December 6, 2013

Farm Beat: Ag doesn’t shut down for winter in Modesto area

Not much is harvested on Modesto-area farms in winter, but it’s still an important time for agriculture.

Chilly days like we’ve had this week make me think of peaches, cherries and other summer fruit.

It will take much warmer weather to get these crops to mature, but what happens in the cold months matters, too.

That’s when workers head into orchards armed with shears and saws. They prune out some of the leafless branches to ensure that the fruit will get the right amount of summer sun.

Growers also tally “chilling hours” from November through February – the length of time that the temperature is 45 degrees or less. Crop varieties need a certain minimum – from a few hundred to around 1,000 hours – to ensure the optimal bloom and fruit production in the following months.

These are things I have learned from farmers and academics while working the farm beat, and I have passed them along at times to backyard growers.

The Northern San Joaquin Valley is heavily into deciduous trees and vines – plants that lose their leaves in fall and benefit from cold weather during winter dormancy. Think peaches, apricots, apples, cherries, walnuts and almonds.

Unlike the central and southern parts of the Valley, we don’t have much citrus. It grows on evergreen trees that are more sensitive to cold. Oranges and the like get extra sweet around the freezing point, but too much time down in the 20s can wipe out much of the crop.

Winter matters also because that’s when it rains and snows. Hopefully. Most of the storms happen from November through March, supplying reservoirs that will irrigate fields during the mostly dry and warm stretch from April through October.

Winter has a few other bright spots. The Merced Certified Farmers Market, unlike most of these venues, operates all through the year. Out on the West Side, sheep graze the stubble on alfalfa fields that supplied feed for other livestock through several cuttings over the year.

Winter vegetables grow on some of our fields, and so do other feeds for dairy cattle. And of course, dairy and poultry farming are 365-day-a-year enterprises.

Other enterprising creatures bide their time in commercial bee boxes, waiting to be delivered to almond orchards in February to pollinate the trees that grow our most successful crop.

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