And in normal years, production of asparagus has long reached its peak in Delta fields north of Tracy. This year, the harvest has just hit its stride.
A long winter drought followed by a series of late storms into April slowed the pace of agriculture in this area getting up and running. But the on-again, off-again start hasn’t diminished prospects for another successful year for farming.
Those prospects were brightened by the mostly sunny skies and warming temperatures of this week.
Asparagus and hay are traditionally the first crops to be harvested, and they have had a bumpy start.
Cutting of “gras” in the Delta started in March, but was interrupted several times by rain. After last week’s storm — which produced about an inch of rain — production finally moved into high gear, reported Marc Marchini of A.M. Farms on Union Island.
“We’re really going full tilt right now,” he reported. “The fields have mostly dried out after last week’s rain. And the quality right now is top of the line.”
The market, while not red hot, is solid, with a 28-pound cardboard box — no more wooden crates — going in the high $30 range.
“This has been a stuttering start, but it’s sure been a lot better than last year, when the spring was cold and rainy,” he said.
According to Marchini, the local asparagus harvest should continue through May, “but a lot depends on the weather.”
On Roberts Island east of A.M. Farms this week, Silva Bros. swathing machines were cutting hay in a 50-acre field farmed by Arnold Strecker Jr. and his son, David Strecker.
Arnold Strecker, a third-generation farmer on Roberts Island, said the first cutting of third-year alfalfa looked good, despite the ups and downs of the weather. And the crop is free of weeds.
It is one of the few alfalfa fields to begin the 2012 harvest. South of Tracy, swathers aren’t expected to move into hay fields until next few days, or even next week.
“We’re a good two weeks behind a normal start of the season,” reported Rick Staas, president and CEO of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association. “Normally, we get going around the first week of April.”
Hay growers have had to irrigate their fields at least once, and sometimes twice, to see any growth in the drought period. In an unusual twist, some fields of newly planted alfalfa needed sprinkler irrigation to grow.
Last week’s storm helped some late growth, but many local growers had to wait for the fields to dry out before cutting could begin. Cutting hay onto wet ground reduces quality.
“The first cutting really looks quite good,” Staas noted. “The quality and tonnage are there, and the fields look clean (of weeds).”
As the haying season begins, the market — which peaked to record-high prices last year — continues strong, with little holdover hay from last year on hand, Staas reported. Premium-quality hay is going for $260 to $270 a ton roadside (in stacks at the edge of fields). Some scattered sales of first-cutting hay have gone higher.
Last year, in a year of heavy spring rains, a shortage of corn as feed and strong demand from dairies netting higher milk prices caused alfalfa hay prices to peak at $290 per ton roadside and well over $300 per ton delivered.
Sales of hay by the hay-marketing cooperative hit $57 million, the second highest in the association’s 72-year history.
This year’s crop — most fields yield six cuttings and average 7 to 7.5 tons for the season — might not reach those highs, but they should be in the same range.
Because of the top prices of a year ago, planting of alfalfa in California accelerated over the winter, with total acres increasing by about 5 percent, Staas estimated. The increased acreage, along with slightly reduced dairy demand because of lower milk prices, should influence the market, Staas said.
A counter-balancing development is the increased exporting of hay, mostly to Asia, by an expanding exporting firm with hay presses for large and small bales at the Port of Stockton.
Meanwhile, south of Tracy, the Banta Carbona Irrigation District has been delivering water, on and off, since Jan. 9, much earlier than normal, said Jim McLeod, BCID board president.
The water irrigated grain fields, orchards — mostly almonds — and alfalfa fields. Some fields received multiple deliveries.
One of the district’s water users, Hal Robertson, is getting ready to start pre-irrigation for his tomato fields. He is beginning this process a bit later than usual, but planting isn’t far off a normal schedule, he reported.
Although prices to growers of canning tomatoes haven’t been established, the base price will be from $67 to $70 per ton. Last year, the base price was $68 per ton, but Robertson, with an eye toward increased prices paid for fuel, fertilizer and labor, hopes it will be $70.
The price paid for late-harvest deliveries is the center of ongoing negotiations between growers and processors, said Robertson, a director of the California Tomato Growers Association.
“Supply and demand for tomato of tomato paste is in balance,” said. “Last year’s crop in California was expected to be at least 12 million tons, but an October rainstorm reduced yields in late-harvesting fields, and the total came out to 11.9 million tons.
This year’s canning tomato crop, based on 266,000 acres at a 47.74-ton-per-acre average, is estimated at 12.7 million tons, which would be the second largest on record.
“Those are projections,” Robertson added. “But, of course, a lot depends on the weather.”
Allocations of water up
Recent storms that increased the Sierra Nevada snowpack and drenched the Central Valley with rain are allowing an increase in water allocations from the Delta-Mendota Canal for Tracy area irrigation districts.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that allocation for agricultural users contracted for canal water has been boosted from 30 to 40 percent of a full allocation.
Irrigation districts surrounding Tracy — including West Side, Banta Carbona and Byron Bethany — will each receive a portion of needed water supplies from the federal canal.
The city of Tracy’s allocation remains at 75 percent.