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2006 review: Atypical growing season

California and Arizona stake a claim to 350 commercial crops, therefore, when it comes to reviewing 2006 in this year-end edition of Western Farm Press, there are 350 different stories for the 2006 season.

There is not enough space to cover them all. Only a highlighted few are included here.

As diversified as Western agriculture may be, the 350 crops have one thing in common: They all need water for irrigation. It's supplied two different ways: from wells or from surface deliveries generated by mountain snow melt.

The one thing all surface-water supplied producers had in common in 2006 was that it was an excellent water-supply year. That means for growers with access to surface water deliver systems, they were delivered all the water they wanted thanks to an above-normal mountain snow pack, thereby reducing energy costs.

Now the annual snow watch begins anew. So far it has been a dry fall, but snow began falling around Thanksgiving. Forecasters are calling for an El Nino year, so growers are optimistic '07 will be another good water year.

On the technology side, GPS tractor guidance systems and the variable rate input technology continues to grow. Drip or micro irrigation has been the water delivery system of choice for years for tree and vine crops.

Now drip irrigation systems — buried and above ground - are being widely installed on row crop ground in increasing numbers, and on larger acreages across California and in the vegetable growing areas of Arizona. Row crop drip irrigation is not new. What is different is wide adaptation. Lower costs for drip systems; easily portable filtration units, as well as proven yield increase from improved water efficiency are convincing annual crop growers drip is worth the investment.

Although water was plentiful, the weather was not ideal for sunshine and warmth to take advantage of the good water supply. Spring '06 was cool and wet.

It was late April before the weather warmed, causing delays in planting annual crops and creating the need for many disease sprays in vineyards and orchards early in the spring. A stifling July heat wave added to the weather woes and an early fall precluded growers from finishing strong. Wet weather delayed harvest for some tree and vine crops.

Some highlights of ‘06:


The San Joaquin Valley Cotton crop was “pretty good, yet mixed,” according to Mark Bagby at Calcot, Bakersfield, Calif.

“Quality, however, is excellent in classings so far, better than last year. A few growers have expressed disappointment about their yields, especially in the southern end of the Valley, but considering the weather, all in all, it hasn't been too bad,” Bagby said.”Yields are quite a bit better than last year, but last year was down from the year before. I keep getting the question, ‘Is this year typical?’ I don't know. With the newer varieties and two record yield years, followed by two strange weather years, I'm not sure anybody knows what typical means anymore.”The pima acres came through the stifling July heat wave better than acala cottons, he said.

Sacramento Valley growers were delighted with their yields, and quality is excellent. Southern California growers so far are saying their yields are pretty good too, Bagby added.Arizona, like California, got off a late start in picking. Eastern Arizona growers in the Gila River Valley were very pleased with yields. Central Arizona looks pretty promising as well but growers are still picking. Comments range from “better than expected“ to “about what I expected.“Western Arizona was maybe the only area with some disappointing yields. But that's almost always a problem with land that's followed by produce. Growers there in effect have a pretty short season and cannot make up the yield yield-robbing summer heat.

Greg Palla, vice president, operations and grower relations for the San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers Association, believes the USDA pima yield estimate is too ambitious.

“I think it will be closer to a 1,200-pound average,” said Palla, who believes the USDA upland estimate is probably accurate.

American pima cotton production in California is forecast at a record-high 710,000 bales, up 27 percent from the 2005 crop. The USDA yield forecast is 1,244 pounds per acre. Upland cotton production in California is forecast at 770,000, down 28 percent from last. The yield is forecast at 1,306 pounds per acre.

Palla said there has been higher leaf grades this year and a puzzling lower quality in some instances. “We have had growers with two identical fields with identical varieties. One will grade 21s and the other will grade 31s. It has been confusing,” Palla said.

Seed counts are very high, 40 pounds to 50 pounds more per bale than normal, thus reducing turnouts significantly. However, cottonseed prices are at records highs, $220 per ton for upland and almost that much for pima seed. This is all related to high corn prices and the value of protein for dairy rations.

Spot Pima prices are at $1.10 with acalas bringing 75 cents at best now.

The high price of pima has textile mills playing a poker game with growers in a supply-tight market. U.S. ELS carryover is nonexistent, but mills are trying to bluff growers into lowering their prices to keep cotton out of storage.

“Everyone is waiting for the other to flinch,” Palla said.

Regardless of what happens with the current pima bluffing game, Palla expects pima to consume 60 percent to 70 percent of the Valley's acreage next year even with the $1.l0 price.


California rice production is forecast at 40 million cwt. for 2006, up 3 percent from the previous year. The yield forecast is 7,600 pounds per acre, and the harvested acreage is estimated at 526,000.


Corn for grain production is expected to total 490,000 tons, down 8 percent from last year. Harvested acreage of 100,000 thousand is down 9 percent. And the yield forecast of 4.90 tons per acre is up 2 percent from the previous year, at 1.59 million.


The California almond juggernaut jumped back on track with another billion pound crop in '06, the fourth in the past five years.

Prices may not average $2.60 per pound as they did for the '05 crop, but they were high enough (well over $2 per pound) that thieves stole bins and truckloads from orchards and receiving yards.

Recently, the Merced County sheriff's office arrested two men unloading bins of processed almonds worth $400,000 from a rental truck.

California produces 100 percent of the U.S. crop of almonds and 80 percent of the world supply. The crop represents a value of about $2.5 billion annually.

One-third of the California crop is sold domestically. The other two-thirds is sold to 90 markets worldwide. In the past five years, almond exports have increased 11 percent. Almonds are the largest specialty crop export in the United States. Almonds are the largest agricultural export from California with a value of $1.6 billion, more than the combined value of wine, table grapes, raisins and grape juice.

Domestic average U.S. consumption is skyrocketing. It has gone from 0.77 pounds in 2000 to 1.02 pounds in 2005, a period of record high prices for almonds.

The California almond industry is on track to achieve the title “healthiest specialty crop in the world” and that bodes well for the 1.5 million pound harvest expected in 2010.


The table grape industry, which represents about 10 percent of the total California grape production, remains successful. However, raisin and wine grapes, especially in the Central Valley, continued to struggle in 2006.

About 35,000 acres of raisin grape acreage has been taken out in the past three years. A total of 100,000 acres of vines have been pushed out in the past five years because of an oversupply of grapes and poor prices. After the 2006 harvest, more were ripped out.

The natural seedless raisin crop from '06 estimated raisin-type grape acreage of 240,000 is “significantly less” than the 2005 deliveries of 319,000 tons. The Raisin Administrative Committee estimates this year's Natural Seedless crop at 259,557 tons.

The green crush this season is estimated at 300,000 tons, 175,000 tons less than last year.

Total raisins grape availability is estimated at a little more than 2 million green tons, 11 percent below '05. However, industry experts say the crop may actually be as much as 30 percent less than last year.

Despite a smaller crop and continued vineyard removals this year, traditional Thompson raisin producers will continue to feel downward price pressure, partly due to high yield grape concentrate vineyards coming into production on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley and sluggish raisin shipments. Shipments last year dropped 4 percent for the domestic market and 9 percent from 2004 levels.

This was not necessarily expected to be the turnaround year for wine grapes, but it turned out worse than anyone expected. The largest grape crush in history in 2005 filled the tanks. That was no surprise, but what was surprising was large California wineries importing cheap wine - primarily surplus Australian wine - to fill their needs for 2006 and ignoring California growers this year.

For at least the third year in a row, grapes were left hanging on vines because there were no buyers.

Wineries did not answer phone calls from growers with '06 crops to sell. Grape loads were capriciously rejected at the scales by inconsistent grading standards because wineries did not want the grapes they purchased.

Wine grape growers are growing more frustrated at the lack of buying from California wineries while wine sales continue to climb in the United States. Much of that growth has been taken by imports.

More vines are expected to be pushed out this year and replace with more promising permanent crops like almonds, pistachios and walnuts.


The biggest disaster of 2002 was olives. California's crop was down down 65 percent from last year.

The bearing acres are estimated to be 31,000 acres, resulting in a yield of 1.61 tons per acre.

Olive growers across California reported that the 2006 olive crop is the worst crop in many years. If realized, the crop forecast of 50,000 tons would be the smallest since 1981, when 44,900 tons were produced. From northern counties to the Central Valley, reports of little to no crop are consistent.

Both areas were heavily impacted by uncooperative winter and spring weather conditions. Extremely warm weather in January followed by freezing temperatures in February damaged fruit buds.


The 2006 California walnut production is forecast at 350,000 thousand tons, down 1 percent from 2005's record production of 355,000. Bearing acreage is estimated at 215,000 for a yield average of 1.63 tons per acre.

The survey indicated a state-average nut set of 1,458, down 7 percent from 2005. The San Joaquin Valley set is 1,267, down 8 percent from last year; the coastal area set is 1,316, up 61 percent from 2005; the Sacramento Valley set is 1,660, down 10 percent from last year. The percentage of sound kernels, in-shell was 98 percent statewide.

Walnuts as well as pistachios and almonds are enjoying strong consumer acceptance because of repeated health claims from hearing these three California tree nut crops.

Processing Tomatoes

About 1.6 million tons of processing tomatoes disappeared from February to the end of harvest due to weather. This huge drop in the crop has reduced cannery inventories to the point growers are in the driver's seat setting prices for the first time in several years.

The final 2006 crop delivery is just over 10 millions. In February canneries said they expected to receive 11.6 million tons from 293,000 acres of processing tomatoes in the state.

The July heat wave took the biggest percentage of that 1.6 million tons of disappearing tomatoes.

Those are just a few of the 2006 crop stories. Overall, the year coming to a close has not been a memorable one for most producers. There were no disasters, except for olives. It was not the best or the worst year in California and Arizona agriculture.

It was not typical: Perhaps one could call it average and of course, average will not always pay the bills.

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