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January 2010, Volume 16, Number 1

California: Mechanization, Water

Mechanization. The Economist on December 10, 2009 explored agricultural robots or agribots, emphasizing the need for flexible machines to deal with changing weather and soil conditions. There is a trade off between the cost of machines, a fixed cost for growers who buy them, and people, who can be laid off when they are not needed. Machines can work at night and around the clock, but are not as good as people at identifying ripe and unripe commodities and handling them gently.

The falling cost of infomatics means that trees, vines, and plants may be treated as individual items in the future, with sensors collecting information on everything from water and other needs to fruits and vegetables ready for picking. Machines would then respond to care for the plant or to harvest commodities.

Completely automated growing and harvesting systems are very expensive. What may save farm labor in the next decade are systems that reduce labor needs by modifying the plant and the way commodities are harvested. For example, new varieties of raisin grapes reach high sugar levels earlier, which allows canes with bunches of grapes to be cut by machine, so that grapes can begin drying into raisins while still on the vine. Another machine can knock the partially dried raisins off the vine and onto a tray to complete the drying process, reducing harvest labor needs by up to 50 percent.

Vino Farms, with 11,000 acres mostly in the Lodi area, is experimenting with mechanical pruning, reducing the cost from $0.36 to $0.14 a vine. Vino also saves $70 an acre with mechanical leaf pulling.

Vision Robotics makes the mechanical pruners, which use two cameras to direct the two pruning heads. Vision Robotics says that, when the machine is released in 2011, it should be able to prune two rows simultaneously with 700 vines an acre in four hours.

Water. After several special legislative sessions, veto threats and extensive lobbying, California has a new plan for moving water from north to south. About 60 percent of the state's water falls north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, while 60 percent of the state's residents are south of the delta.

A package of five new water laws enacted in November 2009 includes a proposed $11.1 billion in bonds to pay for new dams and canals and restoration of the Delta ecosystem; user fees would cover the balance of the $40 billion cost of proposed projects. For the first time, there will be statewide monitoring of groundwater supplies by local water agencies; California had been the only western state that did not monitor groundwater usage. Per capita water use is to be reduced by 20 percent by 2020.

A new seven-member Delta Stewardship Council will be able to propose a peripheral canal to move water around the Delta, a plan approved in 1981 but defeated by voters.

The divide over how to deal with water issues in the Legislature mirrors statewide divisions. One side believes that more dams to store water and a peripheral canal around the delta can provide water for farmers and urban residents and preserve the environmental health of the delta. The other side wants to use the crisis in the delta to begin monitoring groundwater use, enforce water rights and encourage water sales, and promote conservation.

In December 2009, state water officials announced that only five percent of usual water allocations would be available in 2010? allocations are often raised as storms bring rain and snow. In 2009, about three-fourths of the lower water deliveries were due to drought and a quarter to environmental protections that reduced pumping. Farmers want the Endangered Species Act altered to allow more water to be pumped south despite shrinking fish stocks.

Stewart Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms and its 118,000 acres of irrigated California orchards, persuaded Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to request a $750,000 National Academy of Sciences review of the science that led to restrictions on pumping water south via the Delta. Resnick and Paramount donated about $4 million to California politicians since 1985, when their farm land purchases began.

Commodities. California's asparagus acreage has been halved in the past decade to 20,000, as imports and US production in lower-cost states shrink the marketing window to March through May. Over 90 percent of the asparagus consumed in the US in 2009 was imported, usually from Peru or Mexico, up from 60 percent in 2000.

The US asparagus industry may be saved by a mechanical harvester. Asparagus is a perennial grass, and must be harvested every few days. A machine in development would harvest rows up to ten feet wide; if it can lower costs sufficiently, the machine could save the US asparagus industry.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2009 rejected the challenge of three table grape growers to the $0.115 a box assessment for generic promotion of table grapes. The growers argued that it would be more efficient to market their own brands rather than support generic advertising.

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