This month California was in a drought and a flood at the exact same time. We are ending the year with 40% more precipitation than last year, but unfortunately our state does not have the infrastructure to capture all the water that is rapidly falling upon us. On average, a “normal” rain day in California is 0.25″-0.75″, but these atmospheric river storms are bringing 2″+ of water at a time. While our vineyards and orchards are equipped to handle the weather, many places are not. The reservoirs are currently at half capacity and snowpack is already up to 200% of average, and we still have several months of weather ahead of us. Even though a lot of water will be lost to the ocean rather than being captured, the reservoirs and groundwater will get a much-needed recharge which is a big positive.
Pruning continues in our California vineyards. All acreage is pre-pruned with a machine that removes top half of the last season’s growth mechanically. The final pruning cuts are then made by hand with crews that have been trained to leave the precise amount of wood to ensure the optimal health of the vine and growth for future crops. These cuts form “spurs” (the positions on the vine from which this year’s growth will come) along the “cordons” (the main lateral limbs coming from the trunk). Because grapes are a vine, the growth each year is rapid. A fully
mature vine will be pruned back to essentially the same place every season.
Grape shipments from Peru have resumed at normal levels. Last month’s social unrest created a delay in shipments, which caused tight supply conditions this month. As we move into February, we should see the situation change, with ample supply of both Peruvian and Chilean grapes.
The storms have ended for the time being and bloom is right around the corner. Things here are wet, but the fields need it and the sandier soils in our area are draining nicely. The charts above show that while we received a historic amount of rainfall, a lot of the water was unable to be captured in reservoirs and instead drained into the ocean. In 2014 Proposition 1: The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act, a $7.5 billion bond dedicated $2.7 billion for the public benefits of new water storage projects, was passed. Since then, nothing has been built to improve our water infrastructure. The drought combined with the floods are shedding a new light on the legislative issues that have contributed to our current water crisis.
The conditions this winter have been ideal for growing tree fruit. Our orchards are currently tracking at 963 chill hours for the season. This is a 190-hour increase from this time last season. Chill hours can have different definitions, but we calculate our hours by measuring the time the temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Fruit trees need a specific number of chill hours each winter to regulate their growth. If a tree doesn’t experience enough chill hours in the winter the flower buds might not open at all in spring, or they might open unevenly Fortunately, we have already received plenty of chill hours for the season and any cold weather is appreciated until the buds break and blossoms emerge.
California table grapes are still in full swing, but the import season is swiftly approaching. Shipping flow and port delays have been issues in the past. While we don’t anticipate large volumes of Peruvian grapes to arrive until mid to late December, more Peruvian grapes are headed to the US this year. Some companies have already begun shipments, which is historically earlier than normal. In regards to grape volume, this is the first year Peru is set to eclipse Chile in total table grape production. For California, the California Table Grape Commission has dropped their estimate from 97 million total boxes to 92.5 million. Even though the overall volume has dropped, the remaining volume is higher than previous years. This means we should see no shortage of availability through most of December the same as in previous years.
We are officially into our late season varieties on grapes, Allison and Autumn King. The fruit is looking great and we are continuing to harvest a bit ahead of schedule. Planning is already well underway for next year’s planting. Varieties have been selected, plants have been ordered, the new irrigation systems are being designed, and trellis install is in process.
With the tree fruit season winding to a close, now is the time we focus on replenishing the soil for the season to come. Earlier this year, when flowers and leaves were present, tissue and soil samples were taken from the orchards and vineyards. This gave us a snapshot of the plant nutrients status. Samples were studied so that each block could receive a custom blend of fertilizer to keep it healthy and performing at its peak. Now that harvest is almost complete, we continue to replenish the soil with compost. Compost enriches the soil with carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, while also improving soil pH and the biological properties.
HMC hosted our annual blood drive. Blood donations are in short supply. We found by providing an opportunity to donate on site, many who would not have the time are able to contribute to the ever-present need for donations. It is always exciting to see people come together from every part of the operation and support such a great cause.
HMC Farms recently had the opportunity to attend the IFG Field Day. IFG is one of the prominent table grape breeders based out of California. The field days are designed to provide growers and retailers the opportunity to view and sample new grape varieties. The feedback and dialogue will help shape the future of the grape breeding program. The most exciting part of the Field Day included touring the new Fruitworks facility, their new research and breeding center. The planted experimental vines are grafted on to several different rootstocks which allows us to analyze each vine’s characteristics and help us decide which variety and rootstocks combination will work best in our soils.
A few growers were recently invited to meet with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to explain our position on California water. Fresno County is the number one agricultural county in the United States. We live in a very unique environment that allows us to feed not only a great part of the nation, but also the world.
Governor Newsom just introduced a plan that will prioritize any and all available water, and agriculture is at the bottom of that list. We are concerned about his knowledge of our needs and nervous that this limited resource continues to be divided by increased demand upon less and less water. It is ironic to have to explain to our elected officials the value of food… something which every hungry country already understands.
McClarty Farms has been very diligent in owning and acquiring property in areas of abundant ground water. We have had the rights to this water for over a century. It is often not about availability, but about ownership. We are nervous that we are being legislated by large populations in coastal cities with no knowledge of how food gets onto their table. Permanent crops must be planted years before they are ready to harvest. Water unknowns today are forcing farmers to make decisions that will impact our food supply five years from now. Our obligation is to educate and inform, making people aware of the growing concern we have for our way of life, our own families, and all agriculture-dependent families. We do not want to see bare grocery store shelves or be dependent on imports for our food security. We as farmers have always been innovative and creative, and we will continue to work to solve these challenges. Using available tools, we do everything we can to manage water as efficiently as possible. “Marginal” water-challenged areas are left fallow, while drip irrigation and new technology allows for better water management, determining the perfect quantity for plant needs.
Our job now is to make people understand that we need to share the most important commodity in California… water.
We live by this credo, which some find irrational. The onerous circumstances we must navigate in California agriculture to produce better tasting fruit each year are getting increasingly more difficult, and have yet to reach an inflection point. Inputs, whether they are labor, water, or materials, haven’t just become more expensive, but at times they have become unavailable. If you read our newsletter on a monthly basis, you are aware of some of the creative ways in which we are trying to keep costs from continuing to rise. We want to keep our products as competitive with other commodities as possible, and don’t want to push the products we grow into “luxury item” status. We believe in the stone fruit and table grape commodities. As we reflect on what may have been the best tasting season in our history, we take some pride in having brought these products into the marketplace. It is this belief and small sense of pride that urges us to continue to do what tastes right.