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January 2008, Volume 14, Number 1

California: Commodities, Water, Bees

Peaches. California farmers produced an average 524,000 tons of cling peaches (used for canning) between 1996 and 2005; the 2007 crop was about 490,000 tons, up from 355,000 tons in 2006. Average yields were almost 19 tons an acre.

Low prices have prompted some growers to remove especially older trees, reducing the state's acreage to about 26,000. Growers worried about labor shortages for 2007 thinning and harvesting reported that they found enough workers, but some worried their labor costs may rise as the California minimum wage rises from $7.50 to $8 on January 1, 2008.

Almonds. California has 600,000 acres of almonds, including 40,000 acres at Paramount Farms, perhaps the state's largest farmer. Paramount is owned by Stewart Resnick, CEO of Roll International, which also owns the Franklin Mint and Teleflora. In addition to almonds, Paramount has 30,000 acres of pistachios and 6,000 acres of pomegranates. Paramount Citrus of Delano has 20,000 acres of oranges, lemons and other citrus, and through its S&J Farm Management subsidiary has another 10,000 acres of citrus, nuts and other crops.

The US has 2.4 million bee colonies, and an average 2.5 colonies are needed to pollinate each acre of almonds; the cost of renting bee colonies jumped from $90 to $140 in 2008. Bee colonies are dying because of colony collapse disorder, which is likely due to a complex chain of factors: pesticides, viruses and fungi and parasites such as mites.

Ventura. Ventura county, whose farm sales in 2006 topped $1.5 billion, is replacing orange trees with strawberries, nurseries and specialty vegetables. The countywide Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative in 1995 was followed by city SOAR ordinances, often over the objections of farmers who did not want the government restricting their right to develop their land for nonfarm uses until 2020. Until then, new housing must be within urban limits spelled out by SOAR.

In 2007, prime farm land in Ventura county was worth about $60,000 an acre, compared to $20,000 in Fresno county.

Raisins. The harvest of the $350 million raisin crop is being mechanized- perhaps half of the state's raisins were harvested with some type of mechanical assistance in 2007. The major mechanical alternative to workers cutting bunches of grapes and laying them on paper trays to dry into raisins is to cut the canes with bunches of grapes and allow the drying process to begin, then use a wine grape harvester to knock the partially dried raisins onto a continuous paper tray to finish drying into raisins.

Researchers are experimenting with loosening agents that would allow grapes to begin drying while still on the vine without cutting canes, which would save more labor and avoid damage to the vine. The 2007 crop is estimated at 274,000 tons of raisins.

Australian Victorian Fruit Drying Oil can be sprayed on raisin grapes to expedite harvesting them with DOV systems. The DOV system was developed in Australia, cuts the canes on which bunches of grapes grow so that they begin drying into raisins while still on the vine. The oil speeds the drying process, turns raisins a golden or amber color, and eliminates the need for sulfur dioxide, but requires large amounts of water. The dried raisins are then harvested by machine.

Hand-harvested raisins are cut when their sugar levels reach 21 or 22 Brix, and then laid on paper trays to dry into raisins, a process that can take four weeks. These raisins have the familiar brown color.

Water. In August 2007, a federal judge limited pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect the delta smelt, an endangered species. According to the California Farm Water Coalition, some 4,500 farmers statewide depend on water from the delta, and some reported that they had to idle land or buy water to keep their perennial crops such as almonds and wine grapes alive. As farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley switched to trees and vines, they lost flexibility to idle land in years when there was less water.

The combination of uncertainties about water and WTO decisions making some US cotton subsidies unlawful is encouraging a shift from cotton to grains such as wheat in California. Nationally, US cotton acreage fell to 11 million acres, the lowest since 1990.

The World Trade Organization in October 2007 concluded that the US did not remove unlawful subsidies paid to cotton growers. The decision allowed Brazil to impose annual sanctions of as much as $4 billion on the United States. African cotton exporters have called on the US to reduce its trade-distorting subsidies to cotton farmers by over 80 percent.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to 18 million people, negotiated to purchase 235,000 acre-feet from Yuba county. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to cover an acre one foot deep, and can supply two households for about a year. The MWD pays $65 an acre foot for water transferred through the Delta, and $125 an acre foot for water purchased from farmers.

Medflies. Medflies were discovered in Dixon, California in September 2007, the first time that they were discovered in the Central Valley since a 1982 find in Stockton. State officials think that each medfly outbreak is new, the result of a traveler returning with infested fruit, while some entomologists believe that the medfly has established itself in California, and is periodically "discovered." The medfly eats 260 types of fruits, nuts and vegetables; larvae-riddled fruit is inedible.

In the early 1980s, the state sprayed the pesticide Malathion to deal with a Bay Area outbreak of Mediterranean fruit flies. Today, the state attacks medfly infestations with sterile male Medflies whose bodies are dyed pink.

Pesticides. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation reported that 190 million pounds of commercial pesticides were used in 2006, down slightly from 2005.

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