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A mechanical harvester began picking wine grapes in a vineyard near Lodi. Photo by Vicky Boyd.

By Craig W. Anderson

The end of the 2017 harvest is almost here and while some acreage remains to be harvested, the conclusion of another growing season means the San Joaquin Farm Bureau News is there to get the latest, up-to-date information on what's happening in the fields, orchards and pastures. The year featured a wet, soggy, rainy winter followed by a summer and fall with record-setting temperatures, all of which brought various challenges to San Joaquin County growers.

2016's gross value of agricultural production was more than $2.3 billion, a good number but one that reflected a 15 percent decline from the previous year. 2017 is still a long way from determining with any realistic accuracy how it will fare in comparison but the stories of individual farmers are both interesting and informative in revealing what happened in the months leading up to the end of 2017's harvest in November. This snapshot of 2017's Top Ten crops in agricultural value is, in many ways, incomplete due to weather causing delays in planting, managing, and ultimately harvesting those billion dollar crops days, weeks and months later than normal. Put it all together and the county had an interesting 2017 as far as crops were concerned.

Winegrapes
No. 1 crop in 2016

Winegrape growers experienced something unique, according to Joe Valente, vineyard manager for Kautz Farms. "Every year's different with its own challenges but this one was unique. Rain, double the usual rainfall, induced flooding which was a new experience for grape growers," Valente said. 

The transition into summer came with a series of heat waves of 100-plus degrees throughout the summer months. "The combination of wet and then extreme heat was somewhat unusual but when harvest started – late – it had to recover from the delays caused by muddy, rain soaked vineyards," Valente said. "Overall, the crop was average and the quality of the grapes seems to be very good."

Labor and costs are united factors and some growers of old vine zinfandel, after wrestling with a labor shortage, obtained sufficient workers to hand-pick the grapes. However, the cost of harvesting by hand is so high growers were seriously considering if the old vine zins are financially viable any longer. "This could mean the end for old vine zins," Valente said. "And this year it was hard to get into any sort of flow during harvest."

Brad Goehring, a winegrape grower near Clements, said, "The late and ongoing rains caused us to be a month late in getting into the fields with the tractors and labor. Then the massive heat wave slowed all field operations and we never caught up." 

He said the yield was average to just below average which should keep supply and demand strong. "The quality should be fine."

While the total tonnage won't be known for some time, Goehring said he was "elated that this season's in" and still puzzling over the frost that arrived over the last few days of harvest.

Valente said, "Everyone I've talked to tells me it's been a challenging year. The flooding and the late start, people are saying ‘the flow hasn't been there this year."

Dairy
No. 2 in 2016

The county's dairies grow their own feed and some buy feed and some do both and, "Most dairies have wrapped up their corn silage harvest," said Henry Van De Pol, Escalon dairyman. "Feed prices are down, so that's a good combination."

He said he was "cautiously optimistic that the business will be better and that prices will be up more than they are."

With no "harvest" for dairy cows, dairy is ongoing and, said Lodi dairyman Jack Hamm, "I've seen a lot worse years and this was close to a normal year for the industry. I'm cautiously optimistic that things won't get much worse."

The bulk of a dairy's costs is that of feed and Hamm said feed prices are "keeping us in the game."

Looking back, he said the "start of winter saw the beginning of the wettest winter in 30 years, followed by the hottest summer I can remember, extended by that last heat wave in early September."

Heat is hard on cows and the county's dairies had to cool the cows and the people using misters, fans and shade. Meeting the challenge of very hot weather lasting for weeks that reduces the butterfat in milk because the cows are drinking a lot of water. And, Hamm said, "The wet and then the heat created breeding situations. It was difficult during the wet weather to get the cows to breed and nearly impossible in the summer and early fall heat."

Hamm said the dairy industry won't know for sure how the breeding went for another nine months.

Van De Pol said, "The hot weather definitely affected breeding cycles and milk production. Dry and cool weather, not hot and wet, is always better."

UC Davis scientists may have come up with ways to keep cows cool, a good thing to do in the San Joaquin Valley where summers are hot. Cooling animals could go a long way in significantly reducing the more than $800 million in milk production lost annually due to cow heat stress. When asked if the California dairy owners will vote in favor of joining the federal milk market order, Van De Pol said, "I don't know if it will get the votes and what will happen remains to be seen."

Almonds
No. 3 crop in 2016

It will be Jan. 1 before all the receipts are in from the shellers, and then, said Dave Phippen, a partner in Travalle & Phippen, near Ripon, the industry and the world will find out how the actual crop fared in comparison to the NASS estimates.

The 2017 almond crop's harvest is, "Almost finished but there are six more weeks of shelling ahead," said Phippen. "Looking at the yield, it appears to be down."

He said a number of occurrences affected the almond crop in 2017, among them pollinators that were not quite as effective as last year, it was a "dirty" crop for the first time in years due to worm pests being up, and a much greater incidence of twins is "troublesome," to Phippen. "All of this makes it difficult for the processors, too. "

"The hope was that the pollinators would come on strong, instead they were down 25 to 35 percent," he said, adding, "The rains during bloom time really hurt the crop."

If the crop is short it will sell stronger and all this concern could well dissipate, turning it into a great crop due to all the newly planted acreage coming in. This could assuage a good portion of the angst caused by it not being a good crop locally.

Travaille and Phippen were visited by Representative Dwight Evans and several House Agriculture Committee staff while they were in the area for the 2018 Farm Bill Listening Session in Modesto. Evans has no farmers in his urban Philadelphia district and he said, "Consumers need to have a better understanding of where food comes from and ag needs to do a better job of telling its story."

Before his visit all Evans knew about almonds was that he enjoyed eating them; hopefully, his tour of Travaille and Phippen added to his enjoyment of almonds.

Walnuts
No. 4 crop in 2016

The USDA estimated the 2017 walnut crop would be smaller at about 650,000 tons, about 5 percent less than the record 685,000 tons in 2016. Despite the decrease, the 2017 crop could be the second largest on record.

That estimate may be wildly off base, according to SJFB President Jim Ferrari, a Linden grower. "We fought the spring rains and the early varieties were about 50 percent off in a mixed bag due to the weather. However, Chandlers should be close to what they usually are."

He explained that the heat "had an effect on early stuff but later varieties not so much."

Ferrari said, "In the huller we can see Naval Orange worms especially in the Vinas. It's been a long time, more than a decade since we've had rain and heat like this."

The hulling sector is stronger than ever, according to Ferrari, due to a lot of new acreage coming in.

New nuts may be arriving but overall, "It's been a frustrating year for growers and processors alike," said David Taylor, CEO and manager of Anderson Barngrover Ranch Co. near Linden. "The early varieties were later than I've ever seen them. Chandlers are still being harvested in some areas."

Earlier varieties like Payne, Serr and Vinas didn't do well but the Chandler quality is "good across the board with our area having very good quality, based on our crop and what I've heard."

Husk fly was late to the party and Naval Orange Worm showed up; walnut farmers expected to be doing early varieties by mid-September when the pesticides wore off but then the pests arrived and it was too soon before harvest to apply more materials.

Double shaking was fairly common with many growers; a lot of the crop remained in the tree while some dropped, others would not come off, Tayler said. "As far as yield's concerned, it's still too early to tell because of the late harvest. I can say the Chandlers are a little lighter crop but probably the best industry-wide."

"All that we've learned this year," Ferrari said, "we'll have to re-learn next year."

Cattle and calves
No. 5 in 2016

The wetness theme was the key in the first part of the year for Kenny Watkins, Linden diversified grower and cattleman. "The wetness made it hard for grass to grow well in the winter. The pasture quality wasn't as good and invasive pests arrived."

He said prices for beef were "mediocre" due to the competition for protein commodities and all commodities suffered through the winter and summer. Stress is a problem for cattle and deep cold and high heat can stress them out. "At least we avoided one particular stress, that of moving our cattle to different pastures somewhere else," Watkins said. "We kept them all in the same general area and just moved them to different parts of our land."

He said, "Overall in this county it's been a challenge as every year more pasture is lost to trees, vines and other crops that have a better return because their inputs are lower. It's competition from other commodities and growers who want land to plant them on. Our cattle footprint is fading."

In keeping with the general theme of growers, cattleman Watkins said, "I am cautiously optimistic."

Tomatoes
No. 6 crop in 2016

Tomato growers are of the general opinion that the 2017 tomato growing season was a mixed bag from the beginning because of the wet spring and because growers lost their planting schedule because of the weather and this had Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, predicting the 2017 crop would check in around 10.5 million tons, lower than the National Agricultural Statistics Service's June estimate of 11.5 million tons.

"I think tomatoes are finally done with harvest," said Paul Sanguinetti, Stockton area diversified grower. "The tomatoes overall are very small and the tonnage isn't very good."

He said the rain wasn't a problem but the hot weather "really hurt our tomatoes here, but not so much down south where they were further along than ours."

"The 2017 tomato season's been a very rough one," said Gene Miyao, a U.C. Cooperative Extension vegetable crop advisor. "And a lot of it has to do with our extended high temperatures in the late spring and into the summer."

With the tonnage down, Sanguinetti pointed out that "quality was OK but it doesn't make up for the lost tonnage. Growers get paid for tons. We probably won't make the estimates as the crop is down 20 to 30 percent. Everyone suffered the same."

Sanguinetti added that "Silage and field corn were off as well because of the weather. And prices, whatever they may be, won't make up for low tonnage."

Farmers say the economics of growing tomatoes are being ground down by circumstance. The CTGA negotiated a base price of $70.50 per ton for the 2017 crop, down from $72.50 in 2016 and $80 two years ago. Some growers report that the 2017 tomato crop will be their last with conversion to almonds. Tomatoes require a good crop rotation to maintain good yields and sometimes the economics of rotating crops doesn't pencil out for keeping tomatoes.

Cherries
No. 7 crop in 2016

It was a good year for cherries, according to James Botsford, a field rep for M&R Packing in Lodi and a cherry grower. "We packed cherries in Stockton, Linden, Lodi and down south with the Coral variety establishing a new norm for early varieties."

He said the rain and heat weren't a problem for this year's cherry crop.

Coral has become such a popular variety that nurseries are sold out of it for the next two years.

"The biggest plantings are in the northwest," he said, "The biggest element concerning cherry growers is the availability of workers to pick the crop. Growers and packers are having to pay more every year for labor."

Technology may be coming to the rescue of the cherry industry. With the help of electronic sizers and optic sorters processors and packers are able to do more with fewer employees. "This equipment's really changed the way we sort cherries," he said. "It's really increased the quality of the pack in the box."

Of course, with technology doing its thing the industry doesn't need as many human sorters. In these times, the packing is done by machine and those machines had best be operating at peak efficiency so that regulations are met.

Botsford said it's becoming more difficult for small farmers to remain competitive in today's cherry growing climate. "Food safety regulations can kill you, and we're seeing more mom and pop growers getting out. It's too much to do on a small scale unless you're growing something else in a diversified operation."

Overall it was a good year, he said, with the caveat that the yield "didn't reach the projection but did exceed what we've done over the last couple of years."

Hay
No. 8 crop in 2016

Phil Martin, owner of Phil Martin Farms near Tracy, said he was wrapping up and seeing about getting a few more fields in after what he said was a "rough start with the rain" this year.

Martin, a diversified grower, said the rough start was exacerbated by seepage that killed recently planted seedling hay. 

But with the final cuttings beginning their curing, he said, "Prices are much better this year and I've been pleased with the yield so far." He wasn't sure if he could get a last clipping off or not. "If the good weather holds we should be all right. The alfalfa hay's taking 10 days or better to cure and reports say good weather's on the way."

Potatoes
No. 9 crop in 2016

The potato market was strong with good quality and fair yields, according to Jeff Klein, managing partner of the Jack Klein Trust Partnership headquartered in Stockton. "It was a good market for the Stockton region, as Bakersfield was done and we had the season to ourselves for six weeks, then Washington started and the market adjusted but it remained good."

He said planting was two weeks late due to the wet winter weather but that turned out not to be a problem.

The partnership's 900 acres of potatoes are harvested generally from mid-July until mid-September.

Due to an oversupply lasting years, the 2017 market was a refreshing positive for the county's potato growers. "The oversupply in the past was caused by too many regions overlapping into each other's season and this affected prices," Klein said.

He said the spring and summer's heat waves affected the potatoes' size and San Joaquin County's potatoes "definitely took a hit due to the heat."

Overall, however, when the final figures are available, the county's 2017 potato crop may equal that of 2016's Top Ten entry.

Melons
No. 10 crop in 2016

Both of the major melon producers – Van Groningen and Sons and George Perry and Sons – just finished pulling watermelons out of their fields and are in the final stage of picking and hauling pumpkins off to their various customers.

"Just finished watermelons," said Bryan Van Groningen. "The warm weather and a good long season ending with good September and October weather puts our product into a market that has good prices."

He said the volume wasn't "super heavy" in October.

Pumpkins are now the main focus of the company and the gourd's volume is down due to "hot, HOT weather. For pumpkins, a mild to warm summer's the best."

Art Perry of George Perry and Sons said, "This was a tough year to produce crops due to weather conditions, including heat waves and rain in the spring. But some way, somehow we got it done."

With the end of pumpkins just over the Halloween hill, Perry said, "We feel confident we'll supply our loyal customers, which mainly are retailers and wholesalers throughout California and especially for our local trade. We definitely will support the stores."

Perry said the company is thankful for the stores and thanks them for the job they do marketing the product. "And we're also very thankful for the people who work for us in San Joaquin County."

"One of the things we're real thankful for is the chain stores that do a really good job on pumpkins. They make nice displays. They get out there and sell the products for us."

"Our goal, of course, is to produce a happy crop that will make children happy," Perry said. "And then it makes us happy because Halloween is a good time to begin enjoying the holiday festivities."  

Van Groningen said pumpkin yield was down 15 percent from a normal year because of the heat. "After harvest there were no extra pumpkins to be found and we were scrambling to fulfill our commitments. It's been fifteen years since we've had issues with yield. It's been one of those years."

Other crops

Crops that didn't make the Top Ten nevertheless contributed hugely to agriculture's success in 2017. Here is a look at a select group of them. Onions had a good year and Greg Busalacchi, a Farmington area grower, said, "Heat was a challenge later in harvest [which occurs from June through September] but the early varieties were okay. In July and August the heat really hurt the size of the onions."

"Prices were so-so," he said for his 350 acres of onions, "but we won't know what our returns are until November or December."

Peaches were harvested but, said Escalon area grower Frank Bevaro, "We were extremely short of labor and we had a tough time in August because of that."

The peach harvest was four to five days behind all through harvest but despite this Bevaro said, "Overall production was good but the extra early varieties had poor quality but beyond extra early was good. The heat affected the fruit and the people working the orchards."

Harvest came in strong and "canneries had a tough time with so much fruit coming in," he said. "There was so much fruit it had to be put in cold storage. Softer fruit was sorted in the field."

Bevaro said the county's peach sector was "very fortunate to have this good yield as our mechanized harvesting kept things going until the people showed up to complete harvest."

San Joaquin County is the state's Number One apple growing region ahead of Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties and apples were harvested during 2017's three-to-four week window after imports and before the Washington crop arrives at packing sheds.

"We fill a void in the marketplace," said Jeff Colombini, a diversified grower. "Our apples provided the nation's first fresh-picked apples of the season." Rather than consumers having to nosh 11-month old apples from Washington that were in cold storage, "our deal is to get our apples picked, packed and sold before Washington starts."

For other crops, Apricot growers completed harvest at the end of July with the crop falling short of industry estimates; organic peaches wrapped up harvest near the end of July with good fruit quality; pear loads from the Linden district were delivered to processors around mid-July with small fruit size; silage corn was looking good; the sweet corn crop, picked at night which makes it easier to chill and pack, and the silage corn will have the harvest numbers later in the year.

The California Farm Bureau Federation contributed to this story.