Ag labor shortage looms across West...

Cherry grower: ‘There are not enough hands to pick our crops’

The supply of seasonal farm labor along the West Coast continues to tighten as farmers struggle to assemble crews in time for the annual fruit harvests, and some in the industry worry the shortage will worsen.

Drug cartel activities and higher fees for smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border have reduced available farmworkers, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, in Fresno, Calif. Tighter immigration enforcement, an ineffective guestworker program and lack of national immigration reform are shrinking the migrant labor pool, industry sources said.

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Officials say landowners must monitor for illegal activity...

Federal law enforcement authorities warned agricultural landowners to be aware what’s happening on their property, and of the potential impact if authorities find marijuana cultivation on the land.

Authorities said changes in California law have made fertile Central Valley lands more appealing to marijuana growers, who have been renting land to cultivate their crop. Growing under the guise of medical marijuana, federal officials said, the growers found local law enforcement reluctant to make arrests because there was little chance of jail time.

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The zinfandel clones are coming...

Years of screening by University of California viticulture researchers is resulting in the rapid release of dozens of Zinfandel clones, each with small differences that could be important in the eyes of wine makers.

As the clones are released, growers have access to unprecedented information on detailed differences in how they can be expected to perform in the field.

“Before 2009, we only had four certified clones of Zinfandel. We have 25 or 26 new clones becoming available as we speak, and the list from the screening of the heritage collections is getting longer every time I check the web site,” said Paul Verdegaal, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in San Joaquin County.

Verdegall discussed the Zinfandel clones with growers at the 60th Annual Lodi Grape Day in February.

Zinfandel has been widely grown in the Lodi district for well over a century and is still the area’s dominant variety, with nearly 20,000 acres. The crush report is a more accurate measure than the acreage report, according to Lodi Winegrape Commission project manager Stuart Spencer, and more than 140,000 tons of Zinfandel from the district are crushed.

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Silence of the honey bee hives...

For longtime commercial beekeeper Eric Olson of Yakima, no sting is as painful as the one he felt last winter when he discovered his hives had gone silent. Peering into each box, he saw the queen and a mere scattering of her worker-bee offspring; tens of thousands of adult bees – gone.

“They just up and left,” said Olson. “I’m 68 years old and it was the biggest shock of my life. It wasn’t just economic. It was psychological. I love my bees.”

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Many grape growers plan to voluntarily comply with water rules...

Two large groups representing North Coast grape growers said Friday they are likely to voluntarily comply with rules designed to protect endangered fish in the Russian River, even though a judge has put the controversial regulations on hold.

But it’s unclear whether other growers, who farm more than half of the 23,050 acres in the Russian River watershed, would follow their lead as they head into a critical time of year when water is commonly used to protect crops from frost.

A ruling Thursday by Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Ann Moorman halted enforcement of new state rules that regulate the use of water along the Russian River. The rules prohibit growers from spraying their crops with water during frost season unless they have submitted plans that outline the steps they will take to protect the river.

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Winegrape boom is projected to continue in 2012...

The pendulum has swung back in the right direction for California winegrape growers in 2011 following a couple years of lower prices and drop in demand for grapes that was linked to the worldwide economic downturn.

That was the consensus of the presenters at the popular State of the Industry session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento last week. Two lighter than normal winegrape crops in California and other producing nations, coupled with continued growth in wine consumption, has led to the upswing in profitability for winegrape growers.

Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates noted that in 2010 the United States surpassed France and Italy to become the world’s largest wine-consuming nation and the growth is continuing.

“There has been a marketing free-for-all this past year and I was surprised by what I’ve seen,” he said. “In spite of soft economic conditions, wine shipments to the United States advanced by about 14.5 million cases, or 4.5 percent, to 345 million cases in 2011.”

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Seller’s market for grapes bolsters spirits at Winegrape Commission’s dollars & $ense Seminar...

A dramatic turnaround in the wine market is sharply increasing prices for grapes, bolstering the spirits and optimism of growers beaten down over the last several years by sluggish demand, low prices and hellish weather during harvest.

The optimism and high spirits were almost palpable at the 21st annual Dollars & $ense Seminar, held Jan. 19 at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, where a record crowd of more than 550 people, mostly grape growers, vineyard managers and viticulture industry vendors, cheered the positive news of the rapidly changing market for Sonoma County grapes.

Sonoma County Winegrape Commission sponsors the annual Dollars & $ense Seminar, which serves as a sort of ‘State of the Wine Grape” address for the year ahead. The theme of this year’s seminar was “Preparing for Tomorrow.” The market outlook presented atthe seminar has been gloomy the previous two years but this year it was extremely positive and encouragingly upbeat. The turnaround has suddenly created a seller’s market for growers as wineries rush to secure grapes from this year’s harvest and beyond.

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The art is in the pruning: Growers look for the best techniques, fastest pruners...

Pruning winegrape vines is an art. And it’s one that, in the dead of winter, can set the stage for the year’s vines – and wines.

“Pruning is important because it really sets your crop potential for the coming year,” said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “It’s important to create a balanced vine and a reasonable crop yield – not excessive, which doesn’t make good wine quality, but not so low that you really don’t have potential for profit,”

But before one even considers getting out the red-handled pruning shears and setting out into the vineyard, one has to know what type of pruning is being undertaken.

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President’s Report & Keeping up with Regulations...

President’s Report

Growers in the Russian River Watershed will be operating under the new Frost Regulation passed by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) on September 20. The Sonoma County Frost Ordinance may fulfill the requirements of state regulation while maintaining a locally controlled program that includes an inventory of frost systems that rely on water for protection and a stream monitoring program to determine if or where stream reaches might be impacted during frost events. Sonoma County growers have again stepped forward to shape the regulation with a commitment to protect our fisheries while protecting our grape crop from frost. Growers do not like having more regulation and the permitting costs associated with it. But given the limits on use of water for frost protection proposed by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) two and a half years ago, progress was made. The key elements of the new regulation for growers who use water for frost protection in the Russian River Valley watershed are as follows:

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AB 243 (Assembly Member Luis Alejo)...

AB 243 requires a farm labor contractor (FLC) to disclose the name and address of the entity or entities that secured that contractor’s services on the pay stub of the FLC’s employees. Vineyard management companies licensed as FLC’s will have to comply with the new requirement. The bill is similar to bills vetoed in years past. The plain purpose of the legislation is to strengthen the nexus of liability between the illegal acts of a farm labor contractor and the farmer who contracted with that FLC. Despite broad agricultural opposition, the bill was signed by the Governor’s office.