By Craig W. Anderson
Some crops are still being harvested in San Joaquin County, others are in the shed, but what to expect from the 2020 harvest will be mostly guesswork until the numbers come in weeks or months from now. Farm Bureau members can now enjoy a respite from the 24/7 harvest rush knowing work remains to be done during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
With harvest winding down, Farm Bureau News continues a 21-year tradition of giving members a look behind and ahead at one of the most unique and troubling years in memory.
“2020 has been a year like no other,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “The agricultural community had to deal with wildfires, smoke, market disruptions, labor issues, the potential for workers to become ill with the virus, and the uncertainty of the COVID situation overall.”
He said, “It’s a credit to our members that producers, processors and the labor force kept food on people’s tables while doing their usual work and at the same time learning how to keep going during the pandemic.”
Blodgett pointed out that major impacts on school lunches, institutional uses and the absence of restaurants contributed to the county’s dairies having to adjust on the run to the loss of milk sales to those sectors. “Farmers across the board had to bring their creative abilities to agriculture even more than usual to get products to markets,” Blodgett said.
During the year, crops that had been introduced to regions where they hadn’t been farmed previously began to reveal their success. For example, test plantings of almonds and pistachios in the Delta were very successful, said Blodgett. “Future plantings of these and other crops will ensure the food chain remains. During the pandemic food movement into the various markets was maintained by our member’s innovation and dedication.”
Food production is essential and all sectors of agriculture and associated industries realized the vital role of their workers and made sure they remained healthy, COVID free and able to work.
“Despite the major impact of people being told to stay home and the brutal effect that had on the economy, the resilience of our members kept food on grocery shelves and available throughout the country,” Blodgett said.
Despite pandemic panic, farmers settled down to doing more of what they do best: face a challenge head-on and create ways to overcome the problems it brought.
“Farmers are definitely problem solvers and we want to get this thing fixed and move forward,” said SJFB Second Vice President Jake Samuel. “COVID has forced us to look at new ways of farming with increased focus on workers, health and different, effective ways to communicate. We’ve had to develop more tools for all aspects of farming.”
Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican described some of the many programs the county has established over the past year.
The Housing for Harvest program was initiated by Pelican who was involved with it from the beginning, working with the CDFA. It is designed to provide housing in the county for those farm workers who test positive for COVID including care for children, food and supplies provided by local charitable groups.
San Joaquin County, with Pelican leading the effort and Monterey County, started the ball rolling for this free program to help farm workers recover from COVID. The program is now in effect in 10 counties throughout California.
“Working with the Department of Public Health, we acquired cloth masks for farm worker families; we’re also testing for COVID at migrant housing and flea markets,” Pelican said. “The program uses a lot of wrap-around services. It’s hard to keep track of people who need the program but we keep working to provide what service we can.”
Pelican is concerned about COVID extending into next year and creating problems for workers in early harvests like cherries.
“Innovation due to the pandemic will continue as we find things that work,” Pelican said.
A look at the county’s Top Ten crops of 2019 provides a window into the immediate past and a hint of what 2021 may hold.
Almonds’ 2019 ag value of $449.6 million was down from the $536.4 of 2018. but it’s a different story in 2020: almond harvest had, for various reasons, extended into late October and a new record for crop size was inevitable.
Dave Phippen, partner in Travaille & Phippen, almond growers, packers and shippers near Ripon, said, “We’re still harvesting a huge crop that came in all at once. The hulls had high moisture and that slowed things down because the almonds were difficult to get out of the trucks. Hullers were overwhelmed. But it’s wonderful that we have lots of almonds.”
“Lots” is an understatement: the lengthy harvest seems to be a harbinger of a monumental harvest and Phippen expects it will ultimately meet the estimated record of 3 billion pounds.
“Every day of yield is doubled by the next day’s yield,” he said. “The Independence variety came in at the same time as the Nonpareil. There was a 400 million pound carry-over from 2019 that’s gone now.”
The August and September shipments broke records and Phippen expected October’s numbers to continue that trend.
The quality is good, insect and disease pressure were normal and the smaller nut size is “typical for a crop this large.” Phippen said, “Prices are low but with this volume, that’s to be expected.” However, prices were also expected to improve.
The COVID pandemic presented a challenge to every aspect of the almond industry, Phippen said. The labor force escaped major negative impact but, he said, “some people were quarantined because of the virus and labor was tight.”
Whether or not the crop is considered good depends on where it’s measured Phippen said. “In 2019 the crop was way down inside a 30-mile circle around Manteca because of bacterial blast here and in Stanislaus County, so we weren’t happy, but statewide it was a great crop. You can’t look only at local harvest results. You must look from Chico to Bakersfield to get a real estimate of the size.”
“The 2020 dairy industry took a COVID hit with prices falling to their lowest since 2009,” said veteran Lodi dairy farmer Jack Hamm. “Then it came roaring back because cheese had a phenomenal year. On the other hand, fluid milk had a not-so-stellar year.”
He said a hotter-than-normal fall “subdued production causing a little less milk than usual. It’s been a roller coaster year for dairies.”
As Lodi dairyman Hank Van Exel commented, it looks like it was going to be a great 2020 early in the year. “It started out to be one of the best years ever with a 100 cwt of milk at $20 and then, practically overnight COVID hit and milk prices dropped to $11 or $9.”
“Dairies have been seriously challenged for quite some time and some have gone out of business,” said San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Pelican. “The arrival of the COVID pandemic hasn’t helped the county’s dairy industry.”
Van Exel commented, “As an industry and individually we’ve learned a lot and we’re on the road to recovery.”
“2020 could turn out to be a decent to exceptional year for dairy,” Hamm said. Even if that happens, dairy farmers will have to contend with finding ways to lower emissions from their waste – a source of methane and other greenhouse gasses – and devising feed supplements or diet changes, according to some experts.
The dairy industry’s priorities began shifting in 2019 toward the care and availability of a workforce and tightening logistics around getting food to kitchen tables.
Anti-agriculture elements in our society have a loud voice but, said Hamm, “The dairy industry’s working on the greenhouse gas issue and we’re leading the nation in reducing them in our industry. Let’s see what the pandemic looks like in four weeks.”
Grapes may have been the crop most affected by the wildfire smoke taint, but in a unique way. Overall, the harvest was a lengthy affair and, said Kevin Phillips of Jahant Vineyards LLC, “We’re busy. Harvest is still going. While it’s difficult to predict the outcome at this time, so far the quality’s fine with some smoke taint possible.”
The consensus was that the harvest wasn’t particularly large and there wasn’t much pest pressure during 2020. The usual challenges were present including regulatory hurdles, but the pandemic contributed its own angst to the winegrape harvest.
“It’s been an interesting year,” said Brad Goehring, Clements winegrape grower. “The crop was ripening at a fast pace before the wildfire smoke delayed it. The smoke screened out sunlight, reducing what would normally hit the grapes. This delayed the later varieties about 22 days. I’ve never seen this before.”
“This harvest is unique, divided into pre- and post-smoke sections,” he said. “But there’s little we can do about these situations. Mother Nature dictates our courses of action.”
Goehring said the longer harvest resulted in additional irrigation and labor costs but not significantly to become a major problem. What effect the smoke itself would have on the grape quality was not known but “the smoke definitely affected the harvest.”
“The smoke events caused bad air here for workers but it had a minimal impact in the vineyards,” said Stuart Spencer, Lodi Winegrape Commission executive director. “That said, this has been an early harvest and a light one.”
Labor issues were minimal, according to Goehring, because mechanization has led to less labor, thus lower impact and whatever COVID issues arose, they were handled.
He said some wineries turned down grape shipments they considered to be smoke tainted by their standards. However, the grapes were eventually sold and used.
“Overall, the quality of the wines from our [Lodi] area is very good,” Spencer said.
Fortunately, smoke taint has been minimal in the Lodi area whereas many Napa Valley wineries have decided to make far less wine than usual or not make wine at all due to smoke taint, which can imbue wines with unpleasantly smoky flavors and aromas. It’s too early to tell how significant this cutback will be.
“Lodi wines won’t replace the $150 bottles but in the $20 mid-range, I think we’ll see some replacement,” said Spencer. “It’s definitely a challenging time for the industry.”
Napa-Sonoma could blend more Lodi product into their wines than usual, Goehring said. “There’s definitely an opportunity to blend Lodi product with higher end product but to what extent we don’t know at this time.”
Drought conditions seem to be present, Phillips said, “But we’ll see what develops. Insect and pathogen pressures were low in 2020 but the smoke issue could sneak up on us. Its full impact is still unknown.”
Tasting rooms and other winery on-site activities have changed because of COVID. Tasting rooms have transformed into outdoor, patio type venues with social distance-spaced tables, masked workers and waiters during activities with visitors and wine aficionados alike accepting the “new” way of doing business.
“The old vine Zinfandel is on the way out,” said SJFB First Vice President Ken Vogel. “The wine grape and wine industry is in a time of change.”
“Tasting room business is picking up,” Spencer said. “There are macro changes, a tremendous shift in how wines are being sold: from restaurants, now to grocery store shelves. Brand stores are using Lodi wines. $20 wines are moving from restaurants to retail outlets.”
Pandemic recovery will take “quite some time before people feel comfortable returning to tasting rooms,” Spencer said. “We’ll increase our meetings with customers where they are rather than having them come to us.”
Virtual tastings are growing in popularity; people order wines, make appointments with wineries to meet virtually with winemakers and they have a tasting. Some producers provide additional variety by sending mini-sample sets to customers.
Spencer said more creative ways are being developed to promote product as the wine business adopts more of a service approach at a slower pace.
“Wineries are cool,” he said. “They’re continually adapting to situations and Lodi is positioned well to return to some semblance of normalcy.”
The 2020 walnut crop was nearing the end of harvest when the SJFB News contacted Vogel.
“There are changes in walnuts and other crops that are being pulled out and replaced with almonds in much denser plantings,” he said, reflecting on the pandemic growing and harvest year just passed. “I see later varieties of walnuts going in and I also see very few mom and pop drying operations now.”
Jake Samuel said, “Smoke and other elements slowed walnuts this year. Heat is slowing Chandlers now and it’s nearly the end of October.”
Samuel also said “COVID, smoke and dust is the combination our workers had to deal with. Overall, producers had to deal with labor, the supply chain held up regarding parts for equipment, some crops are lighter, some heavier … I thought I’d seen it all, but nope, everything was different in 2020.”
As for what the future may hold for walnuts, Samuel said, “I haven’t thought much beyond walnut season, but 2021 will contain a lot of changes, a lot rests on the shoulders of agriculture.”
The 2020 walnut harvest was, said Vogel, “About the driest, hottest I’ve seen; there wasn’t much dew in this harvest.” Regarding labor, he said the numbers of workers have dwindled due to mechanization so there is “effectively no labor in walnuts now, but we’re glad to help our workers however we can.”
Prices for the 2020 walnut crop are down from last year, he said, and costs have increased “which puts producers at that turning point of costs vs prices, a place we’re used to being.”
Jim Ferrari of Ferrari Brothers in Linden, who is a walnut and cherry grower, said, “It’s been a large [walnut] harvest, not as big as the estimates, and prices are low. But the harvest was on time and it went well.”
He said when the realization of the shorter crop arrives, prices will firm up, but probably too late for producers.
“I’m happy to put 2020 away and look forward to 2021,” Ferrari said. “We’ll be able to put to work in 2021 what we’ve learned in 2020. We’ve learned how to market crops in a pandemic and that crops remained viable and producers could – and should – have received better prices.”
Vogel expressed his concerns about water issues, not only for walnuts but for agriculture in general. “The reservoirs are down, there’s very little high snow pack and we need rain in the burned areas, but not too much rain. Water issues are always here.”
He also noted that the pandemic seemed to drive smaller producers to lease out their land. “It’s more difficult for smaller operations to make it due to regulations, up and down prices and increasing costs. It’s an issue we need to remain aware of.”
“It was a big crop with good quality and prices lower than we’d like,” said Paul Sanguinetti, a diversified farmer near Stockton.
The rise of eggs is eye-opening: in 2018, eggs entered the Top Ten with an ag value of $105.8 million and a year later the value was up another $55 million.
Why the increase? In 2018, more than 73,000 dozen eggs were produced and sold for $1.44 per dozen. 2019 recorded more than 63,000 dozen sold but at a price of $2.53, proving the old adage that prices are everything; eggs increased in value despite selling 10,000 fewer units.
In the Livestock and Poultry Products section of the Ag Commissioners annual 2019 Crop Report the value of eggs’ contribution – $160 million – is second only to milk’s $378.8 million.
Cattle & Calves
Cattle and calves have been “steady” over 2020 according to Kenny Watkins, cattleman and diversified Linden farmer. However, “many regulations, the minimum wage, 40-hour work week, restaurants not buying meat, small local packers going out, small cattle operations gone and the pandemic have all contributed to cattle ranchers being unable to make a profit,” he said.
In a county where ranchers of all sizes live and work, small operations that leave the industry affect feed businesses and other industries, and jobs affiliated with getting beef to consumer’s kitchen tables. Combine this with “more taxes, more regulations and low on-hoof prices and you’ve got a difficult environment of multiple things working against us,” explained Watkins.
A major element in cattle ranching is the lack of control producers have over prices that “can’t be raised when we run up against the price wall because packers control the market,” Watkins said. Frustrations mount as numerous ranchers aren’t able to harvest their beef and still keep their business going. “There is lots of beef but we just can’t get them through the system,” Watkins said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, widespread processing plant shutdowns in May led to a 40% reduction in processing capacity and an oversupply of cattle on the market that went unprocessed due to the closures. “There was no incentive for processors to increase the price they were paying for cattle,” Watkins said. “Producers took another hit.” He said the slowdown and price problems occur after the product leaves the producer.
The economic chaos created by the shutdown of businesses across the nation, which forced the closure of restaurants even “temporarily,” removed the primary purchaser of milk and its products from the marketplace. Watkins noted that “processors couldn’t provide the meat needed by food service due to the additional labor required to cut the meat.”
Regulators kept up their regulatory creativity and they haven’t stopped throughout the pandemic and this, Watkins said, was the death knell for many small local packers who packed up and left the industry.
The industry has suffered from ranch slaughtering backups but times have changed, Watkins said. “We used to be able to go to Alpine Meats with beef that needed processing and it would be hanging the same day for us to pick up. Now, that’s all gone.”
The inability of legislators to recognize that certain aspects of wages and hours on the job are unique to agriculture has engendered problems for the industry, as Watkins observed. “The minimum wage is scheduled for increases and there are allowances in the legislation for those increases to be postponed. Our legislators could reschedule any wage hikes for times when economic conditions have improved.”
Tomatoes in 2019 increased in bearing acreage from 20,800 to 24,000, but the yield per acre was down (43.39 tons from 2018’s 48.02 tons) with an overall yield of 1,040,000 in 2019 (compared to 999,000 the previous year), so: why was the overall ag value about $5 million less than the previous harvest ($93.4 million)?
The price. 2019’s value per ton was $85 whereas the value per ton in 2018 was $93.
“Tomatoes were OK but the quality wasn’t quite what we wanted,” said Paul Sanguinetti, walnut, tomato and silage corn farmer. “It was a good crop overall and we got them all harvested.”
Ultimately, it was, he said, “A case of big production and lower prices. That’s how it’s been over the past few harvests. There are tomato growers that would move to another crop, if they had one to go to.”
Insect pressure was normal and irrigation was used to help avoid heat problems.
“The crop was generally light,” Jake Samuel said. “The export markets opened in May and we reached different markets.”
Cherries ranked No. 4 on the 2019 export list with 7,088 tons heading to the overseas marketplace.
Jim Ferrari said the early varieties did well but prices were low. “I was told that without the COVID pandemic the price would have been $20 more per box.”
Ken Vogel agreed about the price for cherries and remarked only partly in jest that the weather experienced in mid to late October is “what we need for cherries.”
Demand for blueberries is solid, with 2019’s yield down slightly from 2018 resulting in a small decline in ag value, but the U.S. Highbush Council (the national blueberry organization) is dedicated to growing domestic demand and expanding worldwide export markets. The health benefits of blueberries are also being touted nationally and in California by the California Blueberry Commission.
A company that exemplifies the ever-changing blueberry industry is Victoria Island Farms. New acreage planted to the fruit is going in while some acreage is being dug up for other crops.
“New acreage is being planted in various areas,” said Jack Zech of Victoria Island Farms. “We’re taking out about half of our acreage that’s used for juice or are bad varieties that don’t fit our blueberry plans. Victoria Island Farms will still farm about 120 acres of blueberries.”
A U-Pick stand on the Victoria Island Farms did business as a test bed to determine the interest in U-Pick blueberries and it was, said Zech, “vibrant this year. We had 1,000 customers picking on the final day.”
Blueberry marketers are expanding their direct-to-consumer programs and, coincidentally, Victoria Island Farms is bringing back asparagus to “sell out of our facility to restaurants,” said Zech.
A means of mechanically harvesting, the sensitive fruit is now in use at Victoria Island Farms but the market is very sensitive about mechanically harvested fruit, Zech said, commenting that one large retailer refused to accept machine picked fruit. “They feared the quality wouldn’t meet the standards their customers expected from their blueberries and they didn’t want to risk harming their brand.”
Victoria Island Farms employs 200 to 240 during various harvests and Zech said no cases of COVID were found among them in 2020.
If circumstances change regarding the blueberry market the company could plant more vines, but in the meantime Victoria Island Farms will continue to grow the best and most successful varieties.
Costco is a fresh blueberry sales venue, government programs use some blueberries and despite reducing the blueberry acreage Victoria Island Farms will still maintain a presence in the industry, Zech said. “We’re keeping the best varieties for the fresh market, replacing the frozen market with them.”
Zech said the company is still packing blueberries but as a cost-saving measure is removing “varieties that producers must sell to processors before knowing what the price is.”
Fresh market fruit has a very short time frame to reach that market and “uncontrollable events can affect us during that short time. But, that’s one of the risks of agriculture,” Zech said.
The firm will be expanding into the dry blueberry snack marketplace while shutting down the freezer and juice lines.
Hay’s 2019 value is down about $1 million from the previous year, but that indicates a degree of stability. Despite a decline in acreage of 2,500 acres, yield remained good, tonnage per acre was better but prices per ton were down slightly. All in all a balanced crop.
About the 2020 hay, Rick Staas of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Grower’s Association had this to say: “The overall quality was down, tonnage was slightly less, very little hay’s available now, we’re about two weeks from being done and high test hay is very scarce.”
“Alfalfa acreage has been stable over the past three years,” Staas said. “But more and more land is being taken out of feed crops and planted to almonds.”
Staas said rain is needed and the lack of it is beginning to cause problems for cattle ranchers.
“I’m having a tough time finding hay haulers,” Staas said. “We’re losing drivers to Amazon’s $85,000 a year, 401k, home-for-dinner-with-the-wife-and-kids, driving jobs. I’ve talked to some drivers who don’t know what a hay hook is.”
Hay needs to find a way to better defend itself from losing out to other crops. According to SJFB President David Strecker, “Hay fields are now going to orchards and vineyards. I now see fields in the county going to orchards.”
As long as there are cattle, dairy cows and horses that require hay and hay-oriented feed mixes using it, hay will be produced in the county. The alternative of shipping it into California from other states could result in prices too high for cattle ranchers and dairies to afford.
A look at the “Other” category of crops reveals an incredible value based on crops such as apples, apricots, peaches, asparagus, carrots, garlic, melons, onions, potatoes, beans, rice, silage, honey, pollination, nursery, firewood and seeds, to name a few. Their worth? $528 million.
Melons and pumpkins are valued by the Crop Report at $38 million and $24 million respectively.
“The watermelon season was very nice,” said Art Perry of the family-owned Perry and Sons, Inc. in the Manteca area, growing melons, squash and pumpkins for more than 90 years into the fourth generation. “Sales have been very good. I think people are eating more at home with this pandemic going on so our sales reflect this.”
Perry said costs going up “is about the only negative thing about business.”
The late plantings of watermelons were affected by the lack of sunlight and, said Perry, “It did affect the setting and we had a 10% to 15% loss. But there was time to reset which altered the size, but the quality was still good. It definitely wasn’t a disaster.”
He said, “We have to accept what comes our way and be thankful for what we’ve got and what we can do with it. We have an army of dedicated hard working people supporting us.”
From the family business near Manteca, Bryan Van Groningen said the family-owned company’s watermelon and pumpkin vines “seem to grow better when the sunlight’s obstructed by smoke. They’re perkier, have more vigor. The lack of sunlight didn’t hurt them, it invigorated them.”
“Sales have been strong on both the wholesale and retail sides,” he said. “Our acreage over-produced our estimate by 10% to 15% and we expect to sell all of our pumpkin stock.”
The firm sells 45 different varieties of pumpkins which are planted at different times “so one heat wave won’t wipe us out,” Van Groningen said.
Van Groningen’s has a pumpkin patch for retail and wholesale with all the varieties on display. “People still want to get out with their kids and get pumpkins,” he said.
About the pandemic, Van Groningen said, “Farming is one big set of problems you have to solve, challenges you constantly have to figure out, so we were ready – unknowingly – for the pandemic.”