In more than three decades of growing raisin grapes, Fresno County farmer Steve Dee never started running water on his fields as early as he did this year – the second week of January. Normally, he doesn’t begin pumping water until March and that’s to benefit the cover crops growing between his rows of vines. In fact, in the last two years, Dee didn’t need to start irrigating his vines until sometime in April, when he received his first deliveries of Fresno Irrigation District water.
Earlier this year, Dee was hoping to receive at least half of his allotment of surface water. But that could change to zero.
“In that case, I’ll be forced to pump all my water this season and I’ll have to be stingy with it to keep my vines alive when the weather turns hot,” says Dee, who farms west of Kerman, Calif. That would add another 50 percent to 70 percent to his electric bill for powering his pumps.
This, of course, follows California’s driest year on record. At the start of California’s third dry year in a row, Sierra Nevada mountain snowpack measurements in late January had dwindled to a record low – just 12 percent of average for that time of year. And reservoirs were lower than they were at the same time in 1977, one of the two previous driest water years on record.
For the first time in its 54-year history, the State Water Project has allocated no water to the nearly 1 million acres of farmland it serves. What’s more, deliveries of federal surface water to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 acres of Fresno County farmland west of Dee on the West Side of the valley are doubtful.
While unsettling, uncertainty over water supplies is just part of doing business, Dee points out. “Weather is the nature of farming,” he says. “It’s part of everything we do. If I let it bother me, I wouldn’t be farming very long. I have to be very optimistic. We’ll deal with any water shortage and we’ll survive.”
Replacing labor with capital
Dee represents the fourth generation of his family to work this farm, since his great-grandfather arrived from Maine and started the operation in 1916.
Today, Kenneson Farms includes 1,000 acres of Thompson Seedless grapes and 240 acres of almonds – Nonpareil, Carmel, Nonpareil-Monterey and Butte-Padre. Ninety percent of the ground is flood-irrigated. The rest is watered with a drip system. A well provides water for about 180 acres, that aren’t served by FID.
Availability of water isn’t the only doubtful factor in Dee’s plans for this year. As has been the case the past several years, the ability to find the 100 or so workers he’ll need to pick, dry and box the grapes during the month-long harvest is another unknown. It’s a concern shared by growers throughout California’s raisin industry. Also, he says, it helps explains why many continue ripping up their vineyards to plant almond orchards in big numbers.
“The demand for almonds continues strong,” Dee says. “And, almonds are similar profitability per acre to raisins but without all the labor requirements.”
Rather than replacing his vines with almond trees, though, Dee plans to replace the scores of workers he needs to bring in his crop with two harvesting machines, maybe in time for this year’s harvest.
Because two machines won’t be able to handle the job in a timely manner, he’ll continue hiring a custom operator to pick about 200 acres mechanically. Dee figures the money he saves by harvesting the remaining acres himself will pay for each of the quarter-million-dollar harvesters in several seasons.
Dealing with disease threats
As do most raisin grape growers, Dee likes the sugar levels of his Thompson seedless to register 18 Brix before he starts harvesting them. Last year, his earliest maturing grapes reached that point by Aug. 25. That’s when crews started hand-picking and placing the bunches on paper trays to dry.
This was a little earlier than usual. However, the crop was heavier than normal and those extra few days allowed workers to get all on the grapes on trays by Sept. 21. Timing is critical. To qualify for rain insurance, raisin grapes must be on trays by Sept. 20.
In the case of the machine-harvested grapes, crews cut the canes on those vines on Aug. 20. The grape bunches were left on the vines for about 15 days, allowing the cap stems of the bunches to dry before the harvesting machine came in to remove them and place the bunches on continuous paper trays to dry.
In the absence of rain, raisin grapes usually finish drying in about 20 or more days, depending on the temperature. The raisins are then picked up by machine and boxed for processing. Last year, with no wet weather to slow drying, Dee finished boxing his grapes on October 25.
Yields averaged about 2.5 tons per acre, 25 percent higher than usual, he reports. Typically, with a larger crop quality of the grapes suffers. Not last year. Quality was very good, with 70 percent of raisins graded B or better.
Meanwhile, production in his almond orchards last year was on the high side as prices for the nuts remains strong.
Dee has adopted several practices to limit his commercial fertilizer costs while improving the health and structure of his soil.
He applies fertilizer based on results of soil and petiole testing and also tries to make the most of home-grown inputs. “I’m a firm believer in the value of adding organic matter back into the fields,” he says.
He does that by incorporating annual cover crops of vetch, barley, wheat or oats and vine prunings in alternating rows in his vineyards. Each year, the rows change between a cover crop and a brush row. “That way we work the brush into the soil one year and the cover crop the next,” Dee says.
The cover crops protect the soil from erosion. The, vetch, a legume, also helps build soil nitrogen levels. Dee mows this vegetation down in May.
“We hold off seeding the cover crop until December so that we can carry it into the next season to harbor beneficial insects, like lady bugs and lace wings,” he says. “This helps reduce the amount and cost of insecticide applications.”
At one time, he stockpiled and burned the vine prunings and old stumps hauled out of his vineyards. Now he chips and scatters the brush over the row middles in between the alternating cover crop strips. Then, he disks it in to add still more organic matter to his soils. Made in his shop, his chipper mounts on the 3-point hitch of a tractor. Crews toss the wood into the hopper as they follow the machine down the row. It can handle wood up to about 4 inches in diameter. Bigger pieces are run through a larger commercial chipper.
Dee also adds organic matter by spreading cow manure from a local dairy each year in every other row of his vineyard each year.
His use of commercial fertilizers includes an application of UN-32 in June and other times, as needed. He adds phosphorus, potassium and zinc with various foliar sprays throughout the year.
To keep up with the demands of his operation, Dee has a staff of ten full-time employees. Two handle all spraying work in the vineyards and orchards. Another is responsible for all tractor work around the farm. The remaining employees split the rest of the workload. “All employees are cross-trained in all the various types of work, from shoveling weeds and pruning vines to driving the tractor,” he explains. “This helps keep labor costs down by enabling each employee to be as productive as possible.”
Dee keeps a lid on equipment costs by relying on a well-trained shop crew to keep his machinery in good repair. “Also,” he says, “I don’t buy new, if I can get a good deal on used equipment.”