Ag Today Friday, April 22, 2016

Ag Today

Friday, April 22, 2016


NBC Bay Area

South Bay Farms Ditch Growing Strawberries Due to Costs, Lack of Workers

Farmers believe the price of strawberries will rise because it is such a delicate crop that is getting harder to produce and harvest.

By Damian Trujillo

Strawberries are becoming too expensive to produce in the South Bay due to increasing production costs and a lack of affordable and available workers.

Farmers believe the price of strawberries will rise because it is such a delicate crop that is getting harder to produce and harvest. An area farm owner blames a broken immigration system for depleting the supply of workers.

“Badly, badly. In the worst way,” Pete Aiello said of needing workers.

Aiello owns Uesugi Farms and is a former head of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.

“Just continues getting worse every year,” Aiello said.

Aiello once grew some of the biggest strawberries in the Santa Clara Valley. But not anymore.

“This year we’re just going to put one of our pepper crops here,” Aiello said of a field once use to grow strawberries.

Aiello said the biggest problem is he could not get enough workers to pick the berries, which were rotting on the vine.

One of Aiello’s crews are now picking Napa cabbage, instead of strawberries near Gilroy. On Thursday the crew was made of up of only about eight workers when it usually has at least 13 pickers.

“If you don’t have the labor to keep up with the crop, you’re flushing 20-grand an acre down the toilet,” Aiello said. “And that adds up pretty fast.”

Aiello’s company still grows some berries in Watsonville. He said the big growers like Driscoll can withstand the labor shortage, but warns even they are beginning to feel the pinch.




Looming crop losses as farmers face labor shortages

By Catherine Boudreau

U.S. farmers are facing labor shortages and looming crop losses again this year due to what the industry says has long been a broken guest-worker visa system. More than 20 states from California to Georgia have reported shortages, which are exacerbated by paperwork delays by the Labor Department and two other federal agencies that administer the H-2A visa program, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We are looking at what may be a crisis across U.S. farms,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said Thursday during a meeting. “Crops are not going to wait on paperwork. They will continue to mature and rot in the field if we don’t get something done and done quickly.”

H-2A is the only legal way farmers can hire seasonal migrant labor, but it’s riddled with inefficiencies that leave agriculture employers unable to hire enough help in time for critical planting or harvesting windows. DOL is required by law to approve applications 30 days prior to when farmers say they need workers, a deadline that is routinely being missed, Duvall said. There also are delays occurring at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Carlos Castaneda, a labor contractor in California, noted that some farmers requested workers by March 15 and are now approaching a fifth week of delay.

Groups like the Western Growers, which represent the produce industry in California and Arizona, and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture have heard the same frustrations from their members. Western Growers met with DOL, USCIS and State Department officials last week to see how the process can be sped up. “Without a solution … farmers and ranchers across the country will endure serious economic hardship and consumers will see increased costs at grocery stores,” said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.

DOL’s system for processing another visa category went down in January at the same time the department received a large spike in applications, spokesman Egan Reich said. Resources were diverted to resolving that problem, which “bled over” into DOL’s capacity to review H-2A applications, the department said. Reich added that DOL so far this year has processed 90 percent of applications in a timely fashion, according to the latest statistics that can be found here.

H-2A PROGRAM GROWING DESPITE HURDLES: Participation in H-2A has been increasing as border enforcement strengthened and the political will for immigration reform faded. Farmers requested 77,086 positions so far this year, a 13 percent increase over the same period in 2015, and is on track to surpass 150,000, according to the AFBF based on DOL data. About 74,846 have been approved so far. And during the past five years, requests increased 85 percent.

It’s estimated that of the roughly 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., upwards of 70 percent are undocumented, says the group Farmworker Justice. The H-2A program accounts for another 10 percent.

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Fairfield Daily Republic

Groundwater regulatory bill advances

By Todd R. Hansen

FAIRFIELD — A Sen. Lois Wolk bill that faces opposition from the counties, the cities and agriculture passed the Finance and Governance Committee on a 5-2 vote this week.

Wolk, D-Davis, said the legislation is a reaction to a sharp increase in the draw of groundwater through new and deeper wells across the state, and the need to protect those aquifers.

“This is a serious problem that affects everyone, and it’s getting worse,” Wolk said in a statement released through her office.

“New investors are farming land that has never been farmed, planting permanent crops and tapping into already overdrafted aquifers to support these new, significant water demands,” the senator said.

The bill passed the committee Wednesday with Republican Sens. Janet Nguyen, the committee vice chairwoman, and John M. W. Moorlach dissenting. It had previously passed the Natural Resource and Water Committee on a 6-2 vote.

The bill would obligate cities and counties in a high- or medium-priority basin to require a conditional use permit for the development of new groundwater drilling operations.

“The permit must impose conditions to prevent the facility from contributing to or creating an undesirable results . . . (and) prohibit the issuance of a conditional use permit for a new groundwater extraction facility in either a probationary basin or an overdrafted basin,” according to documents from Finance and Governance Committee staff.

“SB 1317 exempts from the conditional use permitting process . . . a person that extracts less than 2 acre-feet a year of water for domestic purposes, and . . . new facilities that replace existing facilities with the same or less capacity,” the staff wrote.

Among the opponents of the bill are the California Farm Bureau Federation and a host of other ag-related organizations, including the Association of Winegrape Growers.

Paul Wenger, president of the Farm Bureau Federation, said Thursday this legislation would pre-empt provisions of the State Groundwater Management Act and interfere with local efforts to manage groundwater. He said that law needs to have time to do what it intends before new legislation tweaks it.

“We just think (Wolk) is getting way out in front of this,” Wenger said.

He said that several counties on their own, including Stanislaus, Merced and Colusa, have enacted their own moratoriums that require new groundwater development to come under review before being allowed. He said local control is essential.

“There are a number of unintended consequences, so this is not very well thought out,” said Wenger, noting it could prevent small farmers or even rural families trying to build a home from getting loans for their projects.

Wolk counters those concerns with concerns of her own.

“Unmitigated, rapid groundwater withdrawals are causing the wells of current homeowners, communities and farmers to go dry. This can force residents and farmers to dig new or deeper wells at great personal expense. Aqueducts and roads are cracking as aquifers collapse due to overdraft,” Wolk said in the release. “Until we can figure out how to manage this problem and these aquifers sustainability, we need to stop new or deeper drilling in already critically overdrafted water basins.”

The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties also are opposed.

Solano County has yet to take a position.

“We are actually looking at the bill. . . . . We have asked our Resource Management team to look at it,” said Michelle Heppner, the legislative inter-governmental and public affairs officer.

Reach Todd R. Hansen at 427-6932 or



Capital Public Radio

Groundwater Supply Improved At Amador County Vineyards

By Ed Joyce

The drought is now in its fifth year in California, but winter 2015-16 brought near normal precipitation to northern California.

When we walked the two vineyards in Amador County a year ago, there were concerns about water supply.

What a difference a year makes.

“Last year, when you were here, we had almost no water in any of our irrigation ponds that we kind of try to collect the water in from around all of our 500 acres that we’re farming,” says Chris Leamy, the winemaker at Terra d’Oro Vineyard in Plymouth. “Now all of our ponds are full. So we have some water to start with when it gets to be time to irrigate.”

Leamy says his well is much fuller too.

The rolling hills around the vineyard in the Shenandoah Valley are much greener than a year ago, and the ground cover is more lush than 2015.

“There’s nice moisture in our soil strata right now,” says Leamy. “So when these grapes start sprouting out and start budding and going again this season, there’ll be water available to them and we’ll want to use all that water up before we consider doing any irrigation.”

Leamy says the vineyard has collected a lot more water than at the same point in 2015.

“Absolutely,” he says. “It’s been night and day, it’s lovely.”

Nine miles south of Terra d’Oro is Shake Ridge Vineyards in Sutter Creek.

The 216-acre vineyard also relies on groundwater and drip irrigation.

Shake Ridge Vineyard Manager Ann Kraemer says “climate variability” is something all California growers have to get used to.   Ed Joyce / Capital Public Radio

Shake Ridge Vineyard Manager Ann Kraemer says year-to-year climate variability is something she, and all farmers in the region, must adjust to.

“This is what we are going to deal with and we’ll have those odd years that we get plenty of rain,” says Kraemer. “But even that snowpack, if it doesn’t stay there and percolate into the ground, I don’t know where my aquifer’s being recharged from, you know, how far up into the Sierra. It’s a 500-foot well so it could be from far away is where that vein of water’s coming, so this is, this is our new normal.”

Kraemer says grapes are ideal for drought cycles and climate change, which is expected to reduce Sierra Nevada snow, and the water supply it provides.

“Grape vines are a great crop to be farming because you could get by with almost nothing,” says Kraemer.

For now, the groundwater is sufficient for both vineyards in Amador County. But not all the rainfall in the region helps growers.

“So just because we’ve received great rainfall, some of that rainfall will need to be used, if you will, by the soil to replace the groundwater and that may not be effectively available for plants,” says Lynn Wunderlich, a Farm Advisor with UC Cooperative Extension.

Wunderlich works with growers in Amador, El Dorado, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

While snowpack is significantly above-average in the northern Sierra this April, compared to April 2015, she says foothill farms don’t benefit much from the snow melt.

“And it may not actually trickle down to the foothill soils,” Wunderlich says. “So, it could, through groundwater channels, and that’s a bit mysterious actually. I think most of it is probably is channeled through the watersheds down to the valleys. So we don’t really have groundwater basins in the foothills.”

She says the foothills have, in general, shallower depth in the soil from the surface to the bedrock, then other growing areas in California.

Both Amador County vineyards rely primarily on groundwater supply.

And, growth in Amador County, means more straws dipping into that “lake down below” as Terra d’Oro winemaker Chris Leamy puts it.

“You never really know how many straws there are in that aquifer,” he says. “What we have seen this year, is that our aquifer, the levels have been rising. Our aquifer is filling which is happy news, we’ll happily take that. And, we’ll just try to be as gentle with that water as we can over the dry summer months and be ready to go for the next season.”

But right now, the two Amador County vineyards are watching their buds form and, along with smart irrigation, they’re getting just enough of the finite water supply to make that happen.



Sacramento Bee

State ups its water allocation for Southern California

By Ryan Sabalow

In another sign that the so-called “Miracle March” storms in Northern California helped ease the state’s drought, farms and cities reliant on the State Water Project learned Thursday that they’ll likely get 60 percent of the water deliveries they requested from the state, an increase from a month ago.

As water rushed into northern reservoirs last month, state officials said contractors would receive 45 percent of what they requested for 2016 from the state-run delivery network that includes the California Aqueduct. They upped that estimate Thursday to reflect the continued strength of reservoir storage. Lake Oroville, the principal reservoir in the State Water Project, is filled to 94 percent capacity.

The projected allocation marks an improvement over last year, when the State Water Project delivered 20 percent of contractors’ allocations. The 2016 projection would mark the highest allocation since 2012, when water providers got 65 percent of their contract amounts.

The project hasn’t delivered 100 percent in 10 years.

The SWP pumps billions of gallons of water to farms and cities in California, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The project’s largest customer is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves about 19 million urban residents.

The federal government’s Central Valley Project, which includes Shasta and Folsom dams, said recently that most farmers in the Sacramento Valley would receive 100 percent of their allocations, while many farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would receive between 5 and 40 percent.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow,