Water — or actually the lack thereof — came close to saturating the agenda at an educational tailgate meeting presented by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association in Madera.
The meeting opened with reminders that the clock is ticking for growers to join coalitions to comply with state regulations on surface and ground water. It quickly evolved into talk of how to manage vineyards and water delivery systems in a year when water is in short supply.
Attendees heard from lenders, consultants, insurance providers and sales people. Nearly all used the D word — drought — in their presentations.
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Rick Foell, California territory manager for Suterra, was particularly blunt in his discussion of integrated pest management, the likelihood of more pest and disease problems due to dry conditions and the likelihood of lower yields.
“The one positive,” he said, “is that smaller berry size could mean a better skin to juice ratio, meaning (this year’s wine) could be higher quality, but there might not be a lot. And the lower yields could mean higher prices.”
Foell said growers may need to resort to another form of IPM: “Insurance Pest Management.”
His assumption is that plants are or will be under more stress and that that stress will make them vulnerable to more pests and diseases. “We may see bugs across more of the fields, and we’ll see different bugs,” he said, giving the example of brown marmorated stink bug.
“That’s normally is not an issue,” Foell said. “But it’s a general feeder and eats anything with a seed. That means grapes.”
He also expected higher mite pressures and said growers may have to budget for more sprays. “Because (nearby open land) will go through a quick green up and a quick burn down,” Foell said, leafhoppers and other pests will quickly move to “where the water is.” And that includes vineyards.
Nematodes, he said, will likewise navigate to where the water is as well – along the roots of vines, for example.
Steps for managing vines this year, he said, should include “smaller shots of fertigation and irrigation” over longer periods. “You need to fertilize for what is hanging on the vine,” he said, adding that there needs to be more monitoring for disease and pest problems.
Deborah Miller, president of the Deerpoint Group Inc., discussed the increasing challenges to water quality in the Valley and the need to address plugging in irrigation systems from mineral deposits, algae and bacteria and other sources.
“Before, you might have been able to flush these out,” she said. “That’s not an option any more. You don’t want to waste water flushing.”
Miller recommended getting a water analysis early to determine water quality.
“You don’t want to plug your system in a year when there is a limited water supply,” she said.
Kip Green, a consultant to Britz Farming Co., echoed Miller’s advice to have water tested so as to avoid clogging emitters. He also recommended having wells tested and pointed out that the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State University offers testing through its Pump Efficiency Program in collaboration with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which offers improvement rebate money.
“It’s a way to save money,” Green said. “They’re paying you to save money.”
He also recommends measuring soil moisture content with devices that include Watermarks, tensiometers, neutron probes and capacitance probes. “You need to know where the water is going.” He and others said that’s something the state is likely to monitor more closely in a time of scarce water.
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Green said growers should “keep an eye on (canopy) growth during the season and watch for over-vigor and stress symptoms. Rank growth and over-vigor means water waste.”
A software irrigation management program called Wateright, available free through the Center for Irrigation Technology, can help stretch limited water, Green said.
“You also need to keep weeds down,” he said. “They’re a wick for moisture.”
Green recommends leaf petiole analysis to determine levels of nutrients that include nitrogen and potassium: “Potassium controls the stomates on the plant, and if it is deficient in potassium it can mean added stress and reduced respiration.”
As for lenders, they have long taken into account the availability of water for growing crops, said David Ylarregui, senior vice president of field operations with Fresno Madera Farm Credit.
“One of the questions is what can we do to get a reliable source of water,” Ylarregui said. That may mean drilling wells as needed, an expensive proposition that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said, “and it can take 18 to 24 months to get a well driller out.”
Ylarregui recited some stark facts his institution has found: “We’re entering the third consecutive year of a drought. Reservoirs around the state are 20 percent below historic levels. There are reports some on the West Side (of the Valley) are walking away from property to save money for permanent crops. About 500,000 acres of land have been fallowed. That will result in reduction of 117,000 jobs and will result in $2.2 billion in lost production.”
He said irrigation districts that include the Fresno Irrigation District and Madera Irrigation District are likely to deliver water for only a month at best.
Weathering the Drought
Still, Ylarregui believes most farmers will weather the drought, thanks in part to higher commodity prices.
But a lingering concern for lenders and others is what will happen – to both short and long term loans – if 2015 is also dry and there are no carry-in supplies of surface water.
Ylarregui said he agrees with the forecast that the greatest impacts will be on dairy and beef cattle. And he and other speakers said it’s likely that government will regulate even more strictly the monitoring and use of water.
“When is the government going to say, ‘That is not your water?’’” he asked.
The meeting opened with an update on the state’s regulation of water use on irrigated lands and included presentations by Terry Bechtel, environmental scientist with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board; Parry Klassen with the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition; and Rick Hoelzel with the Kings River Water Quality Coalition.
Bechtel said “a lot of almond and grape growers” have not enrolled in coalitions. He said it “makes sense” to join a coalition, which costs much less than seeking individual compliance with rules on surface water and groundwater.
Hoelzel and Klassen said all growers must either join a coalition or must contact the region board to apply for an individual water discharge permit by May 19.
Bechtel said that, in a sense, the added monitoring is a “good news, bad news” proposition: “Having to do the monitoring may be bad news, but the good news is that the results have been good.”
The meeting concluded with a presentation by Jonathan Alexander, with Pinnacle Claims Management Inc., on the Affordable Care Act. He said it’s especially important for growers to tally workers’ hours and determine whether they fall in the small or large employer category, and he discussed “pay or play” penalties.
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