New growing season buzz is guarded for Placer’s agricultural industry

Early, warm spring could signal lower water supplies for some growers
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Blossoms are heavy on Placer County’s fruit trees, signaling the start of another growing season.

But like any season that depends on weather, there are still plenty of questions with no real answers in mid-March – early in the growing cycle.

Placer’s leading agricultural commodities are, in order of dollar value, rice, cattle, nursery stock, timber and walnuts. Crop values total around $70 million annually.

Placer Agricultural Commissioner Josh Huntsinger said Wednesday that the recent hot, dry weather is raising concerns about water supply to farmers, particularly in the low-lying areas of Placer County near Lincoln.

“My No. 1 concern is water supply,” Huntsinger said. “I have a call into PCWA (Placer County Water Agency). The forecasts don’t indicate we’re going to see another March Miracle like last year.”

Last spring, rains in March preserved enough water for full deliveries to farmers in western Placer County’s Zone 5.  The Nevada County Irrigation District has already activated its drought committee, Huntsinger said.

“Zone 5 is not guaranteed ag water,” Huntsinger said. “It’s on an as-needed basis. So information now is critical. Rice growers are making decisions on whether to plant. If they plant and there is no water, then that’s an issue. And if do have water and they decide not to plant, that’s important too.”

Huntsinger said warm weather this early is causing crops to start leafing and blooming.

But there’s still a chance for a freeze that could damage the growth cycle, he said.

“It’s better to stay cold than have real warm weather early,” Huntsinger said.

Every year presents new challenges for growers, he said. Huntsinger noted that rice-crop prices are not as high as past years. At $18 million, the rice crop represents about a quarter of the county’s agricultural value.

“Other countries that have not been exporting are back in the market this year so that will depress the price a little bit,” Huntsinger said.

High-profile to consumers looking for farm-fresh vegetables and locavores searching for regional crop items, PlacerGrown has farm markets open 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays year-round  in Auburn and a year-round market from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Roseville’s Fountains. More will follow, with openings in June, including a weekly North Auburn market on Wednesdays.

Carol Arnold, PlacerGrown CEO, said the early spring weather is already pushing up asparagus.

“Asparagus is the first sign of spring,” Arnold said. “It’s just come in and it’s fabulous.”

Barring any unforeseen weather events, Arnold said farmers are looking at a “spectacular year.”

“Almonds, cherries and apricots are coming into bloom,” Arnold said. “Chard and greens are coming on really strong. And we still have Placer County citrus in the markets.”

Bob Bonk, of Newcastle’s Snow’s Citrus Court, said the winter harvest of citrus continues into the spring.

“Everybody is still harvesting, except the ones who are into Owari Satsumas,” Bonk said. “We still have other varieties of mandarins, such as Pixies and Murcotts. Those varieties are maturing right now.”

Grapefruits are still being harvested and naval oranges are coming on, as well as lemons and kumquats, he said.

“We’ve had no driving rains and it hasn’t been too cold,” Bonk said. “But we need the snow in the mountains for water storage.”

Tom Harper, of the Boorinakis-Harper Ranch of Dairy Road in Auburn, said he’s positive about honey production this year as he watches blooms emerge. But there’s an underpinning of concern as dry conditions continue. The ranch is the lone farm within Auburn city limits.

“Everything is blooming,” Harper said. “Plumb trees and almonds are finishing up. Pear trees are starting to blossom as well.

Last year, a similar string of continuing dry days meant wildflower blossoms never materialized and Harper’s bees weren’t able to produce the honey from their nectar that they had in past year.

Now Harper is dealing with fewer bee colonies.

“We lost them during the winter and I’m not sure why that happened.”

 A parasitic mite and a form of bee dysentery have become hazards, he said.

“This year will be a rebuilding year with the remaining colonies we have strong ones,” Harper said.