Ag Today, November 24, 2021

Our next edition of Ag Today will be distributed Monday, November 29. The California Farm Bureau will be closed Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday.


‘Everybody’s pumping.’ How California’s plan to conserve groundwater ran into a drought [Sacramento Bee]

On the parched west side of the San Joaquin Valley, the drought has created a windfall for companies like Big River Drilling. A water-well contractor based in the Fresno County community of Riverdale, Big River can hardly keep up with demand for new wells as farmers and rural residents seek to extract more water from underground. “I could work seven days a week if I wanted to,” said owner Wesley Harmon. “In my area, everybody’s pumping. You can’t blame the farmers. They’re trying to make a living, they’re trying to grow food for everybody.” But talk about poor timing: California farmers are supposed to start throttling back their groundwater pumping to comply with a state law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. The law is designed to gradually curb groundwater usage and help replenish the state’s badly over-taxed aquifers. Instead, as an epic drought has put major rivers and aqueducts largely off limits to agriculture, many growers have had to ramp up their pumps this year to keep their crops from dying. ”Pumping was all we had,” said Sarah Woolf, whose family grows garlic, onions and tomatoes on 1,000 acres in western Fresno County. “It was a necessity.” The groundwater crisis is especially problematic in the San Joaquin Valley, where farming is the main economic engine. Decades of pumping have left its groundwater basins in such rough shape, they’ve been declared “critically overdrafted” by the Department of Water Resources. Farmers and community leaders are grappling with the realization that vast stretches of Valley farmland will become permanently retired by 2040, when the groundwater law is fully implemented. Some areas of the Valley are taking an aggressive stance on implementing SGMA, which is known to many as “sigma.” They’re already cutting back on pumping, idling land and getting an uncomfortable glimpse into the future. But in many parts of the Valley, farmers are still pumping — and some are pumping heavily.


From farm to table, how Fresno County’s top crops have changed over the past 50 years [Fresno Bee]

This week’s celebration of Thanksgiving serves as a reminder of the agricultural bounty produced in Fresno County. Just about everything on the stereotypical Thanksgiving table – from the turkey to the pumpkin pie – and much more is represented among the crops or commodities that are grown or raised here. Fresno County is not just the top agriculture-producing county in California in most years, it’s also a national leader. In 2020, the total value of crops and livestock produced in the county was almost $8 billion, surpassing the county’s previous record crop and commodity value of about $7.8 billion in 2018. Over the past 50 years, however, the agricultural landscape of Fresno County has undergone changes. Crops like grapes – whether for raisins, wine or eating fresh – tomatoes, oranges and peaches have always been among the top-value commodities reported each year by the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. Others that once dominated the county’s farming acreage and ranked among the highest-value crops, however, no longer hold their places of honor: crops such as cotton, barley or alfalfa for hay, for example. Still others have climbed from places of relative obscurity in the 1970s into the forefront, both in terms of the acreage harvested and in the annual crop value. Those include almonds, pistachios and garlic – the latter two weren’t even included separately in crop reports until the mid- to late 1970s because their acreage and value were negligible compared to others. Consider the humble almond, for instance. In 1970, almond growers harvested a mere 6,400 acres of nuts, and the total crop value was just a little over $4.1 million. In the 2020 crop report, almonds were the most abundant crop in the county, with 274,673 acres harvested – almost 42 times as many acres as 50 years earlier. And for the ninth straight year, almonds were Fresno County’s most valuable crop, too, representing more than $1.2 billion – a whopping 300 times the little nut’s value in 1970.


Million Dollar Bottle: Napa-grown cab breaks world record at Emeril Lagasse Foundation auction [The Weekly Calistogan]

The wine world has been feeling philanthropic this month, and for one collective of Napa vintners and winemakers, these open wallets led to a new world record. In New Orleans at the annual Emeril Lagasse Foundation wine auction and gala, a bottle of wine from Coombsville recently sold for a whopping $1 million, with proceeds going to the foundation. “It is surreal to know that a bottle of our wine has sold for $1 million,” said co-founder of The Setting Wines, Noah McMahon. “And we are overjoyed that the money is going to all be used to help kids across the country.” A collaboration between McMahon, co-founder Jeff Cova and renowned winemaker Jesse Katz, The Setting Wines previously broke the record for most expensive bottle of wine sold at auction back in 2017, but that figure of $350,000 pales in comparison to this most recent $1 million sale. Designed specifically as a philanthropic endeavor, the record-breaking wine is a six-liter bottle of The Setting’s 2019 Glass Slipper Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The buyers, headed by Don Steiner and a group of generous philanthropists, were inspired by the work of The Emeril Lagasse Foundation and decided to make the hefty donation and get their hands on this special wine.


As American gasoline prices soar, some blame ethanol [Wall Street Journal]

Ethanol prices have skyrocketed to their highest level in a decade, contributing to surging U.S. gasoline prices as oil refiners pay more for the biofuel they are required to blend with their products. The price spike is adding grist to a yearlong political debate over the federal ethanol blending mandate, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard. Politicians from oil-and-gas states have sought to repeal the requirement, calling it ineffective and expensive, while corn-state politicians have defended it, arguing it has added to U.S. fuel supplies and decreased consumer costs. Since the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, became law in 2005, ethanol has traded at around the same price as unblended gasoline, or at a discount to it. The two have diverged this year as ethanol has increased about 157% to $3.42 a gallon in 2021, while unblended gasoline is up about 61% to $2.28 a gallon, according to FactSet data. The price of the finished U.S. gasoline consumers buy, which includes ethanol and other additives, is up about 62% this year, the highest levels since 2014. It was about $3.40 a gallon on average Wednesday.

Now, lobbyists for the refining industry are seizing on the recent ethanol-price jumps and urging the Biden administration to lower the amount of the biofuel they are required to blend with their products, arguing it will tamp down gasoline prices.


San Francisco declares water shortage emergency, asks city users to conserve 5% [San Francisco Chronicle]

San Francisco has some of the most conservation-savvy water users in California and its reservoirs contain enviable reserves, a crucial resource two years into a statewide drought. Now the city is demanding its water customers use even less. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission members voted Tuesday to declare a water shortage emergency and adopt a system-wide reduction in water use of 10%. They aim to get there by asking city residents and businesses to cut water use by 5% and requesting that more than two dozen agencies in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that buy water from San Francisco conserve even more by slashing water use by 14%. The declaration requires the city to levy a temporary surcharge on city users’ water bills of up to 5% — the amount they are asking customers to cut — to ensure rates don’t fall below what it costs for the city to operate its water systems.


NASA research launches a new generation of indoor farming [NASA]

The United Nations predicts Earth will have to feed another 2.3 billion people by 2050, mostly concentrated in urban centers far from farmland. Conventional agriculture may not be able to meet that demand, but luckily NASA has been working for decades to tackle food production both on Earth and in space. Feeding astronauts during long-term space exploration means stretching resources to grow plants in space – including minimizing water use and energy consumption and eliminating soil. NASA initially pioneered these techniques on the ground by building the country’s first vertical farm. Inside a decommissioned hypobaric chamber left over from testing the Mercury space capsule, technologists stacked rows of hydroponic trays like bookshelves against the walls. Then systems for lighting, ventilation, and circulating water were added using off-the-shelf parts. Various crops were planted on the stacked trays to test how well they would grow in water and without the benefit of sunlight or open air. This innovative approach to farming created a foundation for the industry of controlled environment agriculture, or CEA. CEA combines plant science and environmental control to optimize plant growth and maximize efficiency, frequently incorporating vertical growth structures. Technology enables the filtering of contaminants from crop water and delivers precise nutrient balances. Artificial lighting provides only the necessary wavelengths at the right time, intensity, and duration. While environmental controls maintain ideal temperature and humidity. This approach could help feed burgeoning future generations, said Nate Storey, chief science officer at Plenty Unlimited, one of several companies building on NASA’s plant-growth research. Plenty uses less than 1% of the water of traditional farming, and the company’s two-acre farm produces similar yields to a 720-acre outdoor farm. Currently a global market worth $2.9 billion, some estimates project the vertical farming market could reach $7.3 billion by 2025.


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