Saturday, November 22, 2014

Faces of the Drought

There is a great Facebook page called Faces of the Drought. This week they featured a farmer from Kerman.

I have been farming here since 1981. My wife’s family has been here for 100 years. We own land here and are invested in the community. Farming isn’t portable. I love California but I hate seeing what we are doing to her. Something most non-farmers don’t understand is that we’re making plans now for next summer’s crop and we have to roll the dice on the water situation. The people who buy my crops don’t care about the uncertainty; I take on all the risk as a grower.#mydroughtstory

Monday, November 17, 2014

An Auction and Entropy on the Farm

There's an old joke about a minister visiting a farmer for Sunday dinner. The farmer had spent years reclaiming some land pulling stumps and leveling the land. Now there were fertile fields in every direction. The minister said tot eh farmer, "You and the Lord have done some pretty nice work here." The farmer's response was, "You should have seen it when the Lord had it to himself."
Ba dump bump.

I live with the miracles of farming on a regular basis, but I can appreciate what that old farmer said. It takes a lot of energy to make a farm go. It reminds me of the Laws of Thermodynamics: there is the tendency of things to go from order to disorder. It takes a lot of energy to keep things from going to disorder and chaos on the farm.

The picture above is from an auction last week. Some neighbors sold out after a lifetime of farming. These guys were excellent farmers who put a lot of energy and intelligence into their farm. In one sense it was sad to see it end. On the other hand, they retired by choice. I have been to auctions after the owner has passed away or lost the farm. There is a sense of real sadness at those auctions.

Next week we will talk about the recent elections and if they make any difference on the farm.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

2014 In the Rear View Mirror...

   We got the first wheat field planted this week. We are rocking and rolling to get the next one ready.
   In this picture we are land planing the field. This smooths the bumps and ruts out so we can irrigate more efficiently. Next we will disc, the furrow out.

2014 in the Rear View Mirror
by Paul H. Betancourt
copyright November 2014

            “What would [the drought] have been like if we did not have access to ground water?”
                                                          Dr. Richard Howitt
                                                          Professor Emeritus UC Davis

            The dominant issue in California agriculture this year, of course, has been water. Former UC Davis professor Dr. Richard Howitt reported that this year 17,000 jobs have been lost and there have been $2.2B in production losses. Howitt;s question is, “What would [the drought] have been like if we did not have access to ground water?” That is a key question.
            I find it frustrating and ironic that the same year the cut off surface water activists and our friends in Sacramento discover, “Oh, you have a groundwater problem.” Excuse me, THAT”S WHY WE PUT IN THE SURFACE WATER SYSTEMS DECADES AGO! (Sorry, I told you I was frustrated.) We realized a long time ago we could not increase production with the risk of over drafting the groundwater aquifer. With amazing foresight and working with slide rules those guys created an amazing and effective surface water system.
            We did pass a water bond this year. Now we will see if we squander that opportunity, or build for the future.

Other Issues
            Of course there have been other issues in Ag this year. At the conference hosted by Fresno State’s Center for Agricultural Business earlier this month two other issue were highlighted: Immigration Reform and Food Safety.

            Regarding food safety, let’s be clear: our food supply is safe. The issue is documentation. The government and buyers are demanding more and more documentation from growers.  While food safety is everyone’s concern, the pendulum is starting to swing too far. One friend is doing the right thing. He and his wife are growing organic produce. She spends her summer selling at various farmer’s markets in the area. But, he is ready to quit because he is spending over five hours a week just filling out paper work. Another neighbor grew his first crop of cherries last year. He was given three, three inch thick three ring binders to fill out.
            As I said above, the pendulum is swinging too far. An organic food activist from the Bay Area asked what he could do to help farmers. I said, “Get the documentation  down to one binder.” We know we are going do have to do reports. But, how many of you have time to fill out repetitive reports? I thought so.
            Food safety is a serious concern. As a farmer I want you to be confident that the food you are eating safe. Paper work is not reality. Reality is what happens in the fields.

            Immigration reform is a political hot potato in Washington. President Bush tried to make reforms, but was shot down by members of his own party. President Obama is getting criticized for supporting the Hispanic community on this issue during election campaigns, but failing to make any serious effort after elections. The good news for the Ag community and workers here in the Valley is that this is no longer a farm issue. When the Immigration and Control Act of 1986 passed the issue was agriculture and it was focused in Florida and the states that border Mexico. Now it is an issue in all fifty states, many industries and immigrants from countries other than Mexico. Hopefully with more people and more states involved we can find a solution.

Looking Back and Looking Forward
            So meanwhile, taking a look at 2014 in the rear view mirror. If you have water farming is fabulous. Commodity prices were strong. Production was down in many crops. Almonds, for example, were down 20-30 percent. But, prices pushed up. The real restriction for prosperity on the farm was the issue of water.

            In 2001 Fresno State celebrated the one millionth volume at the Madden Library. California State Historian Kevin Starr spoke at the event. He said the history of the last hundred years in California was the development of the coast and the history of the next hundred years will be the development of the Valley. This year has shown us that If we don’t figure out this water thing, that future will be dry and dusty.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

We Got a Little Rainfall...

   That may not look like much to you, but it is a pretty picture for me. Each of those modules contains about thirteen and a half bales of cotton. Since they are safely picked and out of the field it can rain and not hurt the crop. Yay! That feels good. We got grades back on the first bales to be ginned and quality looks fantastic.
   Speaking of rain, we got half an inch at the house last night and three quarters of an inch at the other ranch. That won't break the drought, but it will settle the dust and clear the air.

   We still have another full week of heavy tractor work to do. We got the first wheat field furrowed out before the rain. We will plant that on Monday. Then we have the last wheat field and the onions to prepare. Then we will slow down to full speed. 

Please remember to Vote Tuesday! If you are in my school board district I would appreciate your vote. But, vote vote vote. This all works better if we participate. Our voice is important. I know all the reasons people don't vote and I get it. But, think of these two reasons to vote-

   -"they" think your vote is important. Why else would they raise and spend all that money trying to get your vote?

   - if you do not vote, you give more power to those who do vote. Mathematically their vote has more weight if we don't vote.

So please get out there and vote.

See you next week.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Another Problem With Our Water Policy...

One of the problems with how we manage our water is the fact that I have to make decisions about next year's crop now! I have to make decisions based on incomplete information.

We are bedding up and fertilizing fields now for next summer. I cannot wait to see what this winter's rainfall is going to be like.

This is a view from the cotton picker as we second pick the Pima. 

You can see the shredder is right behind me. In the distance is a tractor discing the field and there is another tractor and disc just out of view. [Sorry, I couldn't get all four machines in one photo without staging it and I am not going to waste time like that.]
   My first few years up here it rained early in the Fall. So, that is my default position, I expect it to rain and I know we have to get the ground worked before the heavy winter rains set in.

In a'normal' year, what ever that is we do not find out how much water we will get until February or March. I cannot wait that long to decide what to do. So, once again, the farmer takes all the risk. We make the investment and prepare ground; betting on the come that there will be enough water to grow our crops. 
   The risk is even larger for permanent crops. There we have to begin years ahead of time. And, years of investment and work can be destroyed in one season.

Last year I have neighbors who had hundreds of dollars an acre of tractor work in their fields who had to then abandon their fields. This is not good.

If we are ever going to have a healthy Ag economy we are going to need a stable water supply. it is bad enough that I have to worry about the ups and downs of Nature. I also have politicians trying to stick their fingers in the situation. It is not surprising the hair that has not fallen out has turned gray.

I hope you all have a great week. We are going to be busy keeping the tractors going.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Satisfaction of Harvest

   Those are what we call cotton modules at the end of the field. The cotton picker dumps the seed cotton into the module builder and the cotton is packed into what look like giant loaves eight feet wide, eight feet high and thirty two feet long. These are covered and later hauled to the gin. They sure look pretty lined up there at sunrise. If you put out modules end to end we would have a wall of seed cotton almost half a mile long.
   We have finished first picking, but we are far from done. The next few weeks we are still very busy. We will second pick the cotton, then work the ground and plant our wheat. It's go, go, go and then we slow down to full speed. 

The Satisfaction of Harvest
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright September, 2012

                  You have heard me whimper and whine about a lot of farming and how tough it is. Sorry about that. This morning I want to talk about the satisfaction of farming. There is nothing like bringing in a good harvest: seeing the picker fill up p with cotton, seeing the wheat pouring into the trucks, seeing the almonds being swept up and shipped off. The satisfaction of a productive year’s work. That’s good stuff.
            Unlike many people farmers don’t see the daily result of their work. Right now we are waiting to see how this year’s cotton crop will turn out. We started working the ground last Fall. We planted in April. We have been tending the fields all summer, but we won’t know how it will turn out until next month.
            But, all that waiting has a payoff. I love Fall weather. It’s cool and crisp after the oven heat of the summer. And then we fire up the pickers and head into the field.

We still have work to do and bills to pay. But, there is a real sense of satisfaction seeing how the year’s work turned out.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pickin' Cotton

            I don’t take my blood pressure during cotton harvest. I might break the cuff. It can be a little nerve wracking.

-There is the anticipation of bringing a season’s worth of work. How did we do? Will we pay the bills?

-There is the worry about the weather. The first few seasons I was up here it rained all Fall. Picking in the rain is a mess. That introduction to cotton picking makes me jump this time of year even when the weather man says everything is OK.

-Will the equipment hold together? G. Gordon Liddy was a former Marine. He described a helicopter as “ten thousand nuts and bolts trying to go in different directions at the same time.” That is a good description of  a cotton picker too. All it takes is one broken bolt and everything comes to a crashing halt.

With all that, we are off to a good start. Warm dry weather is perfect for cotton harvest. The first day was a little slow as we got the wrinkles out. There have been a couple of little heart attacks. But, we will finish the first field on Monday. But, when we finished planting in April Ruben said, “We’re done planting. Now you can relax.” I told him I can’t relax until the last bale is picked and ginned. There are just too many things that go wrong.

Just a reminder- my new book, “this Week on the Farm is now at the Clovis Book Barn.

I hope you all have a great week. I’m going to take a nap tomorrow afternoon and back in the field on Monday.