Dick Hagerty: Valley's agriculture is abundant, but faces challenges

columns@modbee.comMay 14, 2013 

hagerty

Dick Hagerty, Community Columnist.

STEVE KOSKO 102606 — Modesto Bee

— From Redding to Bakersfield, the view constantly changes from crop to crop, but you never are out of sight of the great productivity of our orchards, fields and farms.

Our county ranks sixth in California, with more than $3 billion in total ag production. Dairy and milk rank first, notwithstanding all those almond trees that seem to cover most of the orchard land. Almonds rank second, with poultry, walnuts and corn silage rounding out the top five.

Our rich sandy loam soil, plentiful water — well, sort of plentiful these days — and the warm summers and chilly winters combine to make the perfect environment for agricultural prosperity.

Drive 200 miles south and it seems you never will leave the sight of almond orchards. They border our highways for hundreds of miles. A more careful look at the environment in that journey will reveal that the farther south you drive, the further along the growing and harvest season will appear. At the extreme southern end of our valley, they are 10 days to two weeks ahead of us in seasonal development. It is interesting to leave Stanislaus County in February with bare limbs on all the tree. By the time you are in Fresno, the trees are in full flower, and in Bakersfield the trees are fully leafed out with small almonds showing and all the petals on the ground.

Another interesting visual: the appearance of cotton fields somewhere south of Merced. Bill Burchell always tells me, "The cotton does not grow north of Highway 152." Yet, interestingly, once you are 100 miles north of Sacramento, you will again encounter those fluffy white fields. Clearly our delta breezes have a major impact on the ability to grow cotton.

Of course, on that drive from Sacramento to Redding, it is doubtful you will lose sight of a rice mill somewhere along the highway or off on the horizon. Rice is a huge component of our north state ag economy.

But not all is bright on the local agricultural scene.

Our water supply is under attack from several directions, each with powerful political backing. Southern California and the Bay Area are aggressively seeking ways to divert our farm water for their domestic purposes. And the political reality is simple, they have the votes in the California legislative bodies to strongly pursue these ends.

The federal government is equally aggressive in demanding that major amounts of river water be provided in the runoff to the sea to sustain the dwindling salmon and other fish migrations. It is so sad to drive down Interstate 5 in the southern portion of our valley and see miles of dead and dying orchards, all sacrificed to the migration of a few thousand silvery fish.

Air quality officials have zeroed in on ag activities as well. Burning of harvested fields, pruned branches and piles of clippings is severely restricted, and soon will be banned. The recommended solution is to buy industrial strength chippers, shred these byproducts, and spread them across the fields as mulch. The reality is that these chips are not mulch at all, but little nickel-sized pieces that will take years to deteriorate and blend with the soil. Also, most of our farm delivery vehicles, especially those equipped with auxiliary cooling units, are in an aggressive government mandated phase out — at great cost to the growers. Most older diesel-powered farm vehicles are no longer allowed to operate, and fuel costs have driven farm overhead to extreme levels.

And China continues to "borrow" our technology, our patented fruit varieties, and our methods of propagation.

Twenty years ago, apples were a powerful sector of our local agricultural economy. Today, China produces four or five times the aggregate amount of our apple crops and dominates the Asian markets that once looked to California to satisfy their craving for this fruit. Local apple orchards are few and far between.

My late mother grew up on a large dairy in central Washington and often lamented, "There is never any rest for the farmer." Some things apparently never change.

Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. This is another in a series of his columns looking at agriculture. Others are available at modbee.com/opinion. Send comments or questions to columns@modbee.com.

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