The 2011 crop should fare well even though bad weather challenged farmers in San Joaquin County. Photo by Goff Photography.
BY CRAIG W. ANDERSON
This was and is a year of bad weather, good crops, new regulations and pests but as is usually the case, San Joaquin County farmers met and overcame the many challenges they faced.
Ag land threatened with NWR proposal
A threat to prime ag land in the Manteca area came from a proposed expansion of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, about which Molly Watkins, president of the San Joaquin County Resource Conservation District, said, “most of the farmland in the … area is listed by the state of California as ‘Prime Farmland,’” and the majority of the remaining land is “listed as either ‘Farmland of Statewide Importance’ or ‘Unique Farmland.”
In a letter to the agency recommending the expansion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Watkins wrote, “The removal of this land from agricultural production, combined with its removal from property tax roles, has the potential for a dramatic impact locally.”
And SJFB President Bruce Fry said, “The loss of ag production in the region would have a negative ripple effect on a number of businesses such as processing, trucking, suppliers, banking and many other industries.”
The expansion of the wildlife refuge is still being studied by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
CDFA budget cuts
With budget cuts happening in Sacramento and Washington, programs funding pest control for agriculture face severe reductions or elimination, either of which would have a severe impact on the county’s $1.9 billion agriculture industry.
Karen Ross, the state’s secretary of food and agriculture, said the budget cuts have resulted in “targeting priorities” and that could harm the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s ability to control and eradicate invasive pests such as the Light Brown Apple Moth, the European Grapevine Moth and the Oriental Fruit Fly, among others.
With the agricultural portion of the upcoming Farm Bill expected to be cut – 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes to feeding and nutrition programs such as food stamps, school lunches and nutrition for women, children and infants and any politician would be hard-pressed to cut them – agricultural operations benefiting from the bill can expect little or no help in the future.
Oriental Fruit Fly fight
The Oriental Fruit Fly was discovered in mid-September west of Stockton which necessitated a quarantine of about 118 square miles around the area where the flies were trapped. The fly attacks about 230 different commodities.
Within the quarantine area are more than 4,000 acres of walnuts, 1,300 acres of vineyards, 700 acres of tomatoes and 600 acres of peppers farmed by about 250 growers, said Scott Hudson, San Joaquin County agricultural commissioner.
The quarantine is expected to last until at least next July but, said Hudson, “Most growers will be able to harvest and process their crops. However, from what we know, there is a very good possibility that some growers will suffer significant losses as a result of the quarantine restrictions. I hope I’m wrong about this.”
A treatment that has successfully eradicated dozens of fruit fly infestations in California since the 1970s has been implemented: an IPM male attractant that kills the male of the species.
Hudson said no other Oriental Fruit Flies have been trapped in the area.
Water remains contentious
SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett said, “The issues involving water are many, including the EPA’s land and water issues; the state water board is all over the place with regulations; the Endangered Species Act is impacting east side water landowners and the state wants to control both surface and groundwater.”
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) supports a conveyance system of two underground tunnels that would siphon off 15,000 cubic feet of water per second and send it south but, said attorney-farmer-consultant Tom Zuckerman, “Many people in the Department of Water Resources and the BDCP are frustrated because we [those opposed to the tunnels] won’t roll over.”
Groundwater appears to be the next target for state control and, according to State Sen. Lois Wolk, “The urban and environmental legislators are always looking at groundwater and ways to get control of it.”
The recent release of the Economic Sustainability Plan from the Delta Protection Commission brought the water wars to the forefront as the plan condemned the conveyance system promoted by the BDCP as having a significant negative effect on the Delta’s environment and economy.
Growers have to deal with the state Water Resources Control Board, the Department of Pesticide Regulation, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the federal Occupational Safety and Health and the state Employment Development Department, the California Air Resources Board and the Department of Water Resources, to name a few, just to stay in compliance with hundreds of regulations affecting agriculture.
Politicians keep promising to cut these mandates so farmers will be able to go about their business reasonably unencumbered by regulations but promises aren’t kept and the regs keep coming.
Despite everything aligned against them, San Joaquin County growers generated more than $1.9 billion in gross ag value in 2010 and its possible 2011 could be as good.
Dairy led the way in 2010 with $341.3 million and 2011 has been a somewhat typical up and down year for prices and the industry “is still struggling with higher feed and operating costs,” said Hudson, who isn’t optimistic about the industry experiencing a recovery from its doldrums this year.
“The dairy industry continues to be challenged by high feed prices which diminish profits,” said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen. “However, milk prices are much better in 2011 with a $17.69 overbase price, compared to $13.92 last year.”
Export demand for dairy products was, he said, “very, very good. For example, 14.4 percent of the state’s total dairy production was exported in September.”
China is back in the market, the E.U. has higher butter prices while U.S. butter is lower which means more sales for the U.S.; and Marsh sees “…a little softening of dairy product prices for the balance of 2011 and into early 2012 but with prices becoming much better next spring.”
The U.S. Congress is wrestling with dairy policy and how dairy will fare in the upcoming Farm Bill is uncertain and the EQIP program, which dairies use a great deal, has been threatened with hefty cuts that could have a severe negative impact on dairies, according to Marsh.
As an example of what the dairy industry must contend with, the Environmental Protection Agency insisted on imposing the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures (SPCC) rules on dairies, requiring them to prepare plans for handling spilled milk as if it was spilled oil. The EPA ultimately exempted all milk and dairy products.
Exemption or not, “The EPA obviously doesn’t understand the dairy industry, an industry the EPA is regulating!” said SJFB First Vice President Jack Hamm. “This is why regulations continue to be a problem for dairies and ag in general.”
Grapes, worth $248.9 million in 2010, experienced a 2011 harvest very much like last year, one that had a cool, very late spring with October rain that impacted many crops and made for a late harvest.
“This was a great year for winegrapes,” said Mark Chandler, executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. “Prices are good, quality is good despite late rain, and feedback over the new marketing campaign and logo is very positive and radiating nicely.”
With the new “LoCa” label and a marketing campaign focused on reaching consumers via Twitter, Facebook, print ads and TV coverage, Chandler said the new approach is “half digital with consumer oriented ads in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.”
Five priorities form the core of the marketing campaign: increase outlets and value for Lodi wine and winegrapes; brand Lodi wines; make Lodi a stronger wine tourist destination; build communication/cohesiveness within the winegrape community; and continue education/research to advance the vision.
This is all good for San Joaquin County, the state’s leading winegrape producer with more than 95,000 acres of winegrapes and 60 varieties.
Hudson reported the crop “was very light due to similar weather as in 2010, but prices are good and the quality is very good despite the late rain.”
Walnuts were valued at $207.2 million last year and while yield may ultimately prove to be down for the 2011 crop, prices remained strong throughout harvest which was late again due to late rains.
“Exports should continue to be really strong,” noted Hudson. “And the domestic market looks to be good again.”
The rain brought with it some blight and sunny days following the rain caused grass and weeds to grow between the rows of trees where early drop walnuts fell thus making windrowing and harvesting more difficult.
Dryer hours are also greater due to the wet product, applications created higher overhead costs as did higher fuel costs. Also adding to the crop costs were additional regulations.
However, due to wet orchard surfaces, very little dust was created by harvest and this lasted through at least the first stage of harvest.
Overall, 2011 should prove to be another strong year for walnuts in quality and price if not yield.
Cherries were worth $184.5 million in 2010 but 2011 was not a good year for the fruit because of late spring rains and rain during harvest.
In the beginning, industry experts predicted a record statewide cherry crop in the 10 million pound range with San Joaquin County growers contributing about 6.5 million pounds to the total.
Unfortunately, bad weather in June at the end of cherry harvest and the rain, wind and hail wiped out much of the crop.
“Statewide, losses were 30 percent and locally the total loss was at least 50 percent,” said Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Advisory Board. “Many growers began harvest, the rains hit, they tried to start again and finally just pulled the plug on it.”
“There were substantial losses because the rain struck at exactly the wrong time,” Hudson said, adding that the agricultural commissioner’s office had filed a disaster declaration for the county’s cherry crop.
Culbertson said the statewide crop was “around 6 million packages. This was a very somber time for the industry.”
A bit of good news did arrive however: Western Australia has finally agreed to allow cherries to be imported into its market after 10 years of negotiations.
Hudson said there was a 68 percent reduction in yield in 2011 caused by the adverse weather.
Almonds hit a value of $156.8 million in 2010 and while the final results from the 2011 harvest have yet to be tabulated, Hudson said the county’s almonds orchards had above average production, prices are strong, acreage planted to almonds increased and “exports look to be very healthy and the domestic market appears to be very good, too.”
The 2011 crop has “a high level of moisture due to the rain and processors are up against it because virtually the entire crop has to be dried because it’s wet,” said almond grower and handler Dave Phippen, an SJFB board member.
Despite the slowdown caused by drying, Phippen said the crop will still be big, around 1.95 billion pounds. Whether or not it will be a record crop, he doesn’t know but “it will definitely be bigger than 2010’s 1.63 billion pounds,” Phippen said, adding, “Prices are good, as are yield and quality. In fact, rain or not, we don’t have any quality issues.”
The drying of a nearly 2-billion-pound crop takes time and costs about 6 cents per pound to dry. “This year due to moisture, everything has to be dried,” noted Phippen. “Usually, only a small portion has to be dried. In fact, the industry isn’t really set up to dry more than a billion and a half pounds of almonds. But it’s getting done.”
And once those almonds hit the export market they well be headed to the leading importers of San Joaquin County almonds: Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Great Britain, Hudson said.
Tomatoes, worth $115.7 million in 2010, was another crop challenged by rain and, in fact, “harvest was going well until rain hit at the end,” Hudson said. Rain or not, prices remained “solid.”
San Joaquin County was more affected by the rain because harvest comes later in the county than the rest of the state and tomatoes were out in the fields in the rain and were victims of mold.
“The cool, wet spring that delayed the beginning of harvest continued to put the industry behind,” noted Hudson. “The harvest was set back at least three days.”
The Tracy area received .73 inches of rain since Oct. 3.
As of Oct. 15 the tomato harvest was 95.6 percent complete ahead of only 2006 (95.3 percent) over the past decade. On the other hand, the total tonnage harvested by Oct. 15 of 11,664,239 compares favorably with the best tonnages of the decade.
The agreed-to price with processors this year was a base price of $68 per ton with late season premiums from September though the end of harvest in October ranging from $5 to $15.
The estimated tonnage from San Joaquin County was 23,000 tons, down 4.2 percent from 2010 with the USDA/NASS estimating the 2011 statewide crop at 12.2 million tons grown on 258 million acres across the state.
In areas more impacted by the rain, growers harvest during the day only because of the increased moisture at night and this impacted the total loads picked during the week.
“Processing tomatoes is a highly scheduled industry and tomato contracts depend on supply and demand,” said Hudson.
Fresno County is California’s top tomato producer, followed by Yolo, Kings and San Joaquin counties.
Cattle & calves
Cattle and calves accounted for $60.2 million in the county in 2010 and 2011 was a good year despite a decline in production.
“First, the rain gave us good grass on our pastureland,” said Kenny Watkins, cattleman, farmer and CFBF first vice president. “The market was really strong and 2011 was one of the industry’s better years.”
However, he said cattle numbers are historically low nationwide, due in part to a long-lasting drought in Texas.
But the future looks good “despite more land being planted to field crops rather than remaining in pasture for cattle,” Watkins said. “Wheat is being grown rather than cattle now on sizeable acreage.”
He said high hay feed prices of $280 to $300 per ton is challenging despite cattle being fed on pasture. “Every cattle operation has to feed animals in December and January with feed until the grass grows on their pastureland. So, high feed prices affect all of us to some degree.”
Hay and corn silage, valued at $107.1 million in 2010, experienced “really good prices” throughout 2011, with, said Hudson, “Good production despite a slow start during the cool spring.”
He added, “The hay and silage industries got well during the good summer weather.”
Apples had a 2010 value of $52.1 million in 2010 but, said Hudson, “Production was off in 2011 so this year’s value, while still to be determined, probably won’t reach last year’s.”
Statewide, the apple industry generates more than $519 million annually and California is the fifth largest producer in the country, the second leading exporter of apples and the state shipped to more than 60 countries including Canada, Mexico, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.
While apples in the county are grown on only 3,100 acres the prices in the past have been good, as has the yield but overall, apples, while among the top 10 most valuable crops in the county, are not at the level the fruit once held due to production in other states, Washington in particular.
The Mexico market looked to be the same as 2010, Canada remained No. 1 in exports, and funding from the U.S. Apple Export Council was increased by $24,000 to increase the awareness and effectiveness of California’s promotion campaign.
The industry is also working with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to change the three-strike penalty instituted by Taiwan. Science now suggests that coddling moth would not be able to establish itself in Taiwan so the strictures on U.S., and California apples, entering the country could be safely changed to make it easier to export to Taiwan.
All other crops accounted for more than $484.9 million in gross ag value and, obviously, they “are doing very well,” said Hudson. “More than 70 ‘other crops’ are grown in the county which results in substantial ag value.”
He pointed out that if there are three or fewer growers involved with a particular “other crop” they’re not counted in the report. However, they are part of the total.
San Joaquin County’s “other crops” include beans, rice, olives, peppers, potatoes, melons, nursery, apiary (honey and pollination), cucumbers, asparagus, onions and pumpkins.
“Agriculture is strong in San Joaquin County and is a major bright spot in the state and local economies,” Hudson said. “We also export to 89 countries from Algeria to Vietnam.”
The top commodity exports include: Almonds – Spain, China/Hong Kong, Germany, India; winegrapes for home wine making – Canada; Apples – Mexico, Taiwan; Asparagus – Japan, Canada, Australia; Beans – Australia, Taiwan; Cherries – Japan, Korea, Taiwan; Onions – Taiwan; Walnuts – Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Hong Kong; Pumpkins – Mexico; Watermelon – Japan.