California Food and Farm News.


Snowpack improves but remains low
March storms have more than doubled the water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, although levels remain far below average. Electronic sensor readings show the snowpack at 58 percent of average as of Tuesday, up from only 23 percent on March 1. During that same period, the water content of the snow has gone from an average of 6 inches to 16 inches. Most reservoirs remain at or near their average storage levels, thanks to rains from a year ago.

California avocado harvest accelerates
They’ve had an offseason marked by wildfires, mudslides and freezes in some areas, but California avocado growers still expect a larger crop this season. The California Avocado Commission estimates the crop at 375 million pounds, up from 215 million a year ago. Farmers say they have started their harvest by “size picking”: harvesting the larger avocados and leaving the smaller fruit on the tree to continue to grow.

Scientists study how citrus psyllid spreads tree disease
Researchers report another small step forward in finding a way to protect citrus trees from a fatal tree disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says scientists have learned more about how the bacterium that causes the disease enters the insect that carries it, the Asian citrus psyllid. The chairman of the California Citrus Research Board says learning more about how the disease moves could eventually help reduce its threat to citrus groves.

Farm Bureau surveys retail food prices
A springtime survey of retail food prices shows a slight increase from a year ago. The American Farm Bureau Federation says its informal survey finds average prices for a basket of 16 food items rose 2 percent. Heading into Easter, egg prices increased 37 percent compared to a year earlier, offsetting declines in the average prices for milk, bread, chicken breasts, apples and other foods.

California celebrates Agriculture Day
Hundreds of people braved a light rain to gather outside the state Capitol in Sacramento Tuesday for celebrations commemorating National Agriculture Day. The event focused on the environmental stewardship shown by the state’s farmers and ranchers. Coinciding with the first day of spring, Agriculture Day highlights the value of agriculture’s contributions to people’s daily lives. Agriculture Week celebrations will be held throughout the week in many parts of the state and nation.

Recovery from Thomas Fire could take years
More than three months after the Thomas Fire ripped through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, farmers and ranchers continue to assess the long-term impacts. Avocado farmers say some fire-blackened trees have started to put out new growth, leading to hope they may recover. Cattle ranchers within the fire zone say it will take years for their herds and grazing land to recover fully. A lemon grower says Santa Ana winds caused more problems than the fire did.

California-grown asparagus reaches market
The state’s remaining asparagus farmers hope shoppers will look for California-grown asparagus in markets before Easter. Asparagus acreage in the state has declined during the past 20 years, in large part due to lower-cost competition from Mexico. But California farmers still grow about 7,000 acres of asparagus, mainly along the Central Coast, in the San Joaquin Delta and the Central Valley. Harvest will continue through mid-May.

Report shows gaps in agricultural science teaching
A study issued Tuesday points to gaps in training students for careers in agricultural science. The National 4-H Council and Bayer surveyed teachers and parents. Most respondents said they consider agricultural science important. But many high school science teachers said they don’t feel qualified to teach agricultural science. An earlier federal study showed demand from agriculture-science employers greatly outweighs the number of qualified graduates available.

Sheep ranchers report strong lamb market
Easter remains the biggest time for American lamb consumption, but the holiday doesn’t have much influence into when California ranchers market their lambs. Most California-grown lambs are born in the fall and marketed after Easter, with many being sold directly to restaurants and other customers. Both ranchers and marketers report strong demand for California lamb this year.

Projects aim to benefit honeybees
Research to improve honeybee health includes a multi-year project at the University of California, San Diego. Scientists have been testing a way to immunize bees against a fungus known as Nosema. If successful, the researchers say, the tests could lead to a new way to treat honeybee fungal diseases. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an international project to seek new controls for a honeybee parasite called varroa mite.

Rat problems emerge in orchards
It seems to be a good year for rats in California orchards and fields, according to a University of California specialist—and that means farmers have been taking extra control measures to protect crops. UC farm advisors say they’ve spotted roof rats in Central Valley orchards. In rural settings, the rats often burrow into the ground, then climb trees at night. Farmers have used bait stations tied to tree limbs as a control method.

Imports of apparel, textiles set record
The expanding U.S. economy boosted demand for clothing, which led to record apparel and textile imports. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports growth in athletic and leisure wear has increased demand for synthetic fibers, so synthetics accounted for half of the import total. Cotton products made up more than 40 percent of the imports. The report says overall cotton consumption in the U.S. remained virtually unchanged last year.

Agricultural exporters watch metal-import dispute
Farmers have a lot on the line in discussions about potential U.S. tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, according to an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation. If the U.S. imposes the tariffs and steel-producing nations retaliate, farmers worry agricultural products could be affected. The analysis says about one-third of California farm exports go to aluminum-producing countries, and nearly 45 percent go to steel-producing countries.

Farmers and ranchers visit state legislators
More than 150 farmers and ranchers from around California gathered in Sacramento Tuesday to visit legislators and discuss pertinent issues during the annual California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference. Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson told the group their voices are needed to reinforce issues important to rural California. The farmers and ranchers then conducted dozens of legislative visits at the state Capitol.

Collaborative salmon projects show promise
Cooperative projects to benefit salmon are proving helpful in recovering fish, according to participants in the projects. Farmers, researchers, agencies and organizations report positive results from ecosystem improvements that address challenges salmon face. The numerous projects include efforts to grow food for salmon in flooded rice fields and to create salmon refuges by lowering large tree trunks and root wads into the Sacramento River.

Research promises to boost water efficiency
Saying their work could lead to increases in agricultural water efficiency, scientists announced Tuesday they have been able to regulate a plant protein that controls photosynthesis. The team, including researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, says increasing the protein in plants allows them to grow more efficiently, and thrive on 25 percent less water. Researchers say the plants used less water without “significantly sacrificing” yield.

Extent of freeze losses remains to be determined
They know their crops have suffered damage from several days of freezing temperatures, but almond farmers say the extent of losses from the cold weather likely won’t be known for months. The freeze of the past week occurred throughout the Central Valley as almond trees bloomed. Farmers say that means some of the blossoms won’t create nuts. But the full impact may not be known until harvest time this summer, and observers say it may vary greatly from orchard to orchard.

Farmers, farm employees seek immigration reform
Pursuing the goal of a flexible, practical agricultural immigration program, California farmers and employees have traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with members of Congress. The California Farm Bureau Federation, which sponsored the trip, says it aims to emphasize the importance of partnerships between farmers and employees. Farm organizations have been advocating with Congress for a workable solution for people who want to enter the U.S. to fill agricultural jobs.

Agriculture secretary visits Southern California
For the second time this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits California. Perdue is scheduled to speak to the Commodity Classic agricultural conference in Anaheim on both Wednesday and Thursday. His visit also includes a meeting with U.S. Forest Service rangers and employees, and a tour of parts of the Angeles National Forest damaged by the Creek Fire last December. Perdue visited Central California two weeks ago.

Organic berry sales trend upward
Americans show a growing demand for organic berries, according to an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation. Citing data from both government and private sources, Farm Bureau economists say sales of organic produce generally have continued to increase—but sales for strawberries and blueberries in particular have trended upward. The analysis says sales of domestically grown and imported organic berries have shown sharp increases.

Farmers work to protect crops from freeze damage
Cold overnight temperatures across much of California come at a time when some crops will be vulnerable to freeze damage. For example, Central Valley almond trees are in bloom, so farmers have been irrigating orchards in hopes of raising temperatures enough to stave off damage. It’s a similar story in citrus groves, where concern focuses on the blossoms for next year’s crop. On the Central Coast, new growth on strawberry plants could be affected.

CVP announces initial water allocation
Below-average rain and snow this winter mean reduced water supplies for the federal Central Valley Project. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, said Tuesday it expects to deliver 20 percent of contract supplies to its farm customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and 30 percent to customers of its Friant unit. The bureau said the current situation underscores the need for more storage to capture water in wet winters.

California Farm Bureau seeks immigration solution
As Congress discusses immigration reform, the California Farm Bureau Federation says any solution must recognize the current immigrant employees on whom farms and ranches depend. California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson says legislation currently before Congress “just wouldn’t work” for the state’s farms and ranches. He says CFBF and other organizations will press for a more practical and flexible agricultural-visa program.

Californian wins national Collegiate Discussion Meet
A Fresno State University student has won a national contest aimed at simulating discussion of agricultural issues at a committee meeting. Tim Truax, an agricultural education major from Turlock, won the national Collegiate Discussion Meet sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation. In the final round of the competition, Truax and other college students discussed trade policy. He competed in a field of 59 contestants from around the country.

Agriculture secretary visits California
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visits farms in the Central Valley Wednesday during the second day of a three-day visit to California. Perdue has scheduled visits to two fruit packinghouses, a dairy, an almond processing plant and other facilities. On Tuesday, the secretary conducted a town hall meeting at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, during which he answered questions about farm policy, research priorities and other topics.

Unusual winter weather affects crops
Warm, dry winter weather affects operations on California farms and ranches. Farmers say warmer-than-average temperatures in recent weeks have pushed crops ahead of a typical schedule—and may leave some crops vulnerable to frost when colder weather resumes. The lack of rain in the Central Valley has encouraged some farmers to irrigate trees and vines earlier than they typically would.

State continues to lead in vegetable production
Heavy rains in California last spring contributed to reduced vegetable production in California, according to an annual report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report showed total vegetable production in the state down 11 percent, compared to the previous year—though harvests of crops such as cauliflower, sweet corn and romaine lettuce increased. California accounted for 57 percent of the nation’s vegetable production last year.

Bottling in glass helps dairy farms compete
Milk in glass bottles has become a niche market for several California dairy farms. The farms say bottling in glass gives them an opportunity to sell their own milk and help it stand out in the marketplace. In some cases, the farms distinguish themselves with flavored milks as well. One Stanislaus County dairy bottles milk in flavors including orange cream, root beer and cotton candy.

Flowers plentiful for Valentine’s Day, despite challenges
Flower farmers in the Carpinteria Valley largely dodged two disasters this winter: the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides. As Valentine’s Day nears, the region called the “flower basket of the world” is returning to normal and ready to fill customers’ vases. Roses are often the holiday’s go-to flower. One farmer says his hydroponic roses have carved a niche for themselves in a market dominated by imports. (on-air reading time :23)

Wildfire lessons spread statewide
Lessons learned from the North Bay wildfires could help other regions prepare for and respond to disasters, according to farmers and officials who met last week in Sonoma County. One agricultural commissioner spoke of arranging escorted access to farms and ranches in evacuation zones during the October fires, and of being contacted by a Southern California counterpart for advice on how to accomplish that during the Thomas Fire in December. (reading time :23)

New tree-mortality tool helps in fight against wildfire
Drought and bark beetle infestation killed 100 million trees in California from 2006 to 2016, increasing the risk of wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service has created a new tool that analyzes historical data to help predict the location and extent of tree mortality one to two years in the future, allowing land managers to better plan for pest suppression and wildfire prevention. (reading time :20)

Global demand for ice cream grows
The global ice cream market is estimated to reach $78.8 billion by 2025, according to a new report. Demand for premium products, innovative flavors, lactose-free options and impulse purchases, as well as increased consumption in Asia Pacific, is expected to drive growth at 4.1 percent annually. California is the top dairy- and ice cream-producing state in the U.S.

Sierra snowpack remains low
The Sierra Nevada snowpack has improved ever-so slightly in January, according to automatic sensors, but manual surveyors who visit the Sierra Thursday will still find far-below-average levels. Sensor readings show the statewide snowpack at about 30 percent of average, up from about one-quarter of average at the start of the month. But most aboveground reservoirs remain at or above average storage levels, due to the wet winter a year ago.

Dairy digesters to be dedicated
Celebrations scheduled for Friday will mark the opening of three dairy digester projects in Kern County. Digesters capture methane and other gas created from dairy waste, and convert the gas into electricity and vehicle fuel. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which provides grants to encourage digester development, says the systems help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Processing tomato acreage to increase
More tomatoes may be produced on California farms this year, according to a preliminary government estimate. The report says processors plan to contract with farmers to grow 12 million tons of tomatoes for use in sauce, ketchup and other products. That would be up 4 percent from last year’s contract volumes. Processing-tomato acreage had dropped to low levels a year ago, as processors sought to balance supply and demand.

Direct purchasing may affect produce buying patterns
People who shop directly with farmers at roadside stands or farmers markets tend to spend more money on fruits and vegetables: That’s the finding of a U.S. Department of Agriculture study. Analyzing data from shopper surveys, USDA concluded that Americans shop at direct-to-customer outlets relatively infrequently, and that encouraging people to shop at farmers markets and other direct outlets could increase overall fruit and vegetable purchases.

Wildfires affect stormwater-testing requirements
In the aftermath of California’s severe wildfire season, rainstorms have added ash and debris to storm runoff. That could affect the regular stormwater samples required for wineries and breweries—and state water regulators have offered partial relief as a result. At the request of farm and trade groups, wineries and breweries in wildfire zones will be allowed to show that constituents in stormwater have been caused by debris, not their activities.

Meat supplies could set record this year
More meat will be available to Americans than ever before, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Analysts say total supplies of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey will reach nearly 223 pounds per person, the highest figure on record. The forecast does not predict meat prices. It expects beef production to rise 6 percent, pork 5 percent and chicken 2 percent.

Alfalfa fields show promise for groundwater recharge
A two-year study demonstrates that flooding alfalfa fields shows strong potential for refilling groundwater supplies. University of California specialists who conducted the study flooded fields near Davis and in the Scott Valley of Siskiyou County. In each case, most of the water percolated into the water table, and the practice had only minimal impact on the crop. The university has studied similar projects in California orchards and vineyards.

UC assesses potential for elderberry production
In California, they’re grown mainly to act as a windbreak or attract beneficial insects, but elderberry plants also produce fruit—and the University of California wants to learn if elderberries could succeed as a crop. UC researchers have planted elderberries at four farms in the Central Valley, to assess farming practices and market potential. Elderberries are now used in jams, syrups, wines and liqueurs, but most commercial production occurs in the Midwest.

Mudslides add to Southern California farm losses
In the wake of the deadly mudslides that hit Santa Barbara County last week, officials have begun to gauge the impact to agricultural operations. The California Cut Flower Commission says a number of flower farms in the Carpinteria Valley have been affected—either directly from the slide or indirectly through loss of power to greenhouses and through road damage. Groups representing growers of other crops say they are still trying to assess any losses.

Walnut business prepares for increased production
Anticipating larger crops in coming years, people in the walnut business have been adding facilities and marketing plans to handle and sell the crops. The California Walnut Commission says it plans to focus on enhancing demand in domestic markets, in part by stressing the nutritional benefits of walnuts. The commission will also work to develop new products featuring walnuts, including in confections, spreads and sauces.

Dairy marketers follow dietary trends
Do you drink your milk, or eat it? Americans have been eating a higher proportion of their milk intake by consuming dairy products such as yogurt, cheese and butter. In response to the trend, California-based dairy processors say they’re working to create new products and different blends of existing products. The California Milk Advisory Board says it sees potential in incorporating dairy foods more frequently into snacks and at breakfast.

USDA reports on crop condition
With more rain and snow due in Northern California during the next week, farmers may be able to ease back on wintertime irrigation of developing crops. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that farmers have been irrigating a variety of crops this month, due to dry conditions so far this winter. Rain that fell last week benefited lettuce, pasture and other crops, but USDA says additional rain will be needed.

Dry December means early irrigating
With hardly any December rain to speak of, farmers throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys resorted to early-winter irrigation. They said it would be nearly impossible to catch up if the soil is too dry when spring comes. One ranch manager said, under normal conditions, he doesn’t usually need to start irrigating until mid-May. At least two irrigation districts may release water early for those needing it.

Strawberry farmers may produce another record crop
There should be plenty of California strawberries for shoppers this year, if weather and growing conditions cooperate. The California Strawberry Commission says farmers may produce another record crop, just as they did the last two years. This is in spite of fewer acres being planted. Farmers say higher-yielding strawberry varieties have allowed them to produce more fruit on less land.

Leafy greens may slow cognitive decline
Aging lovers of leafy greens may benefit from brains that behave as much as 11 years younger, according to a study recently published in the journal Neurology. Researchers found consumption of at least one serving daily of green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and lettuce was associated with slower cognitive decline in participants, ages 58 to 99.

Families still own most U.S. farms
Farming is still overwhelmingly comprised of family businesses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offers a snapshot of America’s diverse family farms in a new report. It says 99 percent of U.S. farms are family farms, and they accounted for 90 percent of farm production in 2016.

Agricultural losses mount from Thomas Fire
The first estimate of agricultural losses from the huge Southern California wildfire totals more than $171 million. The Ventura County agricultural commissioner reports the Thomas Fire damaged more than 70,000 acres of cropland and rangeland. Damage to buildings and equipment accounted for two-thirds of the initial monetary losses. Among crops, avocados and lemons absorbed the worst damage.

Surveyors to look for Sierra snow
When state snow surveyors conduct their first physical survey of the year Wednesday, there likely won’t be a lot to see. After a dry December, electronic readings of the Sierra snowpack show it standing at one-quarter of average for the date. Water managers use the snowpack data to plan for summertime supplies. Due to the heavy precipitation of a year ago, most large reservoirs in the state remain at or above their average levels for early January.

Solar plants needn’t displace farmland, study learns
Plenty of places exist to locate new solar energy facilities without putting them on prime farmland, according to a University of California study. Researchers identified opportunities for locating solar plants on Central Valley land not suitable for farming, on rooftops of agricultural facilities and other places. A co-author of the study says it’s important to explore such alternative sites for solar development, in order to conserve farmland.

USDA looks at millennials’ food-buying habits
The millennial generation will likely be an important driver in the economy for years to come, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reports on the generation’s food-buying habits in a new study. It says millennials—born between 1981 and 1996—demand healthier, fresher food than earlier generations, spend less on food intended to be eaten at home and spend more on prepared foods.