California cold snap
While it didn’t make headlines back in the Midwest, a late February California cold snap followed by storms caused almond blossom damage, some estimate, in the millions. The frost happened just as pollination began. Here Modesto farmer Paul Wenger is looking for symptoms of frost damage by peeling open blossoms and looking for black spots.
Farmers must follow burn restrictions, government inspections, rules on dust control, and programs to reduce nitrates and salt in water. They must know federal safety and labor regs and accommodate a vast array of sustainability protocols from multiple buyers. More recently, they’re learning that a state labor rule on overtime seems to have unintended consequences. “We know California is always going to be tougher than the rest of the nation,” says Helm, Calif. grower Don Cameron. “The successful ones figure out how to get through regulations and implement them.”
Nothing grows without water
Farmers everywhere know the value of water, but it may be even more important in California, which produces around half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. California suffered a major long-term drought six years ago causing some farmers to idle land or go out of business. Water wars ensued. The drought forced the government to restrict water allocations in some areas. “In the drought we got zero percent water allocation from the government, which forced us to drill three new wells on our ranches,” says Brian Antle, former harvest vice president of harvest at 30,000-acre Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif.
Will machines replace humans?
With Federal agents cracking down on undocumented workers, farmers keep looking anxiously to automation and robotics for a solution to chronic labor shortages. It’s one reason why Salinas, Calif. grower Tanimura & Antle bought a Spanish company called PlantTape, an automated transplanting system that promises to save money and cut labor needs. The system uses tape strands made of peat moss and vermiculite with small holes stuffed with soil and seed. The ribbons of seed are kept dry until needed. The tape runs through a special planter where each growing plug is cut and dropped into the soil. “PlantTape is a way to move away from dependency on farm labor,” says Brian Antle, company president. “The reality is, we’re building PlantTape machines because we can’t get enough people to fill these jobs.”
Almonds growing in popularity
California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, and demand is booming. Almonds can now be found on over 1 million of the state’s acres, mostly in the bountiful San Joaquin valley. Venture capitalists, pension and hedge funds have driven much of the new growth, says Modesto grower Paul Wenger (pictured). One Silicon-Valley-based company just spent millions to replace 8,000 acres of rolling pasture ground with nut crops.
Farmers pay a lot of money to bring beehives in for pollination season. Paul Wenger, near Modesto, pays upwards of $400 per acre for bees to pollinate his almond crop, another reason why more and more self-pollinating varieties are going in. At Helm, Calif., Don Cameron pays $330,000 a year for bees.
Focus on business
At Bowles Farming Company, Los Banos, Calif., senior farm analyst Curtis Garner has one main task: to marry financial data with operational data to expose problem areas. Bowles Farming grows tomatoes for processing, along with fresh market tomatoes, melons, cantaloupe, watermelon, carrots, cotton and a little alfalfa on 11,000 acres of irrigated land. “Business Intelligence - dashboarding - is really the reason (the CEO) hired me,” says Garner. “We have a phenomenal cost accounting system, but financial, regulatory reporting have been the key drivers of that system and nobody dug in and looked at year-over-year trends. I spend my days looking out for trends and anomalies – areas where we can improve.”
Tanimura & Antle
California farmers seem to all agree on one thing: Tough conditions, long hours and an aging work force has led to a labor shortage, exacerbated by tougher immigration enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. “It’s as bad as it’s ever been and I don’t have any faith that the government will get it fixed soon,” says Brian Antle. “We produce 140 million cases (of produce) a year and someone physically touched, by hand, all 140 million cases. We reply heavily on the government’s H-2A program, but unfortunately that system is bad even on its good days.”