Workers at Perry & Sons in Manteca thump each watermelon at least three times during packing to test for ripeness. Photo by Vicky Boyd

By Craig. W. Anderson

The finale of 2018's harvest is in sight and while some acreage remains unharvested, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau News has the latest, up-to-date information about what's happening in the fields, orchards, barns and pastures.

2017 marked a comeback year for the gross value of farm production as it improved 8.13 percent over the previous year to more than $2.5 billion. Overall, ag commodity values displayed a positive upward trend in 2017, a trend that hopefully will continue. The nearly finished harvest may provide clues for what can be expected for 2018.

These stories from SJFB members reveal the 2018 crops and harvests in uniquely personal points of view. This snapshot of 2017's Top Ten crops provides a representative sampling of where San Joaquin County agriculture could end up as 2018 comes to a close.

Winegrapes - No. 1

The 2018 winegrape crop was a little larger than anticipated, according to Brad Goehring, Clements area winegrape grower, and "all of it sold but wineries weren't taking any crop above contract."

"It's been a very long harvest that began in August and is still going on," said Kevin Phillips of Michael-David Vineyards. "Mild weather with heat spikes have drawn things out." He said multiple smoke days from wildfires messed with the ripening cycle, but crop size and quality were good.

"Quality was good, as usual, and the grapes loved the cool weather," Goehring said. "It's been an uneventful harvest with contracted grapes good but the spot market was down significantly."

Goehring said labor wasn't as tight as in years past as "mechanization is alleviating a good deal of our labor. Leaf and sucker removal are now accomplished by mechanical or chemical methods and vines are being planted using the high-wire system which results in more effective pruning."

He said the industry is investing in various mechanical, chemical and other methods all designed to reduce reliance on labor.

Phillips said he's seen a couple thousand acres go out as growers "are converting to anything that takes labor out of the equation. Labor's been victimized by being politicized and used by politicians. The reduced work week and onset of minimum wage has created problems. Ag is far too overregulated."

Milk/Dairy - No. 2 

Jack Hamm, Lodi dairyman, said 2018 has been a tough year. "I've seen this before, about every 10 or 12 years it happens, but it's another year coming up and the Federal Milk Marketing Order [FMMO] begins Nov. 1 so there will be changes in the industry. We'll have a good idea about how it's going to go within two or three months."

"The success of the FMMO depends on how we get paid," said Hank Van Exel, Lodi dairyman. "Hopefully, we'll see improved prices and the beginnings of a leveling of the dairy playing field."

"2018's been very close to 2009 which was a bad year," said Van Exel. "Today, we have low milk and beef prices, more regulations, expanding tax burdens and ever increasing hauling fees."

He added, "We're receiving the same prices per hundredweight as we did in the '70s. Now, it's $14.70 and it's going back down."

Technology used in the industry has both helped and created challenges dairy farmers must meet such as overproduction of milk.

"This technology is what dairy farmers need to keep up with the marketplace," Hamm said.

"And it's expensive technology. Add this to other business costs, such as fuel, labor, energy that continue to rise but milk prices are stagnant and you have a dull market."

That technology extends to robot milking and those collars allows the cow to enter the lot, informs the robot milkers when to milk and lets the farmer know when the cow's ready to breed. Hamm said these systems cost between $100,000 and $200,000. "This robot technology's becoming the norm. Sooner rather than later everyone will have to have a robotic system for their dairy."

A major element of the dairy industry's problems is the state legislature where legislators who apparently want to drive agriculture, and dairies, out of California. "Many dairy owners want to leave California to escape the regulatory, costs, tax and fee burdens," Van Exel said.

Almonds – No. 3

"In the immediate area the yield is up 20 percent," said veteran almond grower Dave Phippen of Ripon, partner in Travaille and Phippen, almond processor. "Insect damage was much less this year because growers learned a great deal about naval orange worm from last year." "This has been a pretty good harvest except for the brief rain early in October," Escalon almond grower Kevin Fondse said. "New acreage contributed to the large harvest. There will be plenty of almonds for our markets."

The large crop produced fewer large kernels but the industry will have another record crop size, Phippen explained, primarily because of new plantings coming on line. "In the south, the crop was off by 20 to 25 percent and it was off in the north as well. However," he said, "Overall the total acreage will produce a new record."

"The industry was slow to book sales due to the tariffs," said Phippen. "But harvest was late and shipments were behind previous years, off 10 percent. With our harvest coming in a couple of weeks late and October shipments being quite active, we'll find out how it went in November."

China has imposed high tariffs. "However, India's tariff impact has yet to be seen because they won't take effect until Nov. 2, so we're shipping like crazy to India," Phippen said. The industry is trying to limit tariff impact to as few customer countries as possible. "The exact impact of tariffs is unknown now," said Fondse, "we don't depend exclusively on China and we're sending product to other countries. Hopefully the tariff situation will be cleared up soon."

Walnuts – No. 4 

"Everyone's in a bad mood because prices are down significantly," said Jim Ferrari, SJFB president and Linden walnut grower. "The price was driven down by overproduction in Chile where there was a huge carry-in. Chile doesn't know how to participate in this type of market and they lowered their prices to get rid of the carry-in."

"I haven't seen prices this low in 26 years," said David Taylor, Anderson Barngrover Ranch Co. manager and CEO, noting that export markets are chaotic. For example, he said Saudi ports "are filled with containers that haven't been picked up yet." The low prices seem to be an industry-wide malaise.

"A perfect storm for walnut oversupply and the subsequent lowering of prices" is occurring Ferrari said. He said there are too many walnuts in the ground because of the difficult labor situation occurring in other crops driving farmers to the less labor-intensive walnuts. Also, banks are loaning money to put in new walnut acreage.

"The industry was caught off guard by Chile's problems along with tariffs," he said. He also said this entire contretemps will "separate the men from the boys" and if the low prices are prolonged, "it will be a problem. A lot depends on next year's crop. A lot of new acreage is coming on as more old varieties are pulled out and replaced."

2017's crop was on the light side and this year's crop was above last year's but not by much," he said. 

Taylor said harvest was a few days late and it was "somewhat frustrating getting the nuts out of the trees. We had to double shake some sections."

Cherries – No.5 

"Overall the harvest was OK but not very good in the Linden-Lodi area," said James Botsford, Linden cherry grower. "However, in the Gustine, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon belt the crop was good. Microclimates were, I think, the culprit. The weather would be bad here and half a mile away it was fine."

"Here, we were in the right place at the wrong time. Rain and frost – especially the frost – really affected the crop," he said, pointing out that in Lodi the 2017 crop produced 1,500 one-half bins whereas 2018 produced only 500.

It appeared an average crop was in the offing but the nice bloom became a bust and resulted in what Botsford said was a "spotty crop."

The future doesn't look good regarding the labor needed to pick cherry crops and the situation will get worse, he said. "I know laborers who worked our orchards have left agriculture and gone into construction with people moving to Idaho, Montana and Nevada for consistent employment in trades that support labor year-round."

Cattle & Calves – No. 6

Kenny Watkins, Linden farmer and cattleman, said of cattle and calves prices: "They [prices] were nothing special. It's been a soft market all year."

About prices, Jim Connolly of Union Livestock said, "Cattle prices were a little higher and hay prices were also a little higher." 

The cost of doing business are going up and, Watkins said, "We have decent grass left heading into fall but rain's needed to maintain this feed source. Corn for feed is cheap." About the beef market, Connolly explained that "Cull cow prices are way down" and dairies have been losing money for so long the ripple effect has depressed markets beyond dairy. Elements affecting cattle and calves and all of ag include the price of diesel, costs of electricity and environmental regulations from bureaucrats. Input costs have become astronomical."

Watkins said pastureland is being planted to orchards and other crops by growers looking for more consistent returns than cattle can offer. 

Connolly mentioned compliance requirements for stock pond diversions are very difficult to achieve via water monitoring.  "This is the state creating numerous new regulations that affect the cattle business," Connolly said. "All at additional cost."

Tomatoes – No. 7

Tomato grower and board member Paul Sanguinetti said the brief October rain had an effect on some tomato crops. "We got two-inches of rain and some fields weren't harvested because of mold." All this and low prices, too. "But if prices had been a few dollars more that would have made a positive difference for growers."

He said tariffs and already low prices coupled with overproduction contributed to the low prices and that tomato paste from other countries – primarily Italy and China – are cheap and purchased by food makers at "prices we can't compete with," Sanguinetti said. "When Heinz, Hunts, Campbell's and Morning Star buy their paste at very low prices from foreign sources the entire market suffers."

California produces one-third of the world's tomato products, Sanguinetti said, "So every effort will be made to keep it, an industry that's too big to allow to cease production." However, that industry is situated on a lot less land, according to Sanguinetti. "This past year, some growers cut back significantly or didn't grow any tomatoes at all."

Tomatoes need to be rotated with other crops and those crops have to return a profit as well which complicates matters. Looking into the near future, Sanguinetti said, "Tomatoes must pay more next year or more tomato land will go to other crops."

Put it all together and, explained Sanguinetti, "It was a normal year with no problems that were out of the ordinary."

Hay – No. 9

Smoke from the huge wildfires slowed yield, rain in early October wasn't needed and if a grower was in the wrong location when the storm hit, they were really unlucky, said Phil Martin, hay grower near Tracy. "The year started as if it would be really good and then the tariffs hit and China, the largest importer of our hay, was taxed by tariffs and prices dropped drastically."

However, there was an uptick at the end of the season with decent prices throughout, according to David Strecker, SJFB first vice president and grower near Stockton.

Exporters had to find other venues to sell to, venues that were, in many ways, affected by the tariffs too. If the new trade agreement, the quasi-NAFTA Trump negotiated agreement with Mexico and Canada, opens up Mexico and Canada as markets for our hay in addition to our own domestic markets, it will be a benefit to hay growers statewide."

"This summer we had really high insect pressure – worms and aphids – more than last year and some growers had to spray multiple times per cutting," Martin said. Strecker reported he "had to spray twice for worms in summer."

"Prices are more volatile due to the suffering dairy industry," Martin said. "How they go, we go."

"Overall it was a decent year for hay," Strecker said. "Many growers anticipating a dairy recovery and increased demand."

Melons – No. 10

What's the overall melon harvest look like for 2018?

Melons – watermelons, pumpkins, squash and assorted "other" varieties – while not in the Top Ten individually are, when combined, a thriving vegetable sector crop despite 2017's yield being slightly less than the previous year for watermelons.

"Pumpkins are having one of the nicest crops in years," said Art Perry of George Perry & Sons, near Manteca. "Pumpkins are still in harvest and the next seven days are an exciting time. We're looking forward to a very active Halloween weekend." He also said retailers are "running good, wonderful promotions."

According to Bryan Van Groningen, vice president of crops and soils for Van Groningen & Sons, Inc. in Manteca, this year's watermelon harvest "went pretty well, with no big issues. We had a good, not wet, spring and while production was a little light in June, July's heat grew production."

With watermelon harvest completed in mid-October, the county's melon industry was already geared up for Halloween which, it was hoped, would be an improvement over 2017's $16.9 million, a considerable drop compared to the previous year's $28.3 million.

Overall, concerning melons, Van Groningen said, "Pricing's fairly poor, there's too much volume in the market. We've been in the melon business 80 years and recently a lot of newer growers have entered the melon marketplace. Depressed prices in tomatoes and corn, for example, have sent growers to melons."

But the lower prices – a 10 to 25 percent reduction from market crop pricing – has, he said, driven some melon growers to disc up their melon fields.

Perry said it was a depressed market nationwide with melon pricing "a challenge for a time but retailers priced down and moved product for us."

"Transportation costs are up, regulations are being foisted on us and all of agriculture continually and we're pretty maxed out on production so now we must find ways to lower costs," said Perry. 

About the future, Van Groningen said the family is "always looking at new ways of mechanizing to cut labor costs" and the company is already well into getting fields and ranches ready for 2019. 

Other crops

The county's vast variety of "other" crops rivals those of the Top Ten and demonstrates San Joaquin County's agricultural depth and wide range of crops grown here.

In 2017, the potato was a crop worthy of Top Ten inclusion as the 5,170 acres of potatoes grew 92,300 tons of the tuber with an agricultural production value of more than $63.1 million.

A crop that usually doesn't receive much consideration even by those who consider such things is silage: corn silage achieved a worth of $30.5 million and parsing the "other" concept even more, "other" silage was worth $51.4 million. 

The "other" category has 40,000 tons of onions, 44,800 tons of peaches, 3,570 tons of apples worth $23 million, 14,200 tons of squash worth $11.1 million grown on 1,490 acres and pollination from 164,000 hives with an ag value of $26.5 million.

Nursery products  can hardly be termed "other" when 6,988,000 products are sold to the tune of $117.3 million annually.  

Livestock and poultry – which includes sheep and lambs, broilers, turkeys and miscellaneous generated $122.3 million in 2017 and livestock and poultry products  boasted a value of $42 million, driven primarily by the sale of more than 42.4 million eggs along with wool and manure.

San Joaquin County's "other" crops are worth more than $561 million and the county's overall ag value of $2.5 billion exceeds that of 15 states making San Joaquin County the equivalent of the 35th largest state of the union in terms of overall agricultural production.