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Calif.- 2008 was a wild ride for agriculture

Water exports, pests, cage laws, more are upcoming challenges

Cecilia Parsons, Capital Press 12/24/08

California's agriculture industry had the ride of a lifetime in 2008.

From the terrifyingly high fuel and fertilizer prices producers faced in the spring to the incredible drop in fuel prices at fall harvest, it was all they could do to hold on. Prices for many crops also rose to record levels.

Farmers and ranchers struggled all year with high production costs for fuel, fertilizer, wages and other supplies and services, said California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Dave Kranz. Fuel prices have dropped in the last few weeks, but relief came after peak harvest season. Commodity prices had dropped too, Kranz said.

Crude oil, the source of most of our energy and fertilizer, soared to a record $147 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange on July 14. As the year comes to an end, so does the ride as prices have fallen 69 percent over the past five months and trading closed Dec. 22 at $40 per barrel.

While the energy picture has brightened somewhat, water outlook remains grim.

Early January storms were encouraging, but hope for a wet year faded by February. Surface water supplies also dried up due to environmental rulings by the courts.

Water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farmers and urban users have been blamed for the decline in Delta smelt, a fish considered a bellwether species in the estuary.

New federal rules to protect the smelt were announced Dec. 15 and cuts could be as deep at 50 percent of water deliveries in some cases.

Other court decisions may add to those cuts. In 2008, about 250,000 acres of farmland in the Westlands Water District were fallowed due to water shortages caused by court decisions. Many farmers used their scarce allocations, plus lower-quality groundwater, to keep permanent crops such as almonds growing.

Growers who depend on water deliveries from the eastside Friant Kern canal stand to lose some of their supply from the San Joaquin River Settlement.

The 2006 deal to send water down a riverbed and restore a salmon fishery included a goal to return a portion of the water. However, legislation to implement the decision stalled in Congress. Sponsors said effort would be renewed early in 2009.

Friant water district officials remain adamant the settlement is the best chance growers have of retaining some of the water supply behind Friant Dam east of Fresno. Others, including Kole Upton, the former head of the Friant Water Users Authority board of directors and one of the negotiators of the settlement, insist that water losses will be larger and chances of its return are fading.

Which pest has more potential to impact California agriculture in 2009? Take your pick. The Asian Citrus Psyllid, which can carry a deadly virus that attacks citrus trees, came knocking in late August. The light brown apple moth that can infest multiple plant hosts has spread to several counties and we have new Mediterranean fruit fly infestations.

The psyllid comes with a track record. It was first discovered in Florida and several years later, the disease it vectors spread throughout the state causing millions in lost fruit production. Growers here voted to assess themselves to fund the fight to eradicate the pest, which was trapped in San Diego County in September. More finds have since been reported in Imperial County. None have been found to carry the disease.

The light brown apple moth, with its huge range of hosts, has the potential to cause more than $600 million in crop damage and control costs annually if it spreads to agricultural production areas.

During 2008, control efforts in urban areas were stymied when the public opposed aerial treatments of a pheromone to disrupt moth mating. Trapping efforts continued and were expanded to Sonoma County when a male moth was found there in February.

One Mediterranean fruit fly infestation was successfully knocked down this year but a new one recently surfaced. Parts of Santa Clara and Sonoma counties were under quarantine due to infestations detected in 2006. State and federal officials ramped up the trapping efforts and also released sterile flies in an effort to stop the pest, which mainly affects exports of agriculture products. After three life cycles passed, the quarantine was lifted.

A 107-square-mile quarantine zone was declared Dec. 2 due to new Medfly finds in the El Cajon area of San Diego County.

While pests were moving in, cattle were told to stay put. California's second bovine tuberculosis outbreak in five years was detected in June when three Fresno dairies had confirmed cases of the disease. Two were depopulated and the third continues to operate under quarantine.

The outbreak caused the state to lose its 'TB-free status" a change that affects the beef cattle industry. With a lower TB status, other states demand cattle be tested for the disease before they can be moved. The beef industry, which moves feeder cattle to feed lots in other states and cowherds to pastures throughout the West, appealed to the USDA and was allowed pasture-to-pasture access.

One of the hot-button issues in 2008 was a California ballot initiative, sponsored by animal rights activists, targeting battery cages for poultry and crates for veal calves and sows. The measure passed by a two-thirds majority and now producers have until 2015 to decide if they can live with the law that demands they give those animals enough room to stand, lie down and extend their limbs.

It was the tomato's turn in 2008 to be a target for food safety issues. A salmonella outbreak in 17 states was linked to tomatoes. Chili peppers were also implicated, but the Food and Drug Administration never found the source. California growers were hit with lost sales during the investigation.

The California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement marked its first year in March with more than 500 food safety audits and no illnesses associated with leafy greens.

Congress again failed to enact any comprehensive labor reform in 2008, but pressure eased for ag labor employers over "mis-match letters." Changes to the nation's agricultural guest worker program, aimed at easing farm labor shortages, had only minimal effect on California growers.

State legislation that would have had more effect was vetoed by the governor.

A second "card check" bill was introduced to allow workers to check off a box to indicate if they want to join a union. Opponents said the measure would do away with the secret ballot, a cornerstone of the early farm worker movement.

Fires and floods did some damage to crops in 2008

January storms slammed northern California counties and did serious damage to trees in Butte, Glenn, Tehama, Sutter, Yuba and Colusa counties. Winds in some areas reached 70 mph and caused losses in almond, walnut and plum orchards.

Fires struck the north state in June and July, burning precious rangeland. Drought, high temperatures and lightning storms contributed to more than 680 square miles being charred statewide over a period of two weeks last summer.

Cecilia Parsons is a staff writer based in Ducor. E-mail: cparsons@capitalpress.com.


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