big state. I want to get shit done!"
After Brown’s remarkable scatological announcement, he said, "I want to get this thing done the best I can. We’re not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel. If we have to fight initiatives or referendums, we’ll fight those, too."
"The tunnels don’t solve anything … but the federal dollars dangling in front of state legislators like the proverbial carrot blinds them to considering anything other than … the tunnels," Fry said.
The water war is certain to continue throughout 2013 as California – with a $9 billion deficit – continues promoting a multi-billion dollar water plan.
Farmers defeat Department of Labor
The AFBF, CFBF, local Farm Bureaus and thousands of family farmers and ranchers across the county, state and nation made their opinions known and the Department of Labor withdrew its proposed tightening of youth labor regulations covering farm work. Nationwide, the ag community responded with more than 18,000 comments to the government, the majority of which opposed the new rules.
"This shows that if we voice our opinions strongly, we can achieve change for the good," said SJFB executive director Bruce Blodgett. "The people have spoken, the process works, and this demonstrates that the federal government does listen…sometimes."
The proposed regulations would have prevented youths from 12 to 18 years old from being near certain animals without adult supervision; doing ag work involving manure pits, storage bins, and pesticide handling; and using communication and other electronic devise while operating power driven equipment.
Youths under 18 years old would have been banned from storing, marketing, and transporting farm-product raw materials in feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges, and livestock auctions which would have significantly impacted FFA and 4-H if not wiped them out altogether.
"It’s important to give young people responsibility on the farm, to help them learn and to groom our next generation of family farmers," said Kenny Watkins, Linden area farmer and CFBF first vice president. "No one cares more about the safety of children on the farm than their parents or grandparents."